Jacinda Ardern Showed the Power of Women’s Leadership—And the Urgent Need for More

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister Kiri Allen at the Rātana Celebrations on Jan. 24, 2023, in Whanganui, New Zealand, marking Ardern’s last day as PM. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s then-prime minister, shocked the world on Jan. 19 when she announced her resignation after more than five years of leadership. On Tuesday, at her last public appearance, she said she would miss the people most, calling them the “joy of the job.” Her long-standing friend, Chris Hipkins, was inaugurated the following day as the new prime minister of New Zealand. In October, the country will elect a new PM.

During her tenure as New Zealand’s top leader, Ardern became known for her astuteness, communication and compassion. She helped guide the nation through trying times—from a terrorist attack that killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, to the COVID-19 crisis.

Even still, Ardern was no stranger to public scrutiny and harassment—exacerbated no doubt by her gender. Ardern was the youngest woman head of government when she assumed the top role in 2017, and the second leader in history to give birth in office (the first was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990). Ardern’s five years of leadership were punctuated by constant attacks on social media, which were often sexist and violent in nature. Though Ardern has said these attacks were not the reason for her resignation, Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark called the hatred and vitriol leveled at the outgoing leader “unprecedented.”

Threats against women in public can have a real effect on whether women stay in leadership roles, or even pursue them in the first place, said Cynthia Richie Terrell, executive director and founder of RepresentWomen.

“The resignation of Jacinda Ardern reminds us that women continue to face barriers in politics, and that it is essential to build governmental workplaces that enable all to participate and succeed,” said Terrell. “Even as leaders like Ardern have advanced women’s political representation, the pace of progress remains unacceptably sluggish.” 

Despite several notable women elected officials—such as Ardern, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Estonia’s Kaja Kallas and Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde—women’s leadership is still absent from too much decision-making. Only 28 countries have a woman as its head of state or government, and worldwide only 21 percent of government ministers are women.

Within the U.S., women make up over half the population but only one-third of the entire Congress, and a woman has never been president. The 118th Congress did technically break a record for the number of women in office, but the numbers remain woefully low.

This year, the amount of women in the U.S. House went from 28.4 percent to only 28.5 percent.  (RepresentWomen)

“The 2022 midterm elections yielded just one additional woman in the House of Representatives,” said Terrell. “If the U.S. continues at this pace, it will take 187 years to achieve gender parity in Congress. We can and must do better because gender balance in our government is necessary to promote the policies that protect the safety and well-being of girls, women and all Americans.”

This slow pace also fuels the frustration of voters. Last year, Ms. and other feminists in the media stressed the importance of women’s rights in the upcoming midterm elections. Politicians who did not take these young voters and their concerns seriously suffered at the ballot box.

Ardern plans to stay on as a member of Parliament until April, but she said she’s ready for a role closer to home and out of the professional spotlight: “I’m ready to be a backbench MP. I’m ready to be a sister, and a mom.” Even still, she won’t be the last woman to lead a country—as many powerful feminist leaders are to come. And they are needed.

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Dominik Drabent is a former editorial intern for Ms. and a Ph.D. student in the Gender Studies program at Arizona State University. He earned his master’s degree in Gender & Women's Studies from Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he also was an instructor. His research interests are queer studies, feminist pedagogy, transnational feminism, the Middle East, Islamic feminism and Muslim sexualities.