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The COVID-19 Era Has Flipped the Script on Female Politicians

There’s no riskier candidate for an influential position in the United States than a woman. Their chromosomes are proof of their lack of viability to hold power, and so the qualities, values, and policies central to American politics remain dominated by male viewpoints. What happens, though, when Americans are given time to question these same ideals? While it is impossible to generalize the experiences of every American, especially when considering the disparity between the ultra-wealthy and general public, these last few months have, for many people, been the first time they’ve ever found themselves with an overabundance of time. 

Many have spent the time engrossed in politics, with top news channels all seeing increases in viewership between 30-132 percent, and have begun to realize that they’d like to see a change in the political landscape. According to Pew Research, 86 percent of Americans view the Coronavirus pandemic as some sort of lesson, whether religious or personal, and as an opportunity to rethink their relationships, beliefs, actions, and politics. it is difficult to begin the process of shifting the nation’s direction, and yet it is absolutely imperative that it recognizes this truth: The COVID-19 era has flipped the script for female leaders in foundational political institutions. 

Women’s political involvement is an important indicator for the future of the United States’ domestic and global politics, even if it is not currently at the forefront of the nation’s politics. Not only do women differ in the types of political campaigns they run and in how they’re perceived by the public, but they work differently from men in their respective fields, whether if it is by prioritizing previously undervalued policies and ideals or simply by introducing a fresh perspective. The newfound viability of female leaders as candidates is sure to create long-lasting impacts in the political sphere. 

Looking solely at differences in policy, it is important to note that female-led nations have fared noticeably better than those led by men throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The women leaders of these nations, as a result, have found newfound credibility and popularity, all while strengthening the argument for increased female leadership in the future. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was praised as a breakout force for her swift and effective response to the virus and rated by 59.5 percent of poll respondents as their “preferred prime minister” in a May 2020 Newshub Reid Research poll: the highest score for any leader in its history. She then led her party to a landslide victory in the New Zealand 2020 general election on October 17, winning an overall majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat House of Representatives and 49.10 percent of the party vote. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen received similar praise for her handling of COVID-19 to such an extent that her leadership has become a global example

A candidate, though, must also embody the qualities desired by their voting base. Outside of their policies, the distinct qualities of female leaders are now desirable in the eventual post-COVID world. Prior to COVID-19, Americans tended to value qualities such as risk-taking, generating excitement about the future, and ambition (qualities that are also typically perceived as masculine) in their leaders. Narcissistic or “unconventional” personalities (oftentimes seen in political “outsiders” who aim to reshape the existing political landscape) were also typically seen as advantageous rather than a dealbreaker. As a consequence of the instability felt during the pandemic, Americans are now placing a greater emphasis on familial values, interpersonal relationships, freedom, and governmentally-regulated economic security. These same shifts in the electorate’s preferences align exactly with the common conceptions of female candidates. Polling shows that female politicians are perceived as more compassionate and empathetic, better at working out compromises, and more approachable. They work more diligently for votes and form stronger interpersonal relationships with their voting bases in comparison to their male counterparts. The same traits that used to count against them are now significantly more sought out among the American populace amid the instability of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In stark contrast with America’s history, being a woman is now a valid reason for your candidacy. Uniquely female qualities and behaviors found in female leaders are seemingly-perfect fits for the needs of the “new” United States, with leaders like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Kamala Harris finding power in embracing their female identities and unlocking the conversation of female candidates being better suited to tackle contemporary issues. AOC was covered extensively by the media this past July for her response to a sexist remark made by her colleague, Representative Ted Yoho (R-FL), in which she stated that “bitches get things done” and disparaged violence against women, emphasizing that “[she is] someone’s daughter too.” Harris emphasized multiple times that her nomination created the space for a future female president, and was noted for her use of female pronouns when describing leadership positions, specifically the presidency. Most prominently, though, she’s publicly embraced her role as a stepmother, often referencing how her stepchildren gave her the nickname “Momala,” and has discussed balancing her work and home life as a woman in politics. Female candidates are now more viable than ever. 

