The April 2018 photo of heavily pregnant New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Buckingham Palace was more than beautiful, it represented a landmark moment in political life. Pregnancy, once invisible, was centre stage.
In the early twentieth century, respectable citizens kept pregnancy under wraps. It was part of that troublesome thing: women’s bodies. Those bodies bled, ballooned during pregnancy, and leaked milk during lactation. None of these things seemed appropriate in public life. They appeared to make women closer to nature, while men assumed the mantle of culture. Women’s bodily changes were matters to be hidden, controlled, and best not discussed.
In the late 1920s, a pregnant Lyndall Crabtree didn’t go out in public during daylight hours in the small North Island town of Morrinsville, where her husband worked at the National Bank. Lyndall ventured out for exercise with her husband after nightfall when there was little chance of her pregnant belly being noticed. Pregnancy signified sexual activity: it was a visible – and uncomfortable – reminder of the secrets of the bedroom.
Well before she began her political career, Dame Hilda Ross, National Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children (1949-1957), had four children, two of whom died in infancy. When speaking at the National Parents Centre conference in 1957, she commented that:
It is splendid that today we can talk about expectant mothers in an open way and not have them clouded in mystery as they were in the old, dark days when we didn’t go out for a walk [when pregnant] except in the dark!”
Even if people could talk more openly about the subject by the 1950s, they rarely regarded it as a fit matter for photography. My mother, Hannah Brookes, gave birth to five children from the 1940s onward, and I don’t recall seeing one photograph of her pregnant. I was her last, born in 1955.
In America, discomfort with bodily matters was such that the word ‘pregnant’ could not be used on television; it was considered by CBS to be ‘too vulgar’. Although the star of I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball, was so popular that in 1952 she was able to insist on having her pregnancy written into her show, an episode called ‘Lucy is Enceinte’ was scandalous at the time. New Zealand had to wait another decade to get television and, no doubt, by the time the episode was shown here, the drama had receded.
Lyndall Crabtree’s daughter, Helen Laurenson, had children in the 1960s. She recalled that “the fashion was for dresses to flatteringly conceal one’s bump and not draw undue attention to it.” Things were, however, slowly changing. In my first years at high school, 1968 or 1969, a woman teacher taught until late in pregnancy, which seemed a daring thing to do (especially when miniskirts were the fashion).
In November 1970, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan, who had entered parliament as MP for Southern Māori in 1967, was New Zealand’s first sitting MP to have a baby. Determined that the birth should not detract from her political responsibilities, Tirikatene-Sullivan missed only six working days, even though she had had a caesarean birth. She pointed out that nearly a quarter of the adult population consisted of mothers who had young children, and she believed they should be well represented in Parliament. A fashion innovator, promoting Maori design, she wore this elegant kaftan when pregnant with her second child.
Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan forged a path that other women have followed. Pregnancy and political life are not antithetical. Putting a baby at the heart of politics is something to celebrate. And celebrate New Zealanders have, at the announcement of the birth of Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Sue Kedgley, Mum’s the Word: the untold story of motherhood in New Zealand (Random House, 1996), p. 168.
- Janet McCallum, Women in the House (Cape Catley, 1993), pp.97-98.