by Anna Addams and Ron E. Turing
The prize is life itself, and most women in the world must fight for their lives on many fronts at once.
—Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” (1984)
The outbreak of Covid-19 opened a new front in the fight for women’s liberation and equality. Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: job losses are greater among women, women are expected to bear more of the burden of housework and childcare, and women report higher instances of mental health struggles.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we wanted to share the struggles facing women in the United States and the rest of world as the pandemic continues to rage, with no end in sight. These struggles highlight how important women are as a force of change in our world and how their struggles open new avenues in the fight for freedom for all.
Women in the Workforce
11. To make the workplace responsive to an individual’s wants, needs, and talents. This includes valuing (monetarily) stay-at-home parents, aiding employees who want to spend more time with family and continue to work, equalizing pay for jobs of comparable worth, enacting a minimum wage that would bring a full-time worker with two children over the poverty line, and providing employee benefits for freelance and part-time workers.
In waves of labor movements over the past decades, women have been working to break the “glass ceiling” and make strides toward equal pay, entry into careers that were predominately male, and earning a living wage. But Covid-19 has created new barriers for women and has highlighted major structural disadvantages for women in the capitalist labor system.
A Policy Brief: The Impact of Covid-19 on Women, from the UN in April of 2020, draws attention to the concern that we are at “risk of rolling back the already fragile gains made in female labor force participation”. The Policy Brief also notes how women are “disproportionately affected by cuts and lay-offs” due to the demands of work at home. These challenges have highlighted the areas which lack support for women related to childcare and healthcare, particularly for women who are mothers or caregivers and are often burdened with prioritizing work at home versus advancements in other fields (e.g., career advancements).
While research is ongoing, there are initial studies that look at the impact of Covid-19 on women in the workforce. In a study entitled “Gender inequality during the Covid-19 pandemic: Income, expenditure, savings, and job loss” by Hai-Anh H. Dang and Cuong Viet Nguyen, information was collected from China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The study found that while there were no significant differences in temporary job losses between men and women, women are “24 percent more likely to permanently lose their jobs compared to men.” These initial findings are indicative of the underlying issues with gender inequalities in the workforce and need to be further understood if women are to make progress toward equality.
Here’s my list of dirty chores: buying groceries, carting them home and putting them away; cooking meals and washing dishes and pots; doing the laundry, digging out the place when things get out of control; washing floors. The list could go on… The longer my husband contemplated these chores the more repulsed he became, and so proceeded the change from the normally sweet considerate Dr. Jekyll into the crafty Mr. Hyde who would stop at nothing to avoid the horrors of — housework.
—Pat Mainardi, “The Politics of Housework” (1970)
Unpaid domestic labor has typically been the responsibility of women. In the US and the UK prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, some strides had been made in reducing the inequality of housework; however, in a 2016 survey in the UK, women still reported doing 60% more housework than men. The initial lockdowns in the US and the UK in the spring of 2020 resulted in an improvement in the distribution between men and women, but as soon as the initial lockdowns ended, the gap in housework again emerged. An interesting study of survey results from the UK showed that while couples somewhat rationally divided housework when paid work hours were lost due to the pandemic, women who lost paid work hours devoted much more time to housework than men in the same position. An important observation is that the amount of time spent performing childcare became more equal, most likely due to it being more rewarding and viewed as a necessity more than other kinds of housework. As women are more likely to be unable to get their jobs back during the pandemic, they are likely to face more hours of housework that will not be shared evenly.
Along with more housework, women have borne the burden of homeschooling. A survey showed that 67% of women, in contrast to 52% of men, oversaw their children’s education when schools were closed for in-person education. This has put an additional burden on women and has impacted their mental health.
Women’s Mental Health
As many as 50 to 75% of new mothers experience a shift in their emotions called the “baby blues” after delivery. Up to 15% of these women will develop a more severe and longer-lasting depression, called postpartum depression, after delivery. Women with postpartum depression may experience emotional highs and lows, frequent crying, fatigue, guilt, anxiety and difficulties caring for the baby. Postpartum depression can be treated.
The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly impacted women’s lives, families, and work. Going forward, there needs to be ongoing research on the impact it has had on women’s mental health, especially given the known challenges women have been facing. In an article titled, Women’s Mental Health in the Time of Covid-19 Pandemic from the Frontiers in Global Women’s Health journal, it is noted that a “lack of adequate domestic and emotional support can have consequences on women’s mental health,” including an increased risk of “anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. This shows the importance of closely examining all the work that women do and where support is needed.
Another area of concern is the mental health of pregnant and postpartum women during this pandemic. In an article, Perinatal Mental Health during the Covid-19 Pandemic, it is noted that perinatal women “usually have an increased susceptibility to infection.” In addition to the stress of the physical impact of contracting the virus, there is also a mental impact with this increased risk. Furthermore, the article provides background research from other “natural disasters, and following other stressful-life events” as a result of which perinatal women have had negative impacts on their mental health, especially since this time is already a stressful transition period of “pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum.”
One way to promote women’s mental health, especially during perinatal stages, is “maintaining contact with loved ones and social supports.” This has been a challenge during the pandemic, when the focus has been on decreasing potential exposures to the virus and increasing the time women and mothers spend at home. It is important to have support networks, community, and a collaborative approach to childcare, health, and the work of women. Additionally, it is important for the voices of women to be amplified by individuals who are in positions of privilege, and for women’s voices to be at the forefront of decision making related to childcare, healthcare, and work.
