The future may be feminine, but the pandemic is patriarchal

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The pandemic affects women and men differently. While men who get sick seem more likely to die than women, in other ways the pandemic and its foreseeable fallout will be harder on women.

By Rebecca Gordon*

Before I became a “refugee at home”, this article addressed the actions of women around the world on the occasion of March 8, International Women's Day. From Pakistan to Chile, millions of women have taken to the streets demanding control over our bodies and our lives. The women came out of Iraq and Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Peru, the Philippines and Malaysia. In some places, they faced the risk of masked men beating them. In others, they demanded an end to femicide, the millennial reality that women are murdered daily in this world for the mere fact of being women.

In 1975 the future was female

This year's celebrations were especially militant. It has been 45 years since the United Nations declared 1975 the International Year of Women and hosted its first international conference on women in Mexico City. Similar conferences were held at five-year intervals, culminating in the 1995 Beijing Conference, creating a platform that has since guided international feminism in many ways.

The Beijing Conference took place a quarter of a century ago, but this year women around the world seemed to have had enough. On March 9, Mexican women organized a 24-hour strike, “a day without us”, to demonstrate how much the world of work, paid and unpaid, depends on … yes, women. That day without women was, in all its consequences, a success. The Wall Street Journal observed, perhaps with a hint of bewilderment, that “Mexico has stopped. Hundreds of thousands of women have paralyzed Mexico in an unprecedented national strike to protest the rising tide of violence against women, a major victory for the cause.”

In addition to crowding the streets and emptying factories and offices, some women also smashed shop windows and fought with the police. Violence? Of women? What could have driven them to such a point?

Perhaps it was the murder of Ingrid Escamilla, a 25-year-old Mexico City resident who, according to the New York Times, “was stabbed, skinned and disemboweled” last February. Perhaps it was the shooting of artist and activist Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre in Ciudad Juárez, a barely-noticed reminder of a disinterested world in which women have disappeared for decades along the US-Mexico border. Or maybe it was just the fact that official figures for 2019 revealed more than 10 femicides in Mexico, a XNUMX% increase on the previous year, even though there are many more murders of this type unrecorded.

Is the pandemic patriarchal?

If it weren't for the pandemic, maybe the Wall Street Journal was right. Perhaps the Day Without Women was just the first of many important victories. Perhaps the international feminist anthem “The rapist is you” (you [the patriarchy, the police, the president] are the rapist), would continue to inspire dance performances with women singing everywhere. Perhaps the world's attention has not been so quickly diverted from the spectacle of worldwide women's revolts. Now, though, in the United States and around the world, everything is pandemic, all the time, and with good reason. The coronavirus has done what a Day Without Women could not: it has brought the world economy to a standstill. It has infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands. And it continues to spread like a global wildfire.

Like every major event and institution, the pandemic affects women and men differently. While men who get sick seem more likely to die than women, in other ways the pandemic and its foreseeable consequences will be harder on women. How can be? Writer Helen Lewis provides some answers in the The Atlantic.

First, the virus, combined with massive quarantine measures, ensures that more people need care. This includes older people, who are most at risk of dying, and children who are no longer in school or daycare. In developed countries like the United States, people lucky enough to be able to keep their jobs working from home are finding that the presence of bored children doesn't make things any easier.

Last night my little family was invited to a singing and dancing performance by two girls who live a few houses down the street. Their parents spent the day helping them plan and then invited us to watch from our backyard. What they will come up with for tomorrow, working day, I have no idea. A childless friend offered to teach online lessons daily, in 15-minute sessions, on anything she could Google to help her mother's friends get some rest.

Just a week ago, it looked like closed schools might reopen before the end of the school year, allowing a commentator from the The New York Times write an article titled “I Refuse to Run a Coronavirus Home School.” An associate professor of educational leadership, the author says she is letting her two children watch television and eat cookies, knowing that no matter how many quick studies she does, nothing will make her an elementary school teacher. I applaud your stance, but I also suspect that the children of skilled professionals will likely be in a better position than those of low-wage workers to resume the life-and-death struggle for survival in the competitive jungle that is education in the US, from o Kindergarten through twelfth grade.

In quarantined heterosexual households, writes Helen Lewis, the primary responsibility for childcare will fall to women. She