Is not having children the price women pay for political success?
Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30
There are many advocates for gender quotas to help women advance in politics - including front-bench politicians like Frances Fitzgerald. But sometimes events overtake arguments, and the astonishing rise of Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, may be an example of a woman who has become a game-changer in British politics entirely on her own merit, without any recourse to gender politics.
And Sturgeon is a game-changer. In her hands, very probably, rests the future of the United Kingdom after May 7. The leader of the Scottish National Party may well have it in her power to make or break Her Majesty's next government. Not that Nicola would call it that: she has on several occasions refused to swear an oath to Elizabeth II, and boycotted the queen's visits to Edinburgh.
She has herself been described as both Queen of Scots, and "the most dangerous woman in the United Kingdom" - since the avowed aim of the ScotNats is to establish an independent Scotland and thus truncate the said UK. But in the media debates leading up to the coming British general election, Sturgeon has dazzled as a top performer, and a brilliant politico who easily outpaces her male competitors. (She's been three times voted Scottish Politician of the Year.)
So, how did a working-class lassie from Ayrshire rise to such dizzying success? Her predecessor Alex Salmond has said that Sturgeon's achievements are down to "hard graft" and a long apprenticeship in politics, which included some public failures - she lost the key seat of Govan three times before finally winning it.
Sturgeon, 45 this July, has been a member of the SNP since the age of 16. She has said herself that it was a loathing of Margaret Thatcher which drove her to political commitment - so, one woman politician inspires another, if negatively. But Sturgeon's own mother, Joan (who was only 17 when she was born), says that from early childhood her daughter was a motivated little girl. Both parents were political, too.
Law is a well-trodden route to political success these days, and Sturgeon duly studied public international law and human rights law. As a student, she supported "positive discrimination" to favour women and later on she expressed support for "gender balance" in the political arena. Secular, left-of-centre, pro-same-sex marriage, liberal on social issues (except the legalisation of cannabis), and yet not a "victim" feminist: "Being a woman can be an advantage," she has said. "We should be judged on our merit." Nationalism tends to promise that everything will be just grand once national independence is reached, and Sturgeon has tended to make that promise about Scotland: equality will be reached and the economy put straight once uncoupled from London's reach.
Possibly that's a little naïve: yet she's inspired real debate in Scotland, and (with Alex Salmond) has taken the membership of her party from 25,000 to 80,000. And on May 7, the SNP is expected to hammer the opposition in Scotland. However, there's a price for everything in this life, and the price that Sturgeon has paid - according to her biographer David Torrance - is that her entire life has been dedicated to politics, leaving little room for a "hinterland" of other interests. Her friends say she can be warm and funny, but they're hard put to list any hobbies she might have. Her husband, Peter Murrell, is the chief executive of the party, so when they rise each morning at 5.15 am, it's politics from breakfast onwards.
And there's another price: Sturgeon is childless - as is the leader of the British Green Party, Natalie Bennett: as is the Conservative Party leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, a gay woman. As is the woman most likely to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader, Theresa May. Sturgeon spoke in the past about the "prospect" of motherhood, but it didn't happen, and although she denies making a "clinical" decision against motherhood - "that would be… a cold thing to do", she has said - it looks as though she was simply always too busy with politics to commit to babies. (She is a "doting" aunt to her sister's two children.)
Sturgeon has often affirmed her own belief in hard work - "you have to work for success" - so she clearly doesn't think "equality" is served up on a plate to anyone. I'd esteem a woman politician more who has made it to the top through hard graft than being ushered into a position through a special "quota".
But the real problem today is not that women suffer especial discrimination in the political arena: it is that mothers do. It's striking that childlessness is often a factor in a woman's successful political career. Hillary Clinton has written that she was disappointed not to have been able to have more than one child. But would more motherhood have halted her? It's likely.