COVID-19 Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Feminists

The suffering of women during the coronavirus pandemic illuminates where feminists need to push harder. Medicare for All, free higher education and a living wage, and a housing and job guarantee would go far in giving women the autonomy necessary to protect themselves and their children.

A woman wearing a protective mask is seen in Union Square on March 9, 2020 in New York City. Jeenah Moon / Getty

Malaysia’s Ministry for Women, Family, and Community Development had a vital message for women during the pandemic: Wear makeup and nice clothes while working at home and in the interest of domestic harmony please don’t nag your husband about helping out around the house.

The ham-fisted “educational” posters, complete with cartoons depicting what a pleasing wife looks like, would be laughable if they didn’t signify the dark reality of life for many women during the coronavirus crisis.

The suffering and vulnerabilities the world’s women are experiencing during the pandemic are highly contextual, but there are few common threads. A major source of pain is that millions of women around the world have lost their already meager source of income. In both rich and poor countries, women are overrepresented in low-paid work — jobs that have been quickly lost amid social-distancing efforts, leaving women, many of whom were already living at the poverty line, with no way to buy food or pay their bills.

While millions of women have been thrown out of work, many are still working. Low-paid retail and service jobs have been classified as essential work, and many women who staff them, particularly single mothers, simply can’t afford to stay home even for a short time despite the danger of infection and death. These women (and men) are at risk for extra, pandemic-related abuse and safety violations. In India, for example, women make up the vast majority of the low-paid, front-line health care workers who are going house to house check on families, often without basic protective equipment.

Women who are able to work from home are insulated from these dire choices but are now expected to perform unpaid social reproductive work and paid work simultaneously. While men have slowly increased their contribution of housework and child-rearing in recent decades, women still perform substantially more work in the household. With schools and day cares closed women are, based on all previous evidence, likely to be taking on the lion’s share of the increased chore and childcare load.

Adding to the pressures of precarity, dangerous working conditions, and an unequal division of labor at home is the surge of violence perpetuated against women worldwide by domestic partners and family members. In country after country officials report spikes in reports of violence against women and children trapped in quarantine with abusive men.

Some countries are making efforts to manage the spike. France, for example, has repurposed vacant hotel rooms as shelters for women fleeing violent partners. But the situation is grim. Many domestic violence shelters have closed due to infection, lack of staffing, or official orders, and women trapped and frightened are often unable to make even a phone call for help. When they do call, police departments are often either unresponsive or overwhelmed and unable to help.

Women’s advocates and domestic violence support groups are not the least bit surprised by the spike in violence. It’s a depressingly predictable occurrence, they say, whenever families are stuck at home together for extended periods of time such as holidays and summer vacations.

Like clockwork, a few days after countries battling COVID-19 enact stay-at-home measures, domestic violence hotlines and police departments began to receive frantic calls for help from women who feared their partner may kill them before the virus does.

The widespread precarity and abuse suffered by women and girls during the coronavirus pandemic shows how far we have to go in the feminist struggle. Looking at the upticks of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, mushrooming across the globe, the violence of men can feel like a virus too, a force of nature reproducing and mutating, impossible to kill.

This is an understandable feeling in this moment of darkness and uncertainty. But we have to push back against it. Just as we can employ science and political will to corral and kill COVID-19, we can use political struggle and solidarity to empower women, giving them the necessary resources to achieve safety and autonomy. The pandemic has revealed, albeit in a brutal manner, the areas in which feminists need to mobilize and organize moving forward.

Some of the things that feminists need to fight harder for are things we’ve been demanding for decades. Empowering women means giving them access to the basic necessities of life — food, health care, housing, and a living wage. As we are seeing in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, women’s access to these necessities is often either highly contingent or nonexistent. Medicare for All, free higher education and a living wage, and a housing and job guarantee would go far in giving women the autonomy necessary to protect themselves and their children.

Feminists have long fought for these things, but in the #MeToo moment they have been under-emphasized. This is not to disparage the gains of the recent feminist upsurge which has made great strides in de-normalizing sexism and abuse. But feminists now need to move beyond consciousness-raising to institution-building.

This institution-building should focus on consolidating and growing women’s power which, as this pandemic has demonstrated, is sorely lacking. The sad truth is that, even in wealthy countries, women have not been able to depend on elected officials, government institutions, or charities to protect them. In this time of need women have often found themselves alone.

This is an important lesson for feminists. We need to advocate and organize for bread-and-butter gains. But we also need to build robust programs and networks, brick-and-mortar spaces of support and solidarity for all women that can be counted on in times of crisis.

This crisis has been a wake-up call — one that all feminists should answer.