“I will always be a voice for inclusion,” Nicola Sturgeon told reporters on Wednesday morning when she announced her resignation after eight years as First Minister of Scotland – the first woman in the role. “I will always be a feminist.”
What she will no longer be is one of the world’s few female voices of power. With Sturgeon’s resignation coming just weeks after that of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, and following sexist attacks on Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister, for a night of harmless fun (not to mention the mortifying downfall of our own Liz Truss), it has been a dismal few months for women in politics. In fact, since Angela Merkel stepped down as chancellor of Germany in December 2021 (she was also the first woman in that role) the world stage has been lacking heavyweight female players; Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and even Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, have yet to compare. The resignations of Sturgeon and Ardern should force us to face the reality for women in power, and question why anyone would even want the job.
“Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it,” Sturgeon said in her speech. “The country deserves nothing less. But, in truth, that can only be done, by anyone, for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.”
Sturgeon, a member of the Scottish Parliament since 1999, had a reputation for being commanding, confident and willing to confront the men of Westminster. But she made it clear that the relentless lack of privacy, the intensity and “brutality” of modern political discourse wore her down. And although she insisted that her bruising collision with Westminster over Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill and outrage over the case of Isla Bryson, a trans woman and convicted rapist who was put in a women’s prison, “wasn’t the final straw” or cause of her resignation, becoming a lightning rod for issues over gender self-identification is not a comfortable place for a feminist. Nor is being confronted by women wearing T-shirts declaring: “Nicola Sturgeon: destroyer of women’s rights.”
This was a horrible irony, considering that under Sturgeon’s tenure Scotland has led the way in the UK on women’s health, with a dedicated plan covering menopause, sexual health and endometriosis, among other issues. The scrutiny, however, was taking its toll. Last August Sturgeon admitted to the Guardian that she was looking forward to “not feeling as if you’re on public display all the time”.
Six months later the words of Sturgeon’s resignation speech echoed, almost uncannily, those of Ardern. “I know what this job takes,” Ardern said. “And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”
Ardern was globally lauded for her compassion, her fashion sense and her ability to combine the roles of prime minister and mother. But in domestic political terms, where once she was praised for her pandemic measures that kept New Zealand’s Covid death rate relatively low, she was eventually blamed for every domestic economic problem and suffered increasingly violent threats from lockdown sceptics and anti-vaxxers. It is notable how quickly adoration can turn to contempt when it comes to female politicians.
Ardern was New Zealand’s third female leader, which sounds underwhelming until you consider that only two countries can beat that – Finland and Switzerland. And over in Finland, Marin, at 34 the world’s youngest head of government when she entered office in 2019 and an unashamedly hip and socially liberal woman, was taken to task over a video of her dancing joyfully at a private event. The furore, amplified by the far right and political opponents, forced Marin to take a drugs test “for her own legal protection”. All this for the great crime of having fun (which rather paled into insignificance in comparison with partygate in the UK).
The cases of Ardern and Sturgeon are not the same – they were at different stages of life, governing different nations in different contexts. But the dignity and grace with which they both called time on their leadership are remarkable, especially compared with Boris Johnson’s tantrum over his downfall (“Them’s the breaks!”) or Donald Trump’s refusal to admit defeat (“Stop the steal!”).
Younger female politicians have since hailed Sturgeon as an inspiration, saying they wouldn’t have gone into politics without her. But the obvious psychological burden of being a woman in power – particularly a mother, as Ardern knows – and the unrelenting scrutiny, sexism and threats of violence cannot be ignored. You have to see it to be it, and without role models in politics, we may see fewer women in power in the future.