Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, governors have had an integral responsibility to keep their constituents safe. From enacting stay-at-home orders to holding press conferences and advocating for their state to receive medical equipment, governors are working tirelessly to protect their states. While some governors, such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine have received glowing praise for their actions and leadership, Michigan’s own Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has faced criticism and widespread protests. But this radically different reception is not due to differences in policy or competency. Instead, it is an example of the pervasive sexism that exists within our political system. 

COVID-19 has forced governors to make tough decisions in the name of public health. Whitmer has taken a sensible approach with the intent of keeping Michiganders safe. Yes, she has had to make the difficult decision to close non-essential businesses, schools and other facilities, but these closures were all to protect the health and safety of Michiganders. This was especially important given that COVID-19 has hit Michigan particularly hard — the state has the seventh-largest number of cases and the fourth-largest quantity of deaths in the country. 

Despite this reasonable approach, Whitmer has faced considerable pushback. Over the past few weeks, there have been multiple protests in Lansing. The most recent protest consisted of heavily-armed protestors who filled the Capitol in Lansing and demanded the stay-at-home order be lifted. In addition to being armed with guns and tactical gear, many demonstrators had confederate flags and sexist, inflammatory, anti-Whitmer signs. Additionally, the Republican state legislature opposed Whitmer by refusing to extend the disaster declaration. However, she ultimately extended the stay-at-home order using her executive power, prompting the GOP to threaten a possible lawsuit.

In examining this situation, one must ask why Whitmer faces so much flack for her actions. The measures that she has implemented are not unique to Michigan. Across the United States, many governors have implemented similar stay-at-home orders with similar restrictions. Clearly, the extreme reactions showcased by stay-at-home protestors are not about actions and instead about the leaders implementing these actions. Whitmer is a strong woman who has power that she is not afraid to exercise and it is not hard to see how her power and poise could be threatening to misogynistic and close-minded individuals. 

This is not the first time that Whitmer has faced sexism during this pandemic. Sexism was on display in late March when President Donald Trump referred to Whitmer as “the woman in Michigan.” This comment is an obvious example of the blatant sexism that female politicians face. Even if Trump had simply forgotten Whitmer’s name, he could have referred to her as the Governor of Michigan. Instead, he decided to assign to her the title of “that woman,” refusing to respect her position as governor and belittling the work she was doing to protect her residents.

This issue of sexism in politics is not exclusive to Whitmer. It has been a recurring problem throughout the country, especially in regards to governors’ races. Currently, there are just nine female governors in the continental U.S., a pitiful number considering that women make up 50.8 percent of the country. Twenty-two states, including New York, California and Florida, have never had a female governor. The lack of female governors can be attributed in part to sexism and sexist preconceived notions about women. Governors are the leaders of their state who have tremendous power and authority. Considering the backlash against Whitmer, women holding positions of authority can disproportionately anger people. 

This is not to say that everyone who is angry about the stay-at-home orders in Michigan is sexist. This is an extremely stressful time and, for many communities that have been relatively spared by the virus thus far due to social-distancing measures, it may seem unnecessary to extend such orders. However, think about the governors of other states and the actions they have taken. If you agree with them, but not Whitmer, could this be because of the implicit sexist bias against female leaders that many of us harbor? 

In this time of great uncertainty, it is important that we come together as one state and recognize the foremost priority of protecting our fellow Michiganders. Whitmer has been doing a tremendous job for the state of Michigan. She has stood strong and resilient in the face of opposition in order to protect the health and safety of all of us. She should be lauded for her work just as we have lauded male governors across the country. This column is not about shaming others — instead, it is a call to action for all of us to recognize the biases that we carry and how they impact the perceptions of our leaders. 

Isabelle Schindler can be reached at ischind@umich.edu

 

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