The COVID-19 pandemic is a seriously gendered crisis. Despite some claims that the coronavirus is “the great equalizer,” it is increasingly clear how disproportionately impacted people are based on race, class and gender. The virus—and the economic devastation it is causing—are anything but equalizing.
The Gendered Reality of the Pandemic
We know women are on the frontlines of the pandemic, particularly women of color and low-income women. One in three jobs held by women in the U.S. has been deemed essential, with women holding almost eighty percent of all health care and social worker positions, and more than two-thirds of grocery store and food service positions.
Half of all home health and personal care aides—who often care for the elderly and disabled—are women of color. Most of these low paying-positions are still not receiving adequate protective equipment, health care coverage and livable wages.
While on the frontlines of emergency COVID-19 response, women are also facing devastating long-term impacts from the economic fallout. Stay at home orders, paired with child care and school closures, tend to burden women more, as they already perform the vast majority of unpaid care work.
Furthermore, quarantining at home is not safe for those subjected to domestic abuse and gender-based violence, most of whom are women, children, and LGBTQI+ individuals. Many anti-violence advocates are documenting spikes in cases already.
Before the pandemic, women were already being paid less for the same work, had less access to emergency savings than men, and had higher rates of living in poverty. These gendered economic realities will only worsen and widen with an economic depression.
COVID-19 is deepening the fault lines in our economic system, entrenching the gendered inequalities that already existed.
A Choice in How We Recover
As the country stares down an impending global recession, we are at a crossroads: We can rebuild back towards the status quo, or we can recover towards something more just.
We can recover with an eye towards ensuring all people have health care and workers are paid a living wage.
We can reorient our economy away from fossil fuels and instead towards fairly compensating care work—low-carbon, sustainable, valuable work our entire society depends on.
We can rebuild by investing in communities and regions that have been economically marginalized and disinvested for centuries—instead of returning to widening wealth inequality and an economy that favors the rich.
Fighting for a Feminist Economy
These are some of the exact proposals for economic recovery that are being put forth by feminist advocates and activists around the country.
In April, we saw the first explicitly feminist economic recovery plan released in Hawaii, stating that “the road to economic recovery should not be across women’s backs.” Instead, they call for this as the “moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.”
The plan outlines the need for:
- a universal basic income,
- a minimum wage for single mothers,
- higher quality maternal and reproductive health services,
- free childcare for all essential workers,
- direct payments to indigenous communities, and
- emergency funds allocated for victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence—as well as other groups made particularly vulnerable in the economic crisis.
Fighting for an economy centered around care and social protections is nothing new for feminists, who have denoted these ideas as the “feminist economy” for years.
Largely originating with feminists of color, immigrant feminists and working-class feminists, this economic analysis calls attention to the ways that wealth accumulated through a capitalist system is wholly dependent on gendered and racialized division of labor and depends on the devaluing of care work, typically seen as “women’s work.” A feminist economy would upend these norms, turning away from an economy built on extractivism and instead toward one of regeneration and the value of all human and planetary well-being.
Feminist voices are desperately needed in our COVID-19 response, from grassroots solutions to governance decisions. As the U.S. government has failed to deliver basic social services to so many, grassroots organizers and feminists have mobilized mutual aid funds and emergency response groups in their own communities.
And it is impossible to ignore that women-led nations are generally faring better, too, with lower death rates and greater social protections in place to protect workers and families. To protect all people, feminist economic solutions must be centered in our planning, or we risk returning to a “normal” that was anything but.
Frameworks for a Response that Meets the Moment
The magnitude of interlocking crises in this moment necessitates a response at the scale both science and justice demand. Tinkering around the edges of economic policy will do little for the 36 million who filed for unemployment benefits in the last two months and nothing to fundamentally alter the system that enabled billionaires to accumulate wealth by exploiting workers during a national crisis.
Instead, this moment calls for a real transformation of our economy, interrogating who it really works for. Frameworks put forth by the People’s Bailout and the Feminist Green New Deal envision the kind of change necessary in this moment, and we should turn to their principles to guide our advocacy and imagination of what might lie on the other side of recovery.