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5 September 2016

The personal and political: Nicola Sturgeon speaking about her miscarriage is a radical new step

Maybe male MPs will one day bring themselves to say "tampon" in Parliament.

By Niamh ni-mhaoileoin

When we talk about the impact of women leaders, we tend to talk a lot about young girls and women. We hope, as Nicola Sturgeon tweeted earlier this year, that seeing pictures of a female Prime Minister and a female First Minister will show young girls that “nothing should be off limits for them”.

But adult women need representation too and, over the weekend, Sturgeon sent a powerful message to thousands upon thousands of them when she openly discussed her experience of miscarriage.

The political significance of that disclosure can’t be overestimated. Few of us have ever heard a politician use the word “miscarriage”, let alone treating it as an issue of serious concern. Like so many women’s health issues it has been locked into the private sphere by (mainly male) politicians who don’t know how to talk about it, don’t want to talk about it, or simply don’t care. 

When these problems aren’t discussed they become invisible, and so do the women struggling with them. By rejecting invisibility, by framing her experience as a meeting of personal and political, Sturgeon has done something radical.

It will change our discourse around female politicians, as Sturgeon hopes, by challenging “the assumptions and judgements that are made about women — especially in politics — who don’t have children”.

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By speaking up, Sturgeon can protect other women from having to do so. She can deflect at least a few thoughtless questions from journalists, and offset some of the cynical insinuations of the “as a mother” brigade. 

But her decision also has a broader significance, as part of a long and difficult battle to acknowledge that women’s bodies matter and that their reproductive health is a political issue.

This battle is raging in Ireland where, after decades of women being told to keep quiet and go to England for their abortions, more and more of them are publically discussing (or live-tweeting) their experiences and demanding that the government pay attention and make change.

The feminist fightback against the tampon tax was part of the same effort, when female MPs repeatedly pointed to the fact that many of their male colleagues weren’t willing to use the word “tampon” in the House of Commons, in a debate about tampons.

Menopause is an even scarier word. It only ever seems to appear in political discourse when the biologically illiterate say women who have had it (especially Hillary Clinton) should never been seen or heard from again. But last year the Women’s Equality Party chipped away at that silence, too, highlighting that silence and stigma surrounding menopause could be pushing women out of the workforce and that more research and awareness-building is badly needed.

Of course, these issues are personal and intimate. Many women will choose not to share their experiences with very many people. But that doesn’t exempt politicians from, sensitively and discretely, establishing the medical and emotional support services that women need.

It also doesn’t excuse the social obsession with quizzing women — from the prime minister to the lady next door — about why they haven’t had children. At best, this kind of questioning is unforgivably intrusive. At worst, it heaps social judgement on top of deep and silent pain. We know now that Sturgeon attended a public function on the day she suffered her miscarriage and can look back at pictures from the day and see the pain that, when unspoken, was invisible. 

We’re surrounded by women carrying the same weight. In shining a light on their experiences, Sturgeon has shown extraordinary courage and integrity. It is an example of how high-profile female politicians can transform our politics.

However, it shouldn’t fall exclusively to female politicians to bring these issues to the fore, nor should they be required to share deeply personal stories in order to have women’s issues taken seriously.

Women’s lives are important, and women’s health is important. Reproductive choices are often costly and complex, and neither society or the economy currently does enough to minimise their impact. 

That’s something all our politicians need to address.