Do Women Know Something About This Newest Plague That Men Don’t?
A long and varied history of women leaders might once have existed, and while these matriarchies flourished, there was something akin to rule by protection. The Cycladic civilization of the Aegean in ancient Greece was characterized by marble images of women, their arms crossed over their abdomens, suggesting only their strong femininity could shield the young and vulnerable.
“Women owned their bodies, their children, and their living properties; women made vital decisions affecting the survival and well-being of their people,” according to The Great Cosmic Mother, by Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor. Among the Egyptians, the Ashanti people of West Africa, the Naya of India, and the Pueblo of Native Americans, dwellings, whether grass huts or multi-storied condos, weren’t just maintained by women. They were built by women. Economics were largely shared as a gift exchange, which strengthened communal bonding. In other words, women were invested at every level of their governed populace, especially those levels that required safeguarding. And there are those who maintain they were outstandingly good at it.
I thought about this at times while writing about a pandemic, wondering if we ever saw another worldwide outbreak as large as the 1918 flu if we would deploy women as the first observers in a world being outpaced by a virus. After all, women had the capacity to reach outward toward “the other” while maintaining strong ties with home. They’d done it intuitively for hundreds of years — into marriage, which they entered with little but the clothes on their back, into baby-rearing, which took them far into another’s dependency, and sometimes into the world of medicine, that place a woman could find herself both revered and slightly hard pressed to survive. But in matters of running a country, I couldn’t have foreseen a woman’s immeasurable influence and the resulting, ever-present allegiance of her people. It’s as though we’re watching a gender revolution — small upsets, not uprisings. Just the way these women would want it.
Mainstay: Communication — New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern knows the future of the 2019–2020 pandemic will be driven by what people do. And that will dictate whether the virus threatens 2021 as well. Her lockdown message, “Be strong, but be kind,” inspired a nation to all but eradicate Covid-19 in 49 days. Ardern approached her country from multiple concerns — a decisive lockdown, a wage subsidy program to help New Zealanders through the worst, and empathetic words of caution when it came to reopening. She continues to maintain the need for social distancing, hygiene, face masks in high-risk settings, and contact tracing, while encouraging national trust built on months of compassion.
“We think of ourselves as halfway down Everest,” she said. “I think it is clear that no one wants to hike back up that peak. The descent is known to be even more dangerous so we must proceed with caution.”
Ardern includes herself in the communication she accomplishes with grace — and sometimes exhaustion. She speaks from her own personal managing of a baby in diapers, and she soothes even when one of those famous New Zealand earthquakes jars an occasional TV interview. The Prime Minister seems pleased with the outcome of the first round with a shapeshifting virus, but far from placated.
“You’ll be seeing me lots and lots,” she told her people while she talked of poverty or transportation legislation long before the pandemic. My guess is that her communication will extend far into the future, sometimes with her baby in her lap and the rest of New Zealand clearly in her heart and soul.
Mainstay: “Don’t Catastrophize” — Taiwan has suffered at the whimsies of a coronavirus once before — the SARS epidemic of 2003. Seventeen years ago severe acute respiratory syndrome killed more than a few people in this country after spreading from southern China.
An article by David Brown (Smithsonian — September 2003) quickly followed. “. . . (coronavirus) infection may differ considerably from victim to victim, persist over time and be difficult to vaccinate against. . . Coronaviruses are changelings, multitaskers, rule breakers.”
So when China began reporting data on a new coronavirus breaking out in their country in late 2019, Taiwan’s Chan Chang-chuan, dean of National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health sounded an alarm which included being very skeptical with data from China. Massive controls were immediately implemented, including travel alerts and bans, resourcing face masks, and integrating the national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database. President Tsai Ing-wen gave daily press briefings about the use of hand washing, face masks and discouraging the tendency to hoard. She wasn’t unfamiliar with the drill. Taiwan had been practicing for a future outbreak since the last one.
Beijing has objected to Taiwan’s being a member of the WHO and has blocked membership resulting in Taiwan’s current exclusion from WHO emergency meetings on the virus. But advanced technology has been Ms. Tsai’s strongest bet. That and her once vice president, an epidemiologist, Chen Chien-jen. A Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist and expert in viruses, he saw some of the worst during the original 2003 SARS outbreak, including residents of a contaminated hospital who tried to kill themselves.
Tsai Ing-wen: “This, above all else, is what I hope Taiwan can share with the world: the human capacity to overcome challenges together is limitless. Taiwan can help.” Her vision has not been clouded by deadly virus or political obstacles — and quite possibly is enlightened enough to help rid the world of this pandemic.
