Women Leadership and Misogyny: A Salute to Jacinda Ardern

It has been painful at times to watch the online slaughter of Ardern. It has made me wonder; can women ever truly win? It seems like those against her only wanted to search for excuses to hate her.

  • January 24, 2023
  • 7 min read
Women Leadership and Misogyny: A Salute to Jacinda Ardern

“I no longer have enough in the tank”.

These words were part of New Zealand Prime Minister and Labour party leader Jacinda Ardern’s speech last week. She stood behind the podium and spoke into seven large foam-covered microphones, telling the entire world she could not continue. And to be honest, it’s more than fair enough.



Other wāhine toa (strong women) in the New Zealand political arena have spoken out in support of Ardern, condemning the online abuse and hate fuel which is rumoured to have played a large part in her decision to step down.

Māori party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said, “It’s a sad day for politics where an outstanding leader had been driven from office for constant personalisation and vilification.”

Former prime minister and first elected female leader of New Zealand Helen Clark said Ardern had faced an unprecedented level of online vitriol and hatred. Clark herself dealt with torrents of media critique and personal vilification when she was prime minister, including attacks on her voice, clothing, and appearance.

“Our society could now usefully reflect on whether it wants to continue to tolerate the excessive polarisation which is making politics an increasingly unattractive calling”.

New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote in 1893. To this day, there have been three female prime ministers in the country. In 2020 Ardern appointed a government cabinet more diverse then ever seen before with women making up 40 percent of cabinet.

We’ve come a long way from women having to sit at home and look pretty – and yet, it’s only reflected how far we have to go when a leader like Ardern feels she has to step down to protect her own mana (strength).

It’s not only the online abuse and villainization. During her terms as prime minister, Ardern had to constantly field media questions about her appearance, the conception of her baby, whether she wanted to get married and even her choice to dye her hair.

When Finland prime minister Sanna Marin visited New Zealand in November last year, a reporter asked if they “were meeting because they were similar in age and had a lot of common stuff there, or could New Zealanders expect more of a relationship between the two countries further down the line?” Both prime ministers looked bemused.

Ardern answered the question wondering if Barack Obama had ever been asked the same question.

“Just because two women meet it’s not simply because of their gender”.

An online investigation found Ardern to be the target of 93 percent of hate posts against seven other high-profile politicians – a scary statistic. Another one – since 2019, police have logged more then 100 threats against her, with eight confirmed to have been taken to court.

The global pandemic and various national disasters which Ardern has led the country through during her time has made her an example of compassion and strength to those outside of New Zealand. Sadly, it’s also brought out high levels of anger, sexism and misogyny.

Last year, someone filmed themselves inside their car following Ardern, screaming out the window calling her a Nazi. Last week upon her resignation, small groups of people were seen celebrating around the country, with one placard reading, “Ding dong, the witch is gone.”   

Online abuse ranges anywhere from death threats, condemning her as a dictator to comments at best perverse and at worst monstrous.

There have even been online posts targeted at her four-year-old daughter, Neve.

Ardern guided my country New Zealand through not only a global pandemic, but also a volcano eruption and a national terrorist attack. She did so while gaining international recognition for showing kindness and empathy – traits not generally recognised in a political realm.  

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These are traits I want to see in the people leading the country. I’m glad that internationally, people recognise her in the light she deserves, but at the same time I’m embarrassed and horrified by the hostilities towards her within my own country.

It has been painful at times to watch the online slaughter of Ardern. It has made me wonder, can women ever truly win? We had an intelligent, well-spoken and kind woman leading government and it seems like those against her only wanted to search for excuses to hate her.

Explaining the depths of the hate against Ardern is complicated. COVID was a turbulent time, and after multiple lockdowns everyone was tired and stressed, not to mention struggling through an economic crisis.

Ardern had to make choices about restrictions and vaccination mandates which she knew would be a source of major controversy. I’m not saying people didn’t have a right to be angry or disagree with certain regulations. But it’s like COVID acted as a vessel, causing existing misogyny and abusive, sexist vitriol to come bubbling to the surface.

Run the world, girls

I was lucky enough to go to an all-girls high school where sisterhood and female leadership was not only encouraged, but necessary. I remember being in awe of various head girls, who took to the stage with such grace, humour, and softness – none of those attributes taking away their authority or leadership. In my various jobs I’ve had amazing women team leaders who take charge with feminine energy and hold everyone’s respect while remaining true to self.

I’ve even had a male manager whose leadership resembled more feminine traits. He was thoughtful and kind, shown in how supportive he was when I was dealing with a terrible break up (don’t ask for those details). He didn’t make me feel stupid for crying at work, and instead made it clear that my mental health came first.  

Here in Indonesia, I’ve met some amazing women paving the way in the journalism industry. On my first week, we had a sit-down chat with a woman working as a foreign correspondent. She spoke of how the job came with its challenges – namely times where someone didn’t take her seriously as a reporter, people choosing to focus on her looks rather then intelligence. But she also remained hopeful – confident that it would not always be a matter of fighting for acceptance.

If others remain hopeful, I can too. My experience in the workforce and listening to others has shown me we have come a long way. It has provided me with women to look up to and examples of how I want to lead should the time come. However, the public reaction to Ardern’s leadership shows we still have a long way to go before women can exist in these traditionally masculine spheres without becoming subject to ridicule and abuse.

We are still defining what leadership means within a female lens, which looks different to the traditional description of leadership we are taught in school – physical strength, unflinching, stern and fair. The more women we have in places of power and influence, the more we can rewrite how we see leadership, and how feminine qualities don’t undermine its power.

I want to live in a place where women leadership is celebrated. Not only that – I want the empathetic, compassionate approach to leadership to be normal. Ardern has taken us miles forward in showing how female leadership can be kind yet strong and that empathy is not a sign of weakness.

I hope that this is the direction we can continue in.

About Author

Bella Cleary

Bella Cleary is a writer and thinker from New Zealand. She has a background in environmental science and writing, but also gets fired up about social change and feminist debate. Other than that, she can whip up a decent focaccia bread and enjoys swimming in the sea down the road from her parent's house in Wellington.

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