Mother, politician, trailblazer. How Jacinda Ardern became an icon for millions

When she became the world’s youngest female leader in 2017 at 37, Jacinda Ardern ignited a wave of euphoria known as “Jacindamania” in New Zealand while thrusting the Pacific island nation into the global spotlight. 

In the six years since then, she has become an icon of the left and a champion for women in public life, bringing a compassionate and authoritative energy to the hypermasculine realm of world politics. 

But on Thursday, Ardern said she would leave office, an announcement that was greeted with shock throughout the nation of 5 million people. 

“I know what this job takes and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she told reporters in Napier, a coastal city on the North Island. “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader — one who knows when it’s time to go.”  

Fighting back tears, she added that Feb. 7 would be her last day as prime minister after five and a half years in office.

An unconventional leader 

By the time she reached the top job, Ardern had spun some records as a part-time DJ, served fish and chips and volunteered at a soup kitchen in New York where she was working as a researcher. She had also served as a member of Parliament with the center-left Labour Party for nine years.  

Unlike most heads of state, she was not married and she is yet to tie the knot with her partner, Clarke Gayford, the host of a popular fishing show called “Fish of the Day,” although she said they would now have more time. 

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, smiles during a news conference in Sydney on June 10, 2022.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, during a news conference in Sydney in June. Brendon Thorne / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 2018, Ardern became just the second world leader, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, to give birth while holding office in modern times and she would become the first elected leader to take maternity leave.

Her daughter, Neve, then 3 months old, made headlines later that year when Ardern took her into the chamber of the United Nations General Assembly.

Worldwide praise   

Just eight months later in March 2019, Ardern led New Zealand through one of its darkest days in history after a white supremacist gunman slaughtered 51 worshippers during Friday prayers at two mosques in the city of Christchurch.

Her empathy was widely praised by leaders of Muslim countries after a photo of her wearing a headscarf while tightly embracing a Muslim woman went viral.

Within weeks, Ardern moved to pass laws that banned the deadliest types of semi-automatic weapons; a subsequent buyback scheme run by police saw more than 50,000 guns destroyed, including many AR-15-style rifles.

She was also lauded for her leadership during the Covid pandemic after New Zealand closed its borders, allowing life inside the country to continue largely as normal while minimizing deaths.

In April 2021, the country staged the world’s largest music concert since the pandemic began, attended by 50,000 people with no masks and no physical distancing.

But her government was forced to abandon the strategy as more contagious variants spread and vaccines became widely available.

Death threats

Despite making strides at home and abroad, death threats followed Ardern throughout her premiership. 

Data released last year to New Zealand’s Newshub media outlet showed police recorded 18 threats to the prime minister in 2019, 32 in 2020 and 50 in 2021.

“Not only is this a distraction from the job, not only does it impact immediate loved ones, it’s why we’re seeing an exodus of women like myself and Ardern leaving politics,” Seyi Akiwowo, the founder of Glitch, a United Kingdom-based organization that seeks to end online abuse, said via email Thursday.

“She’s become a totem for the political right, and the misogynists in particular, and the anti-vaxxers and the fringe dwellers in our political community,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in New Zealand.

“I think what she offered to the world actually was a model for doing democratic politics that does not rely upon abusing other people,”  he added. “She never uses the term ‘enemy’ to describe anybody.”

Praise from world leaders

Vice President Kamala Harris led the tributes to Ardern, tweeting that she had “inspired millions around the world.”  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also thanked Ardern on Twitter for her friendship and “empathic, compassionate, strong, and steady leadership.”

Closer to home, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted that Ardern “has shown the world how to lead with intellect and strength,” and had “demonstrated that empathy and insight are powerful leadership qualities.” 

In Dubai. Ardern’s image was projected onto the side of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in a tribute.

What now?

Though Ardern’s pandemic strategy helped propel her party to a historic landslide win in 2020, it also drew criticism that it was too strict, with the entire nation going into lockdown in August 2021 after the discovery of a single case. An official inquiry into the government’s response is underway.

The Labour Party will hold a vote for a new leader Sunday. If that person receives more than two-thirds of caucus support, Ardern said, she will resign soon after and the new leader will be sworn in as prime minister. Otherwise, the vote will go to the wider party membership.

Ardern said she plans to remain in Parliament until April, avoiding the need for a snap vote in her suburban Auckland electorate. Beyond that, she said, she has no plans other than spending time with her family.

“So, to Neve, mum’s looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke, let’s finally get married,” she said.

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