The Fight for Women’s Liberation in the Workplace, in the Streets
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.
—Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977)
Covid-19 has impacted many different aspects of women’s lives, but it has also heightened the fight for women’s liberation. Women have been at the forefront of the fight to unionize workplaces, including Starbucks locations in the United States. Of course, men have also contributed, but 69.2% of the Starbucks workforce is women and women leaders were crucial for the first Starbucks to be unionized in Buffalo, NY in December of 2021. Since then, more than 100 Starbucks locations across 19 different states have begun organizing unions.
In Canada, anti-vaccine mandate trucker convoys occupied downtown Ottawa for 17 days and were disrupting the local community. The convoys faced an unlikely foe, a group of moms, grannies, and dog-walkers. On the morning of February 14, a group of moms and dog-walkers blockaded several key routes to get to downtown Ottawa in order to prevent additional trucks from getting to the location of the protests. These blockades were successful in preventing new occupiers from joining. The group of locals blockading these intersections even made the new truckers strip their vehicles of decals, surrender their flags and jerry cans, and run away from Ottawa with their tails between their legs. As the article states, “Occupiers beware, the dog-walkers and grannies are coming, and the vast majority of Ottawans are with them!”
Despite Covid-19, women remained active in Black and women’s liberation movements. Young African-American women led the Black Lives Matters movement following the murder of George Floyd. Women’s marches were held in the US in 2020 and 2021. The marches in October 2021 tried to stop a long-time threat: anti-abortion laws. In Texas and Mississippi, highly restrictive abortion laws called “Heartbeat Laws” were signed into law. In response, thousands of women in the US protested, demanding that abortion rights not be taken away and Roe v. Wade remain the law of the land. These protests will continue, as more states are enacting highly restrictive abortion laws to make it extremely difficult for women to get the health care they need.
These fights in the workplace, in local communities, and for women’s health demonstrate that, despite new barriers, women will continue to persevere and adapt in their fight for liberation.
Views of women friends, family, and co-workers regarding their experiences with the Covid-19 pandemic:
I am retired, but volunteer at our local elementary and middle schools. Covid limited my ability to do work with students who need individual help with reading and math. Covid has caused stress in my life due to worrying about the health of friends and family, disagreements with family members regarding how to respond to Covid, and the limits on face-to-face contact with the important people in my life.
—Laura from Wisconsin
I work in healthcare. I constantly have to think about Covid-19 despite not truly being a frontline worker. It is involved in every decision I make. Covid has negatively affected my mental health. I honestly did not foresee such backlash against the vaccine and evidence-based medicine.
—Healthcare worker in Wisconsin
After [the US’s response to Covid], I feel as though I became extremely pessimistic about the state of the country and world, seeing how many people rejected science and common decency.
—Jessica from North Carolina
I teach at a university, so Covid has had a huge impact on my work. Many students are still not comfortable coming to campus, so most classes are being taught using a hybrid method with the professor teaching in-person but the entire lecture being broadcast via Zoom. While this sounds like a good compromise, it leads to significantly more work for me as an instructor and I am not sure it provides the best learning experience for either group of students.
—Professor from California
As an individual with an autoimmune condition, who is taking multiple immunosuppressants for management of my chronic health condition, I experienced significant additional stress during the Covid-19 pandemic. I often felt like people around me were gaslighting me for how cautious I was being, but I knew I was at increased risk for severe illness from the virus, so I ended up primarily staying in contact with family and friends via text, phone/video calls, and social media.
—Tammy C. from Wisconsin
Unfortunately, my job of 40 years was eliminated during this time, with the explanation, “due to complications of Covid.” This was something I was certainly not prepared for. I did not expect to stop working and needed to look at my future differently. For me, I took on the duty of helping my 90+ year old parents stay safe and helping them understand why safety guidelines were so important. [I was] feeling lonely and constantly worried about those we could not be with. It also left me worried about others and their safety when we were together.
I have had to switch back and forth between virtual and in person [teaching]. I have had to learn to utilize new technology and programs such as Zoom on the drop of a dime. I have also been expected to teach how to use this app and others to colleagues and students. The uncertainty at work has greatly impacted my mental well-being. My anxiety and depression have reached new extremes. My desire to be a fast learner and a flexible employee has caused me to lose sight of my own needs.
—Marie from Wisconsin
During Covid-19 I have been working in a position of hiring, training, and providing supervision to staff. I have noticed more parents, particularly mothers, come forward to ask about accommodations for childcare needs. In the past, this was never a topic that was openly discussed at work; however, I am proud of the women who are doing this.
My work group abruptly transitioned to work from home in March 2020. We returned to the office for 4 months in fall 2020 and this decision created tension between senior management and workers. As of March 2022, I am encouraged that remote work is being more widely accepted. This flexibility was unheard of prior to Covid.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have reflected on how COVID-19 has affected women’s lives, and we were inspired to dig deeper. This article highlights some of the discrepancies between the experiences of men and women during the pandemic, but we recognize further research and attention is required to understand how COVID has impacted the experiences of all genders in a non-binary manner.
We love, respect, and appreciate all the women who took the time to respond to our request for comments on this article. We share your stories in order to inspire others as much as you have inspired us.