The COVID-19 pandemic had a disproportionately negative effect on women, but does that mean feminism has also been locked down?
Whenever I think of working mothers, I picture a businesswoman in a suit and office. In other words, I casually overlook all the working mothers who provide childcare for those businesswomen in offices, or clean their houses or nurse their elderly parents.
I’m not the only one guilty of this. Governments all over the world seem to have experienced the same oversight. No one sees women’s recession in the overall spectrum of the state of our world.
The women’s recession
For the most part, the pandemic’s impact on women has been assessed in terms of the loss of jobs for women in white-collar professions.
Meanwhile, “the massive job losses to house cleaners during COVID-19 quarantine, most of whom are women with young children, has uniformly not been shorthanded as a ‘disaster for feminism.’”
Lockdown restrictions and school closures meant that the paid workforce of carers and domestic workers that employed mothers rely on suddenly disappeared.
As carers and cleaners lost jobs, those employing them gained a heavy load of extra responsibilities, including housework, home-schooling, and childcare, all of which needed to be slotted in around a normal day’s work.
Strangely, despite the enormous impact the pandemic has had on women, we’ve had little say in how it’s being tackled, and around the world, women have been “locked out of COVID- 19/coronavirus-related decision making at a national level.”
“Until decision-makers reflect the population as a whole, they will never represent the population as a whole.” Instead, it’s just a case of men making the beds that women are forced to lie in.
What Women Really Lost (Or Gained) During COVID-19
In some ways, the situation we’re in now is slightly different from the one we were in before the pandemic.
Even in those seemingly heady days, women were already on the back foot, earning less than men, a true women’s recession as they worked in low-wage occupations more than men, and worked fewer hours than men due to family responsibilities.
Enter COVID-19 and, suddenly, there’s an abundance of new difficulties to throw into the mix, such as “widespread economic and employment instability, skyrocketing caregiving needs without sufficient supports, and added pressures exacerbating workplace barriers that already limit opportunities.”
To some, this represents “a disaster for feminism,” but for the author, Koa Beck, it’s only been a disaster for “white feminism.”
Governments worldwide have watched women in retail, hospitality, and care work losing their jobs and labeled it the “undoing the progress of feminism.”
They have happily glossed over those who’ve lost informal jobs and those at the bottom of the employment ladder who lost what little they did earn, finding themselves on the brink of poverty.
It seems feminism hasn’t yet gone far enough, and “what is really needed is a full-scale overhaul to existing systems.”
Are We Up To The Task Of Rebuilding Feminism?
Do we have the energy for the momentous changes needed now that we’ve been crushed by the weight of work and family duties and forced to feel guilty about failing to perform them all to the best of our abilities?
We are wearied by “the feminism of drudgery and nappies and dishes” and exhausted by the fact that “despite all the glamour of contemporary feminism with its fiery rejection of old stereotypes, there is still a gulf between women and men when it comes to caring.”
But now is not the time to let that weariness overwhelm us. It’s clear that whatever progress we feel we’ve made towards gender equality, it’s not enough. There’s still an obvious difference. Women’s recession has reared its ugly head and we see it.
Our feminist goals need to change and, rather than attempting to insinuate ourselves into a male-dominated workplace, we need to create one that puts women on an equal footing.
That means putting pressure on companies to change their workplace policies. In some countries, it means fighting for paid parental leave, paid sick leave, paid compassionate leave to deal with family emergencies.
It means opposing occupational segregation, recognizing the importance of domestic labor, and introducing a comprehensive care infrastructure. It means ending the gender pay gap.
It also means standing together as women, regardless of profession, income bracket, race, religion, creed, or color, and despite women’s recession. Are you with me? We must push for women’s advancement in all areas of life.
 Kassova, Luba, The Missing Perspectives Of Women in COVID-19 News: A special report on women’s under-representation in news media. September 2020, p.11. https://www.iwmf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/2020.09.16-FULL-COVID-REPORT.pdf