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Whitmer & Cuomo: A case study in American sexism

Very different responses to the leadership of two prominent governors during the COVID-19 crisis reveal a lot about misogyny in America.

Whitmer & Cuomo: A case study in American sexism
Governors Gretchen Whitmer (left) and Andrew Cuomo [Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images (Whitmer); Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images (Cuomo)]
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This article is part of Fast Company’s Lessons of COVID-19 package, exploring some of the ways America has changed since the pandemic hit and what we have learned from it. Click here to read the entire series.

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I was born and raised and graduated from college in Michigan. But I spent the past 15 years of my career living and working in New York City. New York politics, especially under Governor Andrew Cuomo, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, has always been in the national spotlight. Michigan, however, is a state most Americans probably haven’t spent much time thinking about—until this year.

Months before it became one of the states that tipped the presidential election, it was the center of national attention with the unbelievable headlines about a plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But for anyone paying attention, the shade that Governor Whitmer has been forced to stand in this year has followed an all to common trajectory for women who’ve earned the spotlight.

A familiar phrase

Being both a New Yorker and a Michigander, I paid close attention to how Whitmer and Cuomo handled the pandemic. Both took strong  steps to protect the citizens of their states by ordering lockdowns and continuing to encourage mask-wearing, social distancing, restrictions, and testing to keep cases down.

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But the shape and tone of the attention they’ve received been vastly and distinctly different.

Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order in March that was met with approval from 69% of Michigan residents. However, after she extended the order and tightened restrictions in April, a few thousand protesters (including many who were armed) descended on the capitol building. The protesters were supported by conspiracy theorists including Alex Jones, praised by Fox News pundits like Jeanine Pirro, and cheered on most famously by the president of the United States.

This was how Michigan’s governor was introduced to the nation: amid the familiar chants of “Lock her up.”

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And while the majority likely didn’t feel as violently opposed to her as the fringe gun-wielding protesters did, it was a reception nearly unthinkable for even the most polarizing of men in politics.

By contrast, as the governor of the state at the epicenter of the crisis, Cuomo’s daily briefings in the spring were nationally broadcast. The constant hum of praise grew louder with every fawning interviewer who asked him if he was going to run for president.

Cuomo and Whitmer have been leading their states in nearly identical ways, but what captured America’s attention tells the difference about the field they were playing on.

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Whitmer’s COVID response has consistently received high approval ratings from her constituents, but it’s done nothing to shield her from repeated efforts to undermine her from men at every level. In the spring, Republican legislators in her state called her lifesaving orders a “power grab.” When cases  started to rise in Michigan this fall, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that she no longer had the authority to declare emergencies without legislative input.

And of course, most notably, she became Donald Trump’s stand-in for Hillary Clinton during his failed campaign for reelection this year. He instigated and encouraged the type of violent misogyny that women in the public eye always face. And as it came to a shocking and terrifying head this fall, he fanned the flames.

The kidnapping plot came just days after the Michigan Supreme Court limited her powers.  All of the male conspirators had proclaimed their support for Trump or attended the so-called “Liberate Michigan” protests in the spring.

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For Whitmer, as for many women in the public eye, the line between sexist rhetoric and real-life threats of violence is short and direct. As Whitmer wrote in The Atlantic after the kidnapping plot was revealed, “Every time [Trump] fires up Twitter to launch another broadside against me, my family and I see a surge of vicious attacks sent our way. This is no coincidence, and the President knows it. He is sowing division and putting leaders, especially women leaders, at risk. And all because he thinks it will help his reelection.” (Most recently, Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson endured Trump-supporting “Stop the Steal” protesters at her home after dark.)

Whenever the attacks on Whitmer come up, inevitably someone will be quick to point out that Michigan is a swing state, and therefore full of more anti-maskers and “Don’t Tread on Me” Trumpsters. Cuomo, such arguments go, receives abundant praise and is protected against personal threats because he leads a deep blue state. But in truth, while the political makeup of the two states may be different, Trump gained about 400,000 votes in New York over his 2016 showing, while he lost about that same number of votes in Michigan from 2016 to 2020. Double the population of Michigan, New York has plenty of angry Republicans, yet Cuomo is not subjected to an endless barrage of violent rhetoric, constant death threats, and a kidnapping plot.

