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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly damaging impact on women, and especially younger women in the academy. Casual female academics have been hit particularly hard. Many have been dropped off rosters due to institutional fears of financial loss associated with actual or anticipated reductions in international students.

At the same time, however, we observe how women leaders have expertly navigated the pandemic responses and saved untold numbers of lives. Back in April of 2020 Aviva Wittenberg-Cox noted the exemplary leadership of women during the COVID-19 crisis, from Angela Merkel of Germany, Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland, to Sanna Marin in Finland, Erna Solberg in Norway and Mette Frederiksen of Denmark. Amanda Taub rightly cautions that ‘[w]e should resist drawing conclusions about women leaders from a few exceptional individuals acting in exceptional circumstances’. However, she notes too that gendered expectations of masculine models of power require projecting strength and aggression which may well be overcome by male leaders, ‘[b]ut it may be less politically costly for women to do so because they do not have to violate perceived gender norms’.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop scrutinise the ‘misconception that women ought to emulate men’ to demonstrate how leadership has been turned on its head during the pandemic. Indeed, Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampati have found hard data to back up the anecdotal evidence that ‘[e]ven accounting for institutional context and other controls, being female-led has provided countries with an advantage in the current crisis’. This is clear even without comparing the female leaders to, say, Donald Trump in the USA, Boris Johnson in the UK or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – who might be outliers in their macho autocracy performativity.

While rejecting any essentialism, it seems reasonable to ask whether this stark difference in competence is because of or in spite of or regardless of these leaders being women? Arguably it is because they are socially less constrained to bring certain nurturing attributes to how they conduct themselves in office, which has had a clearly discernible positive impact on the lives and quality of life of the citizens they govern. Although those nurturing attributes are of course not necessarily female, they generally are assigned in society to the private side of the public/private divide (which Aristotle for one associated with women, children and slaves), and seeing them therefore in the public side in a sense reveals a certain socially constructed ‘signature of femininity’ in political leadership.

Even the most casual glance at the dictionary will reveal the Ancient Greek origin of a staggering number of words we use to describe and express our anxieties about pandemics, providing despotic autocrats the occasion to suspend or dissolve the public/private divide and curtail democracy, coupled with adverse impacts on the economy, and so forth. For instance, pandemic is from pandemōs combining pan meaning ‘all’ and demos meaning ‘the people’, epidemic is from epidēmios, attaching epi ‘upon’ to demos, crisis is from krisis meaning decision, politics from polis or ‘city’, democracy from dēmokratia joining demos to kratia meaning ‘power’ or ‘rule’, autocrat from autokratēs combining autos or ‘self’ with kratos or ‘power’, polity from politēs meaning ‘citizen’, from polis or ‘city’, despot from despotēs meaning ‘master’ or ‘absolute ruler’, economy from oikonomia or ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ and nemein ‘manage’, among others.

Liberal, as in liberal democracy, however, is a rare Latin cameo here derived from liberalis from liber or ‘free man’. Using this method we can readily perceive that when liberal democracies suspend human rights and freedoms or liber and ban gatherings in groups essentially dissolving the demos, what is left (however temporarily) is a liberal democracy with neither liber nor demos—a liberal democracy so to speak—leaving kratia or power beholden to nothing other than itself, which is simply to say an autocracy. At this critical stage moral leadership comes into play. When a political leader can do essentially whatever they deem necessary, they reveal themselves to the core, which might go some way to explaining the successes of Ardern and Merkel among others.

But this reveals that the private/public distinction is itself a public distinction—not a private one—and that the public side is not only the realm of autonomy, power and freedom, while the private is the realm of necessity and compulsion. Moreover, in a liberal democracy there is a price to be paid in order to navigate that divide from the private into the public which in Ancient Greece excluded so many. That price is inscribed in the notion of legal personhood – a necessarily fictitious being in the public domain that is free from nurturing, which is to say, from the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing, which are said to remain in the private sphere as a matter of law but which as a matter of fact but require participation in the public sphere (wage labour) in order to gain access to them.

The model that results from this is consequently that of a split human being. An originally fractured and impoverished masculinity that women, children and slaves must emulate as a species of honorary man in order to themselves be inscribed into the legal order as autonomous political beings, that is, as citizens entitled to rights. Surely, there must be a better way to look after ourselves. Not to be ‘afraid to be human’, as distinct from aspiring to become human, as if humanity were some sort of ever-receding horizon.

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Edwin Bikundo is a Senior Lecturer at the Griffith Law School, Griffith University, Australia. He is a Co-Managing Editor of the Griffith Law Review
and Co- Editor of the Routledge Law Book Series: TechNomos: Law, Technology, Culture. Edwin is a member of IPCS.

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