Photo: Rex

POLITICS

The truth about the trade-offs women like Nicola Sturgeon must make

Photo: Rex

The fact that so many senior women in politics don’t have children can’t simply be a coincidence, says Gaby Hinsliff. And we need to change that

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

“Beauty has no age, but fertility does.”

That’s the slogan the Italian government chose to launch a new campaign nagging Italian women to hurry up and have more babies, and it’s gone down pretty much as well as you might expect.

The ad itself, featuring a model brandishing an hourglass and patting her stomach, is almost as hideously retro as the idea that women’s bodies are the government’s business.

But the really offensive thing is that it glosses over one very obvious reason birth rates have plummeted in southern European countries like Italy, yet held up much better in Scandinavia, where generous maternity leave and cheaper childcare make it oh-so-much easier to produce more tiny future taxpayers and work without trashing your own life prospects. Any political initiative that harps on about the price of leaving it too late, while staying shamefully silent about the price still sometimes paid for working motherhood, doesn’t deserve the time of day.

So thank God, then, for Nicola Sturgeon. Last weekend, Scotland’s First Minister ended years of nosy speculation about why she’s childless by revealing that sadly she suffered a miscarriage six years ago. Asked whether she would have ended up where she is today had she not lost the baby, Sturgeon admitted she simply couldn't be sure: "I'd like to think yes, because I could have shown that having a child wasn't a barrier to all this, but in truth I don't know."

But what's really interesting was what came next in her conversation with Mandy Rhodes, author of a new book on Scottish National Party leaders. Sturgeon conceded that if she was offered the choice to turn the clock back 20 years "and say you can choose to start to think about this much earlier and have children, I'd take that". (The risk of miscarriage grows with age and Sturgeon, who was 39 when she married husband Peter, was 40 when she lost the baby.)

But, crucially, she added, "if the price of that was not doing what I've gone on to do I wouldn't accept that, no". It's a brave answer because it recognises that, in an imperfect world, there are trade-offs to be made whatever you do. Delay having children and there's a risk (although not a certainty) that it will never happen. But do it before you're established in your career or have ticked the boxes you want to tick and there's a risk (although not a certainty) that things won't happen for you professionally, especially in a career as all-consuming as politics.

Have a child before you're established in your career or have ticked the boxes you want to tick and there's a risk that things won't happen for you professionally, especially in a career as all-consuming as politics

And that’s why, as Sturgeon herself said, her story doesn’t just challenge ignorant assumptions about childless women – it's a reminder that "there is still so much to do, through better childcare, more progressive working practices and more enlightened attitudes, to make sure we don't feel we have to choose’, to make the trade-offs feel less drastic. The question isn't why any one woman's life or career turned out the way it did, but what that tells us about the system. And the fact that so many other senior women in politics – from the British prime minister, Theresa May, to Germany’s Angela Merkel to Labour's Angela Eagle and the Scottish opposition leaders, Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale – don't have kids seems frankly to be more than a coincidence. Instead of gossiping about their private lives, we should be recognising that, collectively, they're canaries down the mine, a sign that the climate for working mothers in very demanding careers may not be all that healthy.

Yet there are women for whom Sturgeon’s story will undoubtedly resonate on a deeper level, too. Her life may not have turned out exactly as she wanted, but it remains full of meaning and purpose. And, more importantly, she sounds in that interview as if she has reached the Holy Grail for anyone struggling to come to terms with infertility – namely, a place of acceptance, beyond the feelings of loss and emptiness, where the things that didn’t happen somehow become an inextricable part of the life that did. You don’t get over them, so much as learn to live with them. Once again, Sturgeon may have served a purpose for women simply by showing what is possible.

@gabyhinsliff

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Nicola Sturgeon
women in politics
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