Nicola Sturgeon's decision to talk about her miscarriage is important because of what it tells us about women in leadership

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 12 September 2016 in Editor's note

Mandy Rhodes asks what we want from our elected representatives

Sandwiched between a Scottish Government launch of a fresh independence initiative and the unveiling of her programme for government, was the revelation that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would have been six months pregnant going into the 2011 election, had she not miscarried.

What followed was a febrile news agenda that at its core exposed the harsh realities for those on the frontline of politics where their personal privacy always has the potential to be on a collision course with their public profile and the real business of government.

Putting aside any of the predictably graceless but completely unjustified suggestions of political profiteering from personal tragedy, the news that Sturgeon had lost a baby ahead of an election in which her party won an outright majority, put a very human overlay onto a world which is more often than not viewed through a kaleidoscope of cynicism, disdain and downright antipathy.


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Profile: Nicola Sturgeon spoke to Mandy Rhodes about her miscarriage

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Of late, politicians have been dehumanised. A drip, drip of exposés, scandals and tales of avarice, sex and power have meant that over the years, our elected members of parliament have become diminished in the public eye, no longer held in the regard they once were. They become objectified, categorised by an act or a statement or castigated as a whole.

Perhaps quite rightly, they no longer attract an automatic but perhaps unhealthy deference and in many respects, it has just been the simple realisation that they are just like you and me.

And while there are clear positives to that real-life view of the people elected to represent us, paradoxically, we also expect something different from them.

On the one hand, we prize their authenticity and then on the other, we criticise them when their fragilities are exposed.

So often, political leaders can be traduced to a simple headline with a single transgression or a personal revelation which sweeps away years of honourable public duty and ignores the complexities of career, personality and human interaction. No wonder politicians prefer to keep their private lives private.

Over the years there has been much speculation about the fact that Sturgeon has not had children. Assumptions have been made and opinions formed – many of them brutally unkind – with pointed accusations that the SNP front bench could understand little of the pressures of family life, bereft, as some of its members were viewed, of offspring. As if being a parent alone could possibly qualify you to assume an insight into the travails of others.

But now we know that these views were based on a falsehood and that not being a mother had not necessarily been a choice.

Nicola Sturgeon didn’t seek out this exposure, she didn’t chose the timing or the platform but ultimately, she recognised that for her to advance the case for women in politics then she too must confront why she avoided clarity on a fundamental question that was so constantly asked of her.

And while, of course, that media intrusion might not be fair, in my industry, where we seek to understand the personal motivation that drives someone to put themselves forward for political office, that kind of disclosure is a prize.

My relationship with the First Minister and the long-held knowledge of the very personal circumstances of why she is not a mother, has ultimately made me reflect on how much female political leaders, in particular, wrestle with what they expose of themselves and why but also why we, in the media, are obsessed with it.

Sturgeon is, despite outward appearances, an intensely private person and she had chosen, up until now, as is her prerogative, not to talk about the miscarriage publicly, and I have respected that desire to keep something of herself private in an increasingly public world.

But it is important because it says something about the pressures on and the conjectures made about women in leadership positions. Crucially, it also says something about the impact that all of that scrutiny and speculation has had on her and how she copes with it while also getting on with the day job. And she won’t be unique.

I know of at least two other leading politicians wrestling with acutely personal issues, things that might otherwise consume the rest of us more privately. But while those of us living and working in less scrutinised worlds might share the burden with others, they don’t, for fear of exposure.

The view that a person is a whole, and that all aspects of their lives say something about their character, is valid and one, as a political observer, that I share, but sometimes we take it too far. We see a politician having an affair, and then use it as a prism through which we see every other aspect of their life. We see women at the top of their game and if they do not have children, we make judgements – mainly unflattering ones – about what drives them and it becomes a statement about what is normal and what is not.

There may be some justification in thinking that personal behaviour is indicative of professional character, but it’s a leap too far to assume because a female politician doesn’t have children that she fails to understand motherhood, family or how to care.

Stories about the personal lives of public figures, particularly elected ones, can illuminate our understanding of them but in some cases, like this one, it can also help them understand themselves.

Sturgeon is a trailblazer and for those women who follow in her footsteps, hopefully, questions about motherhood will have ceased to be of concern in the context of their professional abilities. The telling of her story will have helped that happen.

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