What mistakes are allowed

Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone is allowed to make the same type of mistake. Whitmer’s most publicized mistake during COVID wasn’t even something she did. It was a joke her husband made in May to a marina owner about “being the governor’s husband” helping him to access his boat ahead of restrictions being lifted. While not a great look (in the end he didn’t get his boat any earlier than anyone else in the state), it’s hardly anything that deserves more than a below-the-fold next-day story.  Still, as thousands of Americans died, it got continued attention. Trump even brought it up in the last presidential debate in October when he wrongly referred to Michigan as being under a lockdown so tight that “no one can do anything except the governor’s husband.” (The parallels to Whitmer and Hillary Clinton being blamed for their husband’s mistakes are notable.)

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Compare the the response to Whitmer’s supposed misstep with reactions to blunders from a man in the same position.

Cuomo’s most significant mistake during the crisis cost human lives. In late March, he required the admission of patients to nursing homes who test positive for COVID and barred testing prospective nursing home patients. By the time he revoked the order in May (after criticism from medical experts), an estimated 4,500 COVID-19 infected patients had been sent to nursing homes in New York and more than 6,000 nursing home residents had died of COVID by June.

And while Cuomo received a lot of criticism, that early decision did not seem to tarnish his reputation as a manager of the crisis. As the cases and deaths in New York finally started to drop in the early summer, Cuomo crafted a grim “Covid Mountain” as a representation of the number of deaths and “flattening of the curve” that New York had endured. He followed this (arguably insensitive) stunt with a book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons From the COVID-19 Pandemic, and publicity tour this fall. Like the rest of the country, cases in New York have been climbing this fall, and we are by all estimates in the thick of the pandemic for at least a few more months. So perhaps a victory lap is premature.

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That woman from Michigan

I know comparing Cuomo’s and Whitmer’s challenges during the COVID crisis isn’t quite apples to apples. Like all New Yorkers who lived through the peak of the crisis this spring, there are things I will never forget: the constant specter of death, the overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes, the unreal sight of a field hospital in Central Park, the sirens echoing down empty streets. COVID has taken a toll on Michigan too (no state has been immune), but it’s doubtless that any state has endured what New York did this spring, and I don’t want to diminish that.

And I know that the sexism that Governor Whitmer endured is far from the biggest or most important lesson from the year of crisis. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth paying attention to.

That a woman in the public eye is the subject of intense and unequal scrutiny isn’t new or surprising. Nor that a lot of the loudest, most overt sexism against Whitmer has come from Trump and his supporters. Still, the contrast in the response from Trump and his minions to “That Woman From Michigan” and Cuomo (a measure of Trump’s begrudging respect is reflected in the fact that the Nicknamer in Chief hasn’t slapped the New York governor with a belittling sobriquet) is evidence of ongoing misogyny toward women in high places. The comparison is a case study in how men and women in the same job are held to wildly different standards in the tone and credit they can take, and the mistakes they are allowed.

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On December 14, the day electors gathered across the country to cast the most carefully scrutinized electoral votes in the modern era, Governor Cuomo was fending off charges of sexual harassment of a former aide while Governor Whitmer was closing her state house to protect electors, legislators, and other government workers from threats issued by radical right anti-democratic anarchists.

As we prepare to welcome the first woman (and woman of color) as vice president, we should certainly celebrate her accomplishments, but we shouldn’t pause too long to congratulate ourselves as a country for finally reaching the milestone. We’ve already witnessed hints at the level of tone-policing and double standards Vice President-elect Harris will have to navigate. Compare her repeated and measured “Excuse me, I’m speaking” during the vice presidential debate to President-elect Biden’s “Will you shut up, man!” during the presidential debate weeks before.

Perhaps true equality shouldn’t be measured in mere representation, but rather by the moment when women in power are allowed to make mistakes, get angry, or brag about their accomplishments without fear for their lives.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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