Throughout her political career, Nicola Sturgeon could always expect one question in interviews: Why don’t you have children?
“My predecessor didn’t have children, and I’m not aware that he was ever asked that question,” the first minister of Scotland said on Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. In a rousing discussion with Women in the World founder Tina Brown about politics, power, and misogyny, Sturgeon said it’s one of many examples of the kinds of hurdles women still face.
After years of hearing the same question, Sturgeon said she decided in 2011 to go public with a miscarriage that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the Scottish National Party, had endured. “It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, but I decided to speak out about it because it’s one example of a position I’m in to change the attitude toward certain things,” she said. “Assumptions were made about why I didn’t have children.” One of those assumptions: that she had made a “cold and calculated” decision, she said, to pursue a political career rather than have kids.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman deciding not to have children,” she said. “I decided to speak out my experience of having a miscarriage to challenge some of those assumptions. If I can do anything to make it easier for women in the next generations of politics…then I think I have a responsibility.”
In Scotland, all three political parties are led by women, which Sturgeon said is “a fantastic message for us to be sending for the world.” However, she said, “It’s not enough just to be a woman in a leadership position, it’s important that you do the right things with it.” She cited a new law in the United Kingdom known as the “rape clause.” Under the law, women can claim tax credits for two children, but to claim a credit for a third child, they have to prove that the child was conceived from rape. So tax officials will be assessing whether a woman was raped. “That policy was introduced by a woman prime minister,” she said. “That’s the point I’m making. It’s not enough to be a woman in politics — you have to do the right thing.”
In discussing her relationship with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, she lamented that when the two leaders had their first meeting, the Daily Mail newspaper ran a sexist front-page photo emphasizing their legs. The headline: “Never mind, Brexit, who won Legs-it!” She noted, “I try not to overreact because I think sometimes papers like the Daily Mail do it to get attention, so why give them what they want…but it’s a vivid illustration of how much more we have to achieve. This tendency to reduce women to body parts or their hair…it’s not innocent and it’s not something we should just laugh off.”
In recent months, Sturgeon has been leading a charge to fight for Scotland’s independence from the UK; Brexit, she fears, “will lead to the UK being more inward-looking and isolationist.” In 2014, Scotland voted in a referendum to remain part of the U.K., but “circumstances have changed,” she said, now that the U.K. will be leaving the European Union.
Sturgeon credited her father, an electrician, and mother, a dental nurse, for her drive. “Both of my parents always tried to instill in me the sense that I should believe in myself and follow whatever dreams I had,” she said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that because of where you come from…you can’t go on and achieve what you want to achieve. I always say to young girls: Don’t think that inwardly you might be terrified about something, so you should not do it. [You can] overcome that and follow your dreams and be true to yourself,” she said, drawing applause.
When asked for her opinion on U.S. politics and the Trump administration, she joked, “I’m a guest right now in the U.S. I want to be allowed back in.” On a serious note, she said, “Observing the race from afar, in many respects I found it quite dispiriting. The whole tenor of the campaign seemed quite dispiriting. The way Hillary was talked about and treated had an air of misogyny about it that I wanted to believe we had moved on from. That race illustrated that we hadn’t moved far enough from that.”
She continued, “Hillary has been a trailblazer for women in politics, whatever you think about her politics. I find many of her qualities so admirable. She has made it easier for women like me in politics. For that, I—and women across the world—owe her a debt of gratitude.” She cited Angela Merkel as another woman “blazing a trail for the rest of us.”
As for President Trump, she said, “I hope I can find areas of agreement with the Trump administration,” noting that she does not believe world leaders should “maintain a diplomatic silence” when “fundamental principles” are at stake.
Additional reporting by Annie Wong.