Mainstay: Gerotranscendence — The term “gerotranscendence” is a big word for one of the smallest countries in the world. But Iceland has pulled together her people, many of them aging, in an exercise not unlike a long-lived family practicing a meteoric softball game without a single family member to spare. The virus has compelled Iceland’s Prime Minister to say, “Humility and listening to the science have been the keys to leading my country through the coronavirus pandemic.” In addition, she hopes the global outbreak will be an opportunity to revive global discussions on climate change.
Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir keeps her fellow Icelanders close but admits it’s more than rhetoric. Learning by doing, probably making mistakes, and readily admitting it are touchstones to her effectiveness.
“Iceland is a small country, and what we sensed during this pandemic was a great solidarity. You could say that the responsibility was placed on the shoulders of each and every one of us.”
She intimates that listening to science now during this time of massive challenge could actually be a practice session for taking action for climate change. Jakobsdottir maintains commitment to fulfilling the Paris Agreement, wishing to become carbon neutral no later than 2040.
The island nation is small, about 360,000 people, which might account for the success of acting early, testing residents free of charge, and encouraging use of a contact tracing app. Iceland may open its borders soon, but it will depend on tourists’ willingness to get a Covid test when they enter the country, this after Iceland never incurred a lockdown. Though the structure seems in reverse order of Covid’s usual suppression, there is reason to believe it is working after a very bad start. Covid-19 ranked higher in Iceland than in any other Scandinavian country, but early intervention, including counseling senior citizens over the phone daily, led to fewer hospital admittances. At this time, Iceland’s death rate to the virus is one of the lowest in the world.
Jakobsdottir keeps a humble balance between current success and the spiritual, transcendent notion that regardless of what happens next, people can come to or leave the island, they can even remain maskless, but that contact tracing, testing or even quarantining might become the arrangement for quite some time. She isn’t starving her people of the freedoms of social connection. But this Prime Minister reserves the right to keep close track of a deadly virus among her people, almost all of them related, in the manner of Icelandic tradition in which the death of one “affects us all.”
In the end, pandemics don’t relate well to slow responses, to dark trips down blind alleys or even to people who don’t know when they’re best off avoiding one. Obviously, there are no two ways exactly alike in the battle against a mutating changeling. But there are idiosyncrasies that have consistently defined this pandemic’s boundaries between woman leaders. And those hallmarks include recognition.
Human Nature — Civilization does not come undone easily. Things get awful, then recover, sometimes repeatedly. Much like the ups and downs of an average household.
Self-Teaching — Learning-by-doing is often generational and framed in the term “domesticity.” In converting this powerful trait to the business of running a country, there is the added benefit of a loving leader who shows up prepared — for the sake of her nation.
Solidarity — Innate recognition that despite differences, when it gets tough, we all pull in the same direction for best efficiency. Think “The Waltons,” massive scale.
Humility — When one method of survival is obviously someone else’s specialty, consider their viewpoint in spite of, or in addition to your own. Women have been practicing this for centuries — from forming strong alliances with neighbors to sharing recipes with strangers to finding relevance in a common warning, like an outbreak of head lice.
Sacrifice — Catastrophe is often mitigated by home life. No matter the size and volume of loss, nothing can replace our deep connection to home and vulnerable humanity. In fact, imminent threat may strengthen our resolve to seek better answers for ongoing catastrophes even larger than a pandemic — a virtual practice session governed by the mindful insights of women.
When I think of women who influenced my thoughts about a pandemic, even a fictional one as I wrote in Quick Fall of Light, I return to two, both writers who understood the value of leadership. The first is Katherine Anne Porter, author of Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939). She suffered the 1918 flu and lost a lover to its horrible torment.
She wrote, “Death always leaves one singer to mourn,” in her tribute to that pandemic, an epitaph nearly twenty years after her experience. Porter seemed to carry the infection within her soul, realizing so few had written of the “loss of an era” that she committed herself to writing of its meaning years later. Her words galvanized my own desire to write of a worldwide plague.
Rachel Carson also remained a key figure in my effort to develop a story around a woman and a mysterious bird slowly unveiling the truth in the middle of desperate survival. Carson, herself, had written of birds in her last mission as an author, the writing of Silent Spring (1962), but it was her almost speculative overreach that captured my imagination.
“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
In her work I heard the warnings of living with compromise until it is “not quite fatal,” and decided I too could not do it. I wrote my tribute to Carson and others like her in an effort to understand a world suffering — a world not quite ever the same — except for the women who have seen all this before and in so doing may know the best that’s left to do.