By DEB GORDON and ROSEMARIE DAY
With the long-awaited inauguration day behind us, America is finally getting something we desperately need: an elected woman in the White House.
On the heels of chaos and violence at the Capitol and after four years of the Trump Administration, we are ready for strong female leadership in the executive branch to help put the country on the right course. In fact, it is long overdue.
Kamala Harris didn’t just need our votes to make history as America’s first female Vice President. To be successful, she’ll need every ounce of our ongoing support as she steels herself to direct threats to her life and faces the challenge, along with President-elect Biden, of healing a deeply fractured nation.
Female leaders around the world have modeled that strong leadership through 2020’s most difficult times. Women have led some of the most effective pandemic responses worldwide. Countries led by women leaders had six times fewer confirmed COVID-19 deaths — and fewer days with confirmed deaths — than countries led by men. New Zealand, Taiwan, Germany, and Iceland — all led by women — are among the coronavirus management success stories.
These women acknowledged the threat from coronavirus rather than underplaying it. They were decisive, and used data and science to drive their decision-making. They took a long-view when designing their response, prioritizing long-term well-being over short-term economic pain. They listened to outside voices to ensure they had the best possible input and solutions for their countries. And they showed empathy. Having a female leader became a symbol of inclusive, open-minded, effective leadership.
And the world took notice, lauding leaders like Jacinda Ardern, who was rewarded with a decisive victory in New Zealand’s October national elections.
Closer to home, Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan took similar actions. She began monitoring the coronavirus situation early on, listening to her state’s top medical advisor and instituting more strict lockdown measures than several neighboring states. She also ordered a mask-wearing mandate in April, one of the first ten states to do so.
Whitmer’s approach was effective, according to an analysis that showed Michigan has had one of the highest rates of job recoveries in the nation and one of lowest case rates and deaths for the number of jobs recovered.
Still, disgruntled Michiganders, egged on by a presidential tweet, plotted to kidnap and execute their Governor for allegedly curtailing their freedoms. An extreme move from fringe actors, yes. But it drew a lot of national media attention and was condoned by Trump and his followers. Whitmer’s approval rating remains high, driven by her response to the pandemic, but she continues to weather unending attacks from the far right.
As a Black and Asian-American woman, Harris will face even more hostile headwinds. One reason is “misogynoir,” the anti-Black sexism that Black women confront every day. It manifests in multiple ways, from micro-aggressions to open hostility to outright violence. As a national public figure, it will be amplified for Harris and can create barriers “unseen” by whites in power, barriers which can put her at risk. We have to counteract that line of attack; we need Harris’ leadership for the daunting array of challenges we face.
The challenges are mounting every day. Biden and Harris have a huge effort in front of them to curb the ills of the pandemic. Joe would be wise to put Kamala in charge of leading the long-needed coordinated federal response to the pandemic, including speeding up the rollout of the vaccine, improving the supply of personal protective equipment for health care workers, instituting mask requirements to slow the spread of the virus, and ensuring financial relief for millions of Americans struggling with lost jobs, wages and health insurance.
Kamala will undoubtedly face racism, misogyny, and resistance to change. If Donald Trump’s election and continued support from his base reflects, at least in part, pent-up rage from hatred toward President Obama, the opposition to Harris will be even more brutal. Donald Trump calling her “a monster” may seem gentle compared to what will likely happen when she becomes Vice President.
It is essential that everyone who wants to reap the benefits of female leadership support the new Vice President. We need to gear up for the long haul. Even with the White House and both chambers of Congress turning blue, Harris will need allies. She’ll be on the razor’s edge in the Senate, breaking every tie to further an agenda of progress.
Women will need to stand up for one another and for the health and safety of our nation. We’ll need to be loud and proud, continually demonstrating that we’ve got Harris’ back. Anything short of that will put her at risk and undermine her effectiveness.
Deborah D. Gordon (@gordondeb) is the author of The Health Care Consumer’s Manifesto: How to Get the Most for Your Money (Praeger, 2020) and an Aspen Institute Health Innovators Fellow.
Rosemarie Day (@Rosemarie_Day1) is the Founder & CEO of Day Health Strategies and author of Marching Toward Coverage: How Women Can Lead the Fight for Universal Healthcare (Beacon Press, 2020).