Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN. This piece has been updated to reflect the latest news.
On Friday, we witnessed an unusually ugly spectacle at the US Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch sat on the bench maskless (as he also has on other occasions), while his colleague Sonia Sotomayor – who as a diabetic is at higher risk of severe disease if she contracts Covid-19 – participated remotely from her chambers. While a Court spokesperson didn’t respond to a question from The Washington Post about the incident, a statement made by the pair of justices on Wednesday noted that they are on friendly terms and that Sotomayor had not asked Gorsuch to mask up. Nonetheless, it’s disappointing that Gorsuch did not decide to don a mask as a sign of respect to his colleague so that she might have felt comfortable participating in person. The episode was a shocking display of male entitlement.
And after Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was inaugurated on Saturday, one of his first actions was to repeal school mask mandates, a decision that was met with outrage by many and pledges by some school districts not to obey the order. But, if it stands, the decision will help ensure that a generation of children in Virginia have the opportunity to follow Gorsuch’s lead in displaying gross disregard for the welfare of others. The alarming decision stands to be particularly devastating for women, because mothers have been the ones largely dealing with the fallout when their kids get sick or they don’t feel it’s safe to send them to school.
Gorsuch’s choice not to mask up was an act of the same variety as men who “manspread” on the subway by sitting with their legs apart so there isn’t legroom for the person next to them or use “bro language” like referring to their sexual exploits in the workplace. This kind of behavior often makes women feel uncomfortable and even unwelcome in public settings, including their places of work. In the case of Gorsuch’s disregard for Sotomayor, it was particularly inappropriate because not wearing a mask posed a potential threat to her health.
There’s a very gendered nature to the debate about masking. While plenty of women don’t wear masks or support public masking, a study in the academic journal Politics & Gender found an association between masculinity and an aversion to mask wearing, which suggests that men are less likely to wear masks. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more risk averse on matters related to our health, according to a study published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. Stanford researchers also recently found that men who refuse to comply with Covid rules such as mask wearing are also more likely to commit sexual harassment and have sexist views. This makes perfect sense, since they’re all outrageous displays of entitlement.
Now, with Youngkin’s decision, Virginia schoolchildren will be taught a lesson that it’s okay to forgo masks like Gorsuch. The decision by the male governor to make schools less safe for children is likely, of course, to make many parents feel uncomfortable sending their kids to school at all. I, for one, would never send my daughters to a school where people were not all wearing masks at a time of surging Covid cases. We don’t know the long-term effects of the virus, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned this month that children who have had Covid appear to be at significantly higher risk of later getting diabetes. We also know that a small number of children who have gotten Covid have later developed Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a potentially deadly inflammation of body parts including the brain, lungs and heart.
If parents are afraid to send their kids to school, who will bear the brunt of the burden? Mothers, of course, who throughout this pandemic have largely been the ones sacrificing their own careers and mental health to care for out-of-school kids.
And it isn’t just about schools. People who don’t wear masks in public places like supermarkets show shocking disregard for the welfare of children under age 2, who are too young to wear masks themselves. Because masks aren’t mandated in my local supermarket, I don’t feel safe bringing my baby inside to pick up groceries. Therefore, like many moms of little ones, when I’m not at work, I practically live under house arrest these days.
The behavior of people who refuse to mask up belies a very masculine-oriented, individualistic understanding of “freedom.” The mentality that it is OK to make women feel massively uncomfortable in public settings – so much so that they exit them altogether – to avoid burdening men with the slightest inconvenience of putting on masks helps explain why we live in such an unequal society today. This attitude is undoubtedly part of the reason there aren’t more women in positions of power, from corporations (where less than 9% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women) to politics (24% of Senate seats and less than 28% of House seats are held by women). And it’s unconscionable.
Enough is enough. We as a society have to demand that men stop using their positions of power to keep women from exercising our own power and participating fully in our society. This starts by calling out behavior like going maskless in public places for what it really is: a display of staggering entitlement that should leave people of all genders outraged.