Paetongtarn Shinawatra and the history of pregnant prime ministers

Paetongtarn Shinawatra has a big couple of months ahead of her. The 36-year-old looks set to become a prime ministerial candidate for the Pheu Thai Party, but she is also scheduled to give birth to her second child in the same month as the general election, tentatively scheduled for May 7.

If her party wins the election and she is voted in as the next prime minister, the political debutant faces becoming Thailand’s first government leader to raise a newborn while in office. If that scenario materializes, as anticipated by her supporters and public opinion polls, the youngest daughter of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra will join a very small league of female prime ministers.

Only two prime ministers in modern history have given birth while in office – Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan in 1990 and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand in 2018.

Unlike those two well-known leaders, Paetongtarn is set to give birth before the formation of a new government. But the infant would be raised after she became a full-fledged politician – whether in government or opposition. It remains unclear if she will contest for an MP seat as well as being nominated as a Pheu Thai candidate for prime minister.

First PM to give birth while in office

Bhutto is recorded as the first prime minister to have a baby while in office. At 37, she gave birth to her daughter and second child, Bakhtawar, in January 1990 after serving as Pakistan’s first-ever female government leader for just over one year.

Bhutto served as PM twice, from 1988 to 1990 and from 1993 to 1996. She was assassinated in December 2007 during a political campaign.

In fact, all of Bhutto’s three children were born while she was an active politician. Her first child, a son named Bilawal, was born in September 1988 while the 35-year-old political party leader was campaigning for a general election in November of that year. Her third child and daughter, Aseefa, was born in February 1993, just months before Bhutto took office in her second term as prime minister.

The late PM had told the BBC that her decision to campaign as an expectant mother was meant to challenge Pakistan’s then-military ruler Zia ul-Haq’s assumption that she could not take part in politics as a pregnant woman. However, Bhutto kept her next pregnancy secret as she was fighting against a military-backed right-wing alliance for control of the country.

Bhutto reportedly had a quick Caesarean section performed by her gynecologist and returned to work the next day. Even her colleagues and Cabinet members were kept in the dark.

Unlike politician mothers in more liberal nations, the late Pakistani PM was criticized in her deeply conservative country for giving birth to three children while in politics. Her critics claimed she would not be able to devote herself fully to the task of running the country.

New Zealand PM makes history

Almost three decades later, New Zealand’s Ardern was luckier than Bhutto. In June 2018, she made global headlines after becoming the second elected head of government to give birth in office. She announced her pregnancy six months before her due date, and took six weeks of maternity leave, passing her duties to the deputy prime minister.

Ardern also made history in September 2018 by bringing her three-month-old daughter into a United Nations general assembly – the first world leader to do so.

In New Zealand, Ardern’s pregnancy was largely viewed as a mark of progressiveness still rare among developed countries. New Zealand’s former prime minister Helen Clark praised Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford’s parenting arrangement as an example of gender equality.

Several American lawmakers have given birth while in office. In April 2018, Thailand-born US Senator Tammy Duckworth – the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress – became the first American senator to give birth while in office. She later carried her 10-day-old daughter to the Senate while casting a vote, the first senator to do so.

Before Duckworth, 10 members of the US House of Representatives had become mothers while serving in the legislature.

‘Millions of mothers doing two jobs’

For some critics, media interest in Ardern’s pregnancy and her ability to perform her political duties was at odds with the lives of millions of working mothers already handling “two jobs”.

“All over the world working women are having children, taking leave and returning to work. Yet somehow it seems that being a political leader is one of the last bastions of conservatism, particularly in relation to the impact of parenting on the capability to perform at work,” said an article in The Conversation website published in October 2018.

The article also pointed out that top female executives in other professional fields, including Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, gave birth while in office but their cases received much less media interest.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)