Female leaders are also invaluable in helping to restore trust in foundational institutions. More than half of Americans agree that Supreme Court Justices have become too involved in politics and only about half believe that these justices make their decisions without involving their political views, a percentage that decreases every year. According to a study done by the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice, female Supreme Court justices are less likely to involve their personal beliefs in their decisions, including in expecting that female and male attorneys present their cases in styles that would more closely align with the gender stereotypical behaviors of their sex. Only about 17 percent of Americans say that they can “trust the government in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time,” while 75 percent of adults believe that Americans’ trust in the federal government has been declining. Research shows, however, that individuals are more likely to view legislative decisions as fair, as well as place more faith in their representatives, when their committees are gender-balanced. The trustworthiness and apparent objectivity introduced by female leaders, especially in the current climate, is an essential future strategy for rebuilding the bridge between these foundational institutions and the general public and is likely to become a staple argument in favor of their viability. 

To what extent can gender determinist or reductionist arguments explain female politicians’ increased viability in the post-COVID-world, though? This question is especially pertinent when looking at female candidates and leaders who don’t appear to embody these uniquely female traits or values. Current SCOTUS nominee Amy Coney Barret, for example, has been criticized for her possible impact on minority rights, including abortion and LGBTQ+ marriage rights, while likely future Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is a self-professed QAnon supporter and has gone on record espousing bigoted beliefs, conspiracy theories, and anti-government rhetoric. Still, if an organization or individual is looking to elect a leader of a specific ideology, they will do so regardless of the candidate’s sex. Seeing as the overall voting ideologies of these bases cannot be forcefully changed, it is instead important to focus on shifting the people representing those ideologies. While the candidate might still be conservative or liberal, having them be female rather than male could make a tangible difference in how they exercise their authority. The introduction of more female leaders also advances the ability of future women to be taken seriously in their candidacy for positions of authority regardless of political belief, and so these women, even if they are equally as conservative as their male counterparts, will still create a foundational stepping stone for future women to utilize as evidence of their own viability. 

However, Professor of Political Science at Brown University Rose McDermott notes that it is imperative these female candidates are not tokenized. She mentioned that, while “there are many countries [with] laws that require a certain percentage of women on the ballot (this is common in Scandinavia), a certain percentage of women on the electoral lists (Kyrgyzstan) or places where they are required to [have] a certain percentage in parliament (India). [These women, though,]… [are] often [used] as… proxies for their [male relatives] to get around such laws.” Women also disproportionately suffered as a result of COVID-19 in comparison to men, both economically and socially, due to their high presence in healthcare (women comprise the majority of health and social care workers) and assumed responsibility in childcare. McDermott elaborated on this point, asking: “who is going to run? Women who have been disproportionately devastated by the pandemic, have lost their jobs or had to leave them to care for children and now we have to expect them to have to run for office as well?” 

The issues within the United States won’t be solved solely by electing a small number of women to male-dominated positions, but instead by establishing meaningful, long-lasting foundational change in US institutions that encourages female candidates to run of their own volition. Given that women have a unique ability to address the problems facing our nation when they hold seats in government, the nation must create systems and resources that address the current burden disproportionately placed on women during the pandemic (such as by outlining this in government relief-bills being debated in Congress). The US should do this by enabling women to achieve electoral success, thereby encouraging political ambition in generations of women to come. Outside of specific systems or policies, though, it is important that the US continue to create an inclusive social culture in which women are given the opportunity to succeed and are not expected to simply “deal with” adversity while solving every issue. As McDermott advised, “ask yourself why it is always the case that when men mess up they expect women to clean up after them?” Women have a newfound opportunity to seize leadership positions post-COVID and it is in the nation’s best interest that they are taken seriously and encouraged, as well as given the necessary resources, to do so.

Photo: Original composition by Amy Lim