(Photo credit: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the adjutant general change of responsibility ceremony, Lansing, Mich., Jan. 1, 2019, Wikimedia Commons)
In her contribution to the Democracy Centre’s commentary series on democratic experiences in the coronavirus pandemic, Jennifer M. Piscopo explores the question of whether women leaders perform better. As she analyses policy measures along with the narratives projected in the public sphere, she highlights high levels of institutional trust as one of the key drivers of successful responses.
Donald Trump’s bungled response to the coronavirus epidemic in the United States has included lying about case numbers and promoting dangerous drug therapies. By contrast, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has led with empathy and dignity, winning global acclaim. Indeed, women govern many of the places currently praised for their coronavirus containment, leading pundits and policymakers alike to wonder about a gender effect.
Yet leaders soundly navigating the coronavirus crisis instead have something else in common. Whether women or men, they are willing to use government power to solve collective action problems. They rely on science and expertise over magical thinking and conspiracy theories.
Take the United States, where governors and mayors have filled Trump’s leadership void. California and New York were hit earliest. San Francisco mayor London Breed (a woman) issued stay-at-home orders on March 16, followed by Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and California governor Gavin Newsom on March 19, and New York governor Andrew Cuomo on March 22*. They are all Democrats.
By contrast, revellers packed Florida’s beaches through March, with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis rejecting stay-at-home orders until April 3. Florida health authorities were then asked to undercount positive tests and deaths. And in Texas, the lieutenant governor Dan Patrick referred to saving the economy as “more important than living.” Cynthia Brehm, chairperson for the Republicans in a large Texas county, piled on, calling the virus a hoax.
So whether U.S. politicians treat the coronavirus as a threat or a fraud falls largely along party lines. Republicans are famously allergic to government regulation of the economy. More broadly, Republican governments commonly weaken institutions not just by cutting budgets, but by actively disparaging their purpose. And so unsurprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are therefore deeply divided on reopening the states, with 50 percent of Democrats favouring continued government restrictions, compared to just 16 percent of Republicans.
These partisan patterns override any gender effects. Nine of the 50 U.S. governors are women. The six Democrats have kept some restrictions, while the three Republicans largely removed them. For example, Democrat Gina Raimondo maintains Rhode Island’s requirement that visitors self-quarantine and has refused to reopen churches, whereas Republican Kim Reynolds reopened Iowa’s restaurants, fitness centres, and malls on May 1.
And in South Dakota, Republican Kirsti Noem seeks reopening at all costs. The coronavirus is killing Native Americans at high rates, with Natives accounting for half of all deaths in some states. The Oglala and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes of South Dakota set up checkpoints at the borders of tribal land. The tribes are sovereign nations, but this legal distinction hasn’t deterred Noem from demanding the checkpoints’ removal. Recently, she asked Trump for “federal intervention”—a chilling request given that Native Americans also die from police violence at high rates.
No matter their governing style, women leaders do face strong headwinds. Research shows that women politicians find their power more contested and face disproportionate abuse as their prominence rises. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer provides the perfect example. The Democrat catapulted into the national spotlight when she issued emergency measures relatively quickly, in early March. She also criticized Trump’s sluggish response. Then came the news that Joe Biden—the Democrats’ presumptive pick to challenge Trump in November—was considering Whitmer for vice-president. Every development triggered a deluge of online abuse, including sexist, angry tweets from Trump himself. The death threats were judged serious enough that the state legislature cancelled its meetings.
Of course, the partisan politicization of good government and science in the United States may be unique. But stepping away from the United States reveals a similar relationship between institutions and approach.
The women presidents and prime ministers steering their countries through the pandemic predominantly lead certain kinds of countries: wealthy and stable democracies, with high bureaucratic capacity and high levels of institutional trust. Over sixty percent of people in New Zealand and Germany trust their government, compared to about thirty percent in the United States. And where men lead wealthy, stable, and capable states, their coronavirus responses are similarly effective, as happened with Carlos Quesada Alvarado in Costa Rica and Moon Jae-in in South Korea.
So the real gendered pattern is where women hold executive office. Historically, women leaders have governed democracies and non-democracies, rich countries and poor countries, and during peace and during war. They have led right governments and left governments. Today, however, women are notably absent from countries with authoritarian bents. The right-wing populists currently circumventing traditional institutions and removing checks on their power are men, from Russian’s Vladimir Putin to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. And, in the case of Brazil, Bolsonaro’s inept coronavirus response is producing mass death.
Given the stark contrast between the Trumps and the Arderns, it’s easy to believe that women can save the day. And on many metrics, women politicians are better, outperforming men on their credentials, their constituency service, and their productivity. Politics remains a man’s world, and women succeed by being twice as good. Yet marshalling this truth for well-intentioned reasons—like persuading audiences to vote for women—also perpetuates stereotypes and double standards. High performing men like Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo seem natural, while high performing women like Gretchen Whitmer are painted as exceptional, becoming targets for misogynistic backlash and partisan rage.
Stories about women leaders vanquishing the coronavirus help feminists justify women’s presence in executive office. But the more pressing point is that coronavirus responses succeed where science and reason drive policy and where democratic institutions are strong. Where the reverse is true, conspiracy and fantasy reign, and authoritarianism beckons. Just last week, Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters called for suspending congress and the supreme court. Trump alleges voter fraud whenever state-level races between Democrats and Republicans seem too close for his comfort.
Now more than ever, voters must look to institutions, not personalities. Effective leadership can be delivered by women and men alike, but only if voters believe that good government is worth having.
* Dates for all statewide stay-at-home orders, emergency measures and reopening are from https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america.
This article has also been published in Spanish in Agenda Publica.
Jennifer M. Piscopo is Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Her research on gender and politics in Latin America and the United States has appeared in twenty academic journals, including the American Journal of Political Science and the Latin America Research Review. She has consulted for international organizations such as UN Women and the Organization of American States. Her commentary has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Review, and Ms. Magazine. She received her PhD in political science from the University of California, San Diego. @Jennpiscopo.