Powerful women who don’t have children often face unfair scrutiny in the press and in the court of public opinion for the simple fact that they are childless.
And by publicly acknowledging a personal tragedy, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is saying she’s had enough of it.
Sturgeon, who has been scrutinized herself for not having kids, revealed in a book excerpt in the Sunday Times magazine on Sunday that she had a miscarriage at the age of 40 in 2011. Noting that it was “not an easy decision” to go public about such a “painful experience,” Sturgeon tweeted that she hoped being out in the open about it would help break the taboo of miscarriage—and stop the judgment of women who don’t have children.
“By allowing my own experience to be reported I hope, perhaps ironically, that I might contribute in a small way to a future climate in which these matters are respected as entirely personal—rather than pored over and speculated about as they often are now,” she said. The revelation received an outpouring of support from Twitter users, whom Sturgeon said sent her “kind messages” after her miscarriage was discussed in the extract of the forthcoming book, Scottish National Party Leaders, by author Mandy Rhodes.
As we well know, mothers in positions of power like Hillary Clinton or Marissa Mayer are often critiqued for their maternal demeanor and parenting decisions as much as they are for their professional record and appearance. But high-ranking women in business and politics who don’t have children can be judged just as harshly.
Last year, the New Statesman ran a cover story with the image of several top female politicians—including Sturgeon, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and U.K. Labour MP Liz Kendall—standing around a crib with a ballot box in the center. The headline, “The motherhood trap,” asked “Why are so many successful women childless?”
To her credit, at the time, Sturgeon spoke out and said the cover was “crass,” and sent a witty tweet about it.
By opening up, Sturgeon publicly acknowledged enduring an experience that many expectant parents suffer through, but few talk about. According to the U.K. charity Tommy’s, miscarriage occurs in one in four pregnancies. “She’s done professional women a huge amount of good,” said Siobhan Quenby, professor of obstetrics at the University of Warwick, roughly 95 miles northwest of London. “Professional women have to be very organized and in control. When something happens out of their control, they don’t feel able to talk to their colleagues about it.” Misplaced personal guilt often keeps women quiet, Quenby says.
Other business leaders have made an effort to break the taboo. Last year, before he became a father, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post that his wife, Priscilla Chan, had three miscarriages while trying to get pregnant. In the post, which went viral, Zuckerberg said, “You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child. You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience.”
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The issue of having children even came up in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. During the race to replace former PM David Cameron, former energy minister Andrea Leadsom appeared to suggest she was more qualified to become prime minister than May because she has children—and May doesn’t. In an interview with The Times, Leadsom, a mother of three, said, “Genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country.”
May prevailed in the leadership race after Leadsom, now the environment minister, was roundly criticized for making the comments. After all, May had previously said that she and her husband could not have children.
May’s earlier admission and Sturgeon’s on Sunday prove that not having a child should not be subject for political fodder or cultural analysis because it’s a private matter that never seems to entangle men, and because many times women have no choice in it.