After a possible exposure to the novel coronavirus in March, Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar tweeted from self-isolation, “Been thinking about life and mortality today. I’d rather die gloriously in battle than from a virus. In a way it doesn’t matter. But it kinda does.”
The tweet sparked a viral meme when other Twitter users turned his words into farce, using them to caption videos and images that were wild mismatches for Rep. Gosar’s stoic reflection: a puppy tumbling around with a kitten, a giant robot marching to battle, and a crab scuttling around with a kitchen knife in its claw, to name a few examples.
The meme’s subtext seemed to be that Rep. Gosar’s macho musing was an awkward, even inappropriate, response to the public health crisis at hand. Lili Loofbourow, writing in Slate, offered her take on the emotional underpinnings of Gosar’s tweet: “It’s humiliating — emasculating, even — to be brought low by a bundle of protein and RNA.”
Public health responses to COVID-19 sparked backlash — with armed men at the forefront.
Before inspiring a meme, Rep. Gosar earned a reputation as an outspoken opponent of reproductive rights. Last year he gained notoriety for posting a poll to his House website that pitched ideas like banning the sale of “aborted baby parts” and pursuing criminal charges against abortion seekers. It was a journey through the most inflammatory accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories peddled by anti-abortion extremists.
Coronavirus and reproductive health care are two very different things. Nonetheless, either one can sideline the social attitudes that uphold gender inequality. If Loofbourow is correct about the emasculating powers of the novel coronavirus, then it seems fitting that the same politician who thinks the Grim Reaper should accommodate hypermasculine fantasies would also think of dumping widely accepted, established abortion care practices to pursue a real-life Handmaid’s Tale.
Anti-Woman Currents in the Anti-Abortion Agenda
If you want to know just how much overlap there is between anti-abortion views and opposition to gender equality, you can find some telling data from Supermajority, the research and advocacy organization co-founded by former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. In a survey last year of almost 2,000 voters, Supermajority and PerryUndem found that 54% of anti-abortion voters think men make better leaders than women, and only 47% want to see more gender equality in positions of power. Only 35% think the treatment of women in society is an important issue, and only 23% have favorable views of the #MeToo movement. Maybe the latter is because 71% think most women misinterpret innocent remarks or actions as sexist, and 77% think women are too easily offended.
Well before that survey, other data has shown that access to abortion and other reproductive health care has been key to women’s financial independence and social position. By being able to choose if and when to have children, women have been able to focus on their financial stability, education, and careers. Data from the 1970s, when state reforms and Roe v. Wade lifted abortion restrictions, indicates that abortion access had positive effects on women’s economic security, in part by allowing greater participation in the workforce.
In a similar vein, a 2017 study found that 56% of female entrepreneurs believed access to contraceptives had made their career achievements possible. Other research credits birth control for a third of women’s wage gains since the 1960s.
An Outbreak of Insecurity and Discontent
Efforts to protect reproductive rights have been decades in the making, but efforts to control COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are only months old. As a result, there is no pool of survey data that could easily uncover the gender dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is, however, a lot to observe in our daily news.
After its initial outbreak in China last December, COVID-19 began crossing borders and going global in a matter of months. The pandemic often brought deaths in the hundreds, or even thousands, in each new country it reached. Across the globe, it prompted shutdown orders that included canceling large gatherings, closing non-essential businesses, and advising people to stay at home as much as possible.
For the kind of guys who dream of valorous death in battle, that last order was a tough one to swallow. It hearkens back to the 18th century author Samuel Johnson, who wrote, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” This macho notion holds that being at home might be fine for women, but men must prove their will and strength out in the world, among other men. They get bonus points if they face the forces of nature while they’re at it.
This binary of narrow gender expectations was the reason Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique became a runaway bestseller almost 60 years ago. Women wanted to find their own identities outside the home. Friedan’s feminist text was well timed, as access to abortion and birth control offered many women a chance to catch up with men in terms of education and careers, if not always salary.
When COVID-19 struck, countless people of all genders were soon relegated to the home, introducing new levels of comfort, or chaos, for many. As people settled into it, the “strange stirring” that Friedan once described as the affliction of housebound women seemed to be affecting a lot of men.
Maybe those men had run-of-the-mill cabin fever, but it seemed to be more than just boredom — or anxiety about their jobs — that brought them to rebel against stay-at-home orders. Judging by the military fatigues that many wore to anti-shutdown protests, they were compensating for a feeling of emasculation from being kept at home.
The Far Right Capitalizes on COVID-19
By the third week of April, demonstrations calling for the end of shutdown orders, using #Reopen as their rallying cry, had been staged in more than a dozen states. The movement escalated to more than 160 protests on the final weekend of April. Photos and videos from these demonstrations have made it clear that they were far from male-only events. But men have stood out as the most vocal, threatening, and militant protesters in attendance.
Men sporting tactical gear and firearms seemed to show up in every story about the anti-shutdown movement, whether it was from Arizona, Washington, California, Texas, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or any other part of the Union.
Diana Daly, a social scientist at the University of Arizona, combed through online posts and protest footage from more than a dozen anti-shutdown hot spots. She noted that while accusations of tyranny and overreach were directed at numerous state governors for their stay-at-home orders, the most vicious criticism was directed at one of the few female governors — Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer. On April 30, as Michigan lawmakers voted on a 28-day extension to Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, an armed militia stormed the state Capitol building.
Protests continued, even amid stark reminders of the disease’s continuing spread. After two days of protest in Kentucky, the state reported its largest spike in new coronavirus cases, adding 273 to its growing tally. In North Carolina, #Reopen organizer Audrey Whitlock went into quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.
Behind the scenes, a trio of wealthy and well-connected brothers, Ben, Chris, and Aaron Dorr, have been fanning the flames of militancy and vitriol. According to Minnesota Public Radio, the Dorr brothers are affiliated with several pro-gun and anti-abortion groups, and they used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to exploit concerns about government overreach that were already present among Second Amendment fanatics. The Dorrs have used their pro-gun social media platforms to promote anti-shutdown demonstrations in Minnesota, Iowa, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
For the Dorrs and other far-right activists, opposition to abortion rights, gun control, and stay-at-home orders lets them characterize the government as heavy-handed and lacking moral credibility. They can paint it as a rogue bureaucracy that leaves the unborn defenseless and turns a blind eye to the religious rights of anyone who honors the sanctity of life. They can make the case that government has strayed from the ideals of individual liberty by taking away their Second Amendment freedoms and forcing them into house arrest. On top of that, abortion diminishes their control over women — and being gunless and housebound cuts them off from the kind of macho fantasies found in Paul Gosar’s Twitter account and Samuel Johnson’s prose.
For some men, even advisories to wear masks or face coverings have been too much for their narrow notions of masculinity. On April 28, while #Reopen warriors showed up at rallies, Vice President Mike Pence showed up at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Representing the federal government’s pandemic task force, he toured the facility to discuss the treatment and research under way to control COVID-19.
The VP’s visit sparked widespread criticism as press photos revealed that he had flouted Mayo Clinic and CDC recommendations about wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Writing in Scientific American, Peter Glick surmised that leaders like Pence want to project strength at all times, and a mask, to them, is a sign of fear or weakness.
Both Pence and President Trump have claimed to oppose abortion because they cherish life, but both of them have put their distaste for masks before any concerns about the growing toll of our current pandemic.
As much as we’re still learning about COVID-19 itself, we’re also still learning about the social repercussions it brings with it. There are many more gender dimensions to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some states, it was an opportunity to close reproductive health care clinics under the cover of crisis. For many mothers, as their children were sent home from school, it meant a steep increase in the unpaid labor of childcare in a profoundly unequal economy. For countless victims of domestic violence, staying at home meant trading the danger of disease for the danger of abuse.
Viewing the pandemic through the lens of gender reveals a lot already, with more likely to come. Projections indicate that it will be a part of our lives for the next two years. We’ve heard repeatedly about the hygiene habits we need to follow to end COVID-19. As this pandemic lays bare the deep inequalities we live with, it makes clear that we also need to wash our hands of dangerous concepts of masculinity.
Masculine discrepancy stress, or the perceived need to overcompensate to meet traditional masculine gender norms, is associated with both self-harm and harm to others. Men who experience it are more likely to commit intimate partner violence and other forms of aggression, as well as endanger themselves though risky sexual behavior, substance abuse, poor diet, and inadequate exercise. Apparently, too, they will also rebel against pandemic mitigation efforts.
Public health experts can guide us out of a pandemic, but we also need to promote healthier, more flexible ideas of masculinity if we all want to breathe easier when this is over.