It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in public office must be scrutinised for what she wears.
Something that plagued Julia Gillard’s prime ministership and frustrated former first lady Michelle Obama while others embrace it.
Julie Bishop flipped her love of fashion into a diplomatic platform while new rock star Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now publishes cooking videos and beauty tutorials for her 2.8 million Instagram fans.
But across the Tasman, amid the horror of the Christchurch terror attacks, one woman is leaning into this frustratingly female condition to unite her country.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a black headscarf when meeting members of the Muslim community after 50 people were slain by an Australia-born white supremacist as they attended Friday prayer.
The photos of her wearing the tradition marker of modesty went viral. A meme stating “She wore the hijab while honouring the victims. THAT is leadership” has since been shared more than 156,000 times on Facebook — the same platform that just 24 hours before also allowed the terrorist to livestream his sickening attack. Public opinion of social media plummeted; Ardern’s has never been stronger.
The photos are now iconic and went on to inspire scores of non-Muslim women all over New Zealand to pull on headscarves as a sign of solidarity during Friday prayer services yesterday.
Her actions, her words and her use of clever optics over the past two years and, more specifically the past eight days, solidify why Ardern, at 38, is the blueprint for a leader in these uncertain, unsteady times.
In between fronting press conferences, reassuring high school children about the importance of grieving and hugging mourners, Ardern also managed to unite a hung Parliament and introduced new gun laws. Back in 1996, John Howard took 12 days to generate gun reform following the Port Arthur massacre, Ardern did it in just six, with minimal public debate, and made it home in time to witness her baby crawl for the first time on Thursday.
“For her nine month birthday today we received the gift of crawling. While her mum got her the gift of having a safer country to grow up in,” Ardern’s partner Clarke Gayford tweeted.
Her election slogan in 2017 was “Let’s do this”, a mantra that has allowed her to lead a co-ordinated emotional response, something not seen since the death of Princess Diana. A time when another young leader in Tony Blair united a shattered United Kingdom.
In the hours following Diana’s death Blair’s popularity soared to 93 per cent. Despite agitating behind the scenes for the Queen to acknowledge the enormous displays of public grief, Blair instead stepped in, fronted the media and spoke from the heart. He praised Diana for the depth of her compassion and humanity, spoke numerous times about Princes William and Harry and referred to her as the “people’s Princess”. Such candour from a world leader was unprecedented at the time.
It is in the midst of these tragedies that true leaders are galvanised thanks to their ability to read the room. Back in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush’s rhetoric resembled a modern-day war cry; Ardern’s unequivocal theme has been about unity.
Close observers of Ardern since she was reluctantly elevated to leader of New Zealand’s Labour party in 2017 should not be surprised with her reaction to the Christchurch tragedy. She may have cut her political teeth working with Blair as an adviser during his time at No. 10 Downing Street but she alone has managed to strike a balance between strength and softness.
Before becoming New Zealand’s third female leader she had to negotiate and compromise with New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters to form a coalition government. Kindness and the idea of paying it forward appear to be her non-negotiables. Telling Vogue last year “We’re small. But we do our bit by standing up for what we believe in”, referencing New Zealand’s standing on the world stage — an arena she has also thrived in, thanks to her knack for knowing the importance of the medium being the message. Last year, while heavily pregnant, Ardern wore a traditional Maori cloak to meet the Queen at a Commonwealth meeting.
A pin-up boy for these woke world leaders was Justin Trudeau. Since 2015 he has been lauded for his progressive views, feminism and pro-immigration policies — all hallmarks of Ardern’s administration. However, his gender-balanced cabinet is now facing obliteration at the polls in Canada this year after it was alleged former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould was pressured by his advisers to prevent the prosecution of a Canadian engineering company over fraud and bribery accusations.
The stark difference between Trudeau and next-generation leaders like Ardern and Ocasio-Cortez in the US is their backgrounds and experiences outside the bubbles of power and privilege.
He is the son of a former prime minister while Ardern grew up in working-class Auckland. The new kid on the block is 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, whom Time magazine has called “the second most talked-about politician in America, after the President of the United States”. Until a few month ago the New York Congresswoman was a bartender and waitress living pay cheque to pay cheque.
Connections may have helped politicians of the past but the ability to form human connections is the new political capital.