We Are Losing Good Public Health Officials to Misogyny

Updated Dec. 21 at 9:07 a.m. PT.

Five months after Ms. first reported on female health professionals leaving their positions in record numbers—decisions made in the midst of anti-mask rallies organized outside their homes and threats aimed at their families—attempts to intimidate health officials continue.

During the coronavirus pandemic, rather than staying behind the scenes, public health officials have stood at the podium beside our country’s leaders and addressed us directly. Never before have they been as visible or, in the eyes of many, responsible for making decisions that affect our everyday lives in such perceptible ways.

As the face of their state’s coronavirus response, health care experts have born the brunt of the public’s misplaced anger and frustration—from backlash and criticism, to violent intimidation and death threats. In a time when we needed experienced health care workers most, they are being coerced into resignation by the very people they are trying to keep safe.

And as the age-old story goes for women in the public eye, women in public health disproportionately face targeted, personal, crude and sexualized attacks.

Protestors Swarm the Home of an Idaho Official

On December 8th, Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo received a distressing call from her 12-year-old son, in tears. Just minutes into attending a virtual Board of Health meeting to vote on a local mask mandate, armed anti-mask protestors had surrounded Lachiondo’s house. Lachiondo signed off from the video call and rushed home. Her colleagues were shocked. 

The board members were set to vote on an order that would have limited gatherings to fewer than 10 people and required face masks be worn in public as well as in private spaces when non-household members were present and social distancing wasn’t possible. The meeting was canceled shortly after Lochiondo’s departure, at the request of Boise Police and Mayor Lauren McLean (D).

In a Facebook post the next morning, Lachiondo wrote: “I am sad. I am tired. I fear that, in my choosing to hold public office, my family has too-often paid the price.” Lachiondo spoke of other officials who while “stepping up to make tough calls in the interest of public health…have paid a heavy price. The scrutiny, intimidation, harassment, and threats have taken a toll on us all, myself included.”

The Resignation of Ohio’s Dr. Amy Acton

On June 11, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R) announced the resignation of Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health. Acton had been leading Ohio’s coronavirus response since March, and her leadership was met with intimidation, “Open Ohio” protests and public harassment.

As a result of Acton’s advice, DeWine shut down Ohio early on in the pandemic, making it the first state to shut down schools—earning him a statewide approval rating of 86 percent.

We Are Losing Good Women Public Health Officials to Misogyny
Rally at the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio on May 9, 2020. (Paul Becker / Flickr)

On three separate occasions in May, demonstrators picketed outside Acton’s family home. Protesters’ signs were sexist and anti-Semitic. One sign referred to Dr. Acton as “Dr. Amy Over-Re-Acton,” and declared: “Hairstylists are essential.” This sign was accompanied by another that promised, “Your hair looks great, Amy!!” (Of course, society typically spends a disproportionate amount of time discussing a woman’s outward appearance.)

In one instance, state troopers were called in to monitor her neighborhood when two men on May 2 openly carried guns—a clear attempt at intimidation.

Governor DeWine defended Acton against these threats and attacks from angry Ohioans—saying, “To bother the family of Dr. Acton, that’s not fair game. It’s not right. It’s not necessary. The buck stops here. I’m the responsible person.”

Dr. Amy Acton was the first woman to hold the director position at the Ohio Department of Health.

To give a sense of the effect of Acton’s March 22 stay-at-home order, Ohio has had 3,174 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths (as of publication) with almost one-third reported within the last month, after Acton stepped down.

Neighboring Michigan has had twice as many—6,369 deaths—even though Ohio has a bigger population and had its first confirmed case three weeks earlier.

We Are Losing Good Women Public Health Officials to Misogyny
(Twitter / @Amy_Siskind)

Gender and Credibility

While DeWine’s swift response and handling of the crisis has been applauded, Dr. Acton—the expert who advised him—has been ridiculed and vilified by the Ohio public.

Gender stereotypes inform the expectations of women working in public health. Women’s job performances have always been—and continue to be—assessed along different metrics than men’s.

“Let’s be honest, the fact is many of these restrictions are being announced and enacted by a woman in power, in a state that has put very few women in major leadership roles,” said Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

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The Resignation of Colorado’s Emily Brown

Similar to Acton, Emily Brown, former director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department in Colorado resigned when she took a more “science-based” approach to reopening than was popular with local leaders.

Brown told Kaiser Health News she was at odds with county commissioners who wanted to loosen coronavirus restrictions faster.

“All the commissioners told me was ‘This just isn’t working out,’” Brown told The Lily. “I don’t know that I have any proof that my situation was related to being a woman or being somewhat younger for a director position, but I have never felt my decisions questioned more than during this last three months and I definitely felt it sometimes was related to how I communicated as a woman.”

The Resignation of California’s Dr. Nichole Quick

And in Orange County, Calif., Dr. Nichole Quick, former chief health officer, resigned on June 8 after receiving death threats over an order she signed requiring masks be worn in public.

At one public hearing on the issue at the end of May, an attendee called in and identified Quick’s home address and named her boyfriend.

Amy Acton Fan Club

Not everyone has disregarded the medical expertise of female health professionals during the pandemic. In fact, Ohio residents responded to the criticism of Dr. Amy Acton with doctor-led rallies, a Facebook fan club page, memes and paintings of Acton. Many in Ohio are thankful and recognize Dr. Acton for the hero she is.

We Are Losing Good Women Public Health Officials to Misogyny
Dr. Acton as Rosie the Riveter, April 2020 Cover of 614 Magazine. (Art by Sarah Moore)

Acton took an honest approach in press briefings, acknowledging her own fear and grief. She told them what she knew, and more importantly, what she didn’t know.

“This is no small thing that we are doing together,” Acton stated in a televised press briefing, “it is so incredibly hard to have shut down our lives the way we have. I am absolutely certain you will look back and know you helped save each other.”

If only the threats of COVID were overplayed. There isn’t anybody who doesn’t wish the virus wasn’t still a risk for Americans, but the reality is, it’s still here and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

And in the battle against this deadly virus, the U.S. needs informed public health workers on the front lines who feel supported and heard—not attacked and degraded.


Violet Rawlings is a junior at Smith College double majoring in the Study of Women & Gender and Film & Media Studies.