Many of the world’s women leaders are causing a surge in “leadership envy” across the U.S. Their swift and effective responses to the COVID-19 crisis have been a striking contrast to the Trump administration’s failure to scale up testing and meet demands for essential medical and personal protective equipment — even as infection rates surge past 800,000 and deaths approach 50,000.
There has been much speculation on why many women leaders have handled the crisis so well. Not only have they led the world in containing — and, in some countries, possibly eliminating — the virus through early lockdowns, travel restrictions, and widespread testing and contact tracing, but they have demonstrated resolve, empathy, and a strong commitment to science-based straight talk.
Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen acted early and decisively, introducing 124 measures to contain the virus and protect public health, thereby limiting the country’s current COVID-19 death toll to six. Germany's Angela Merkel has calmly emphasized the severity of the virus in her public addresses, cautioning Germans that despite plans to reopen, the nation was still very much “at the beginning.” New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has won high praise for her Facebook Live chats, in which she outlines government policy while juggling her own family caregiving responsibilities, and for injecting a dose of humor and compassion into the situation by deeming the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy “essential workers.”
But as impressive as their actions have been, their political leadership — as well as that of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway’s women leaders — is not unique to those countries. It’s also hiding right here, in plain sight.
Elizabeth Warren was the first Democratic presidential candidate out of the gate with a detailed COVID-19 response plan in January. And yet, she and the other Democratic women presidential candidates failed to gain traction. The barriers they faced — fundraising challenges, a dominant media narrative fixated on “electability” — remain all too much the norm. Even though studies have found that women candidates in the U.S. are, on average, higher quality (as measured by ratings on a number of dimensions, such as grasp of the issues, public-speaking ability, and constituency service), work harder to get elected, and are more likely to collaborate across the aisle, we have spent much of the last two years listening to political pundits go on about how "risky" the leading women presidential contenders were. (Kirsten Gillibrand: too mean to Al Franken! Kamala Harris: too prosecutorial! Amy Klobuchar: too angry, yet bland! Elizabeth Warren: too strident and schoolmarm-ish!)
Such one-dimensional portrayals fly in the face of women leaders’ actual political achievements. Women have spent much of the past three years transforming politics from the bottom up. They organized the anti-Trump resistance, they canvassed, they ran for office in record numbers, and they won — at rates equal to men.
States have been the sites for some of the most dramatic political transformations. Women’s representation in state legislatures increased nearly four percentage points post-2018 to an all-time high of nearly 30%. Nevada elected the first majority-women legislature in 2018, and Colorado's legislature is nearing gender parity. Women of color, who remain severely underrepresented at every level of government, increased their representation in state legislatures by 38% since 2015.
Just as we’re seeing worldwide, women’s political leadership didn’t end on Election Day. According to a recent analysis by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and Quorum, Democratic women — those responsible for 2018’s historic gains — had the highest rates of legislative productivity of any group of state legislators over the past two legislative sessions. They were also the most likely group of state legislators to introduce and successfully enact bills on paid family leave, childcare, sexual harassment, and the minimum wage. These are issues that directly benefit women and their families — and that have become even more urgent amid the COVID-19 crisis.
What will it take for women to be viewed as political assets, not risks, especially at the highest levels of elective office? The current crisis gives us an opening, but deeper work is needed.
First, we must challenge the widespread gender bias that affects women candidates and the ways it is amplified by talking heads (including some with personal histories of offensive or demeaning behavior toward women). As philosopher Kate Manne has noted, women political candidates are held to higher standards to be deemed "competent," viewed as less "likable" when they are, and punished for failing to appear sufficiently warm and compassionate. Black women experience particularly heightened bias, with voters viewing them as less competent than their opponents on economic and security issues.
Second, we must work to reform our political institutions. Cultural attitudes about electability are reflections of who political systems and practices were designed to include — and who they were not.
In a series of interviews I conducted with Democratic women state legislators, I heard concrete examples of how policies and practices affected political representation. Georgia State Senator Nikema Williams said, “Serving in the [Georgia] legislature is a part-time job. I earn $17,000 a year… The current rules make it very difficult for people who don’t have means to serve.” Moreover, the long, irregular hours of political campaigns and legislative sessions can be challenging for parents of young children. Reforms like allowing campaign funds to be used for childcare — something Liuba Grechen Shirley pioneered in her 2018 New York congressional race when she successfully petitioned the FEC — helps individuals with significant caregiving responsibilities to participate in public life.
It is imperative that we emerge from this crisis not making the same mistakes we made going in. The time has come to double down on eradicating the barriers to reflective and inclusive democracy.
There are immediate steps we can take to “widen the funnel” and invite more people into the political process. We should make state legislative service a full-time job (as 10 states already do) and pay all elected officeholders a living wage. Congress should enact the Help America Run Act, which would authorize the use of campaign funds for health insurance premiums and child, elder, or dependent care expenses. And we should work to ensure that no election is uncontested by running candidates for every race and relying more on organizations such as EMERGE, New American Leaders, and Run for Something to identify potential candidates than on traditional party “gatekeepers.”
The sooner we do, the sooner we’ll start to lift up the Jacinda Arderns, Angela Merkels, and Tsai Ing-wens who are already changing our democracy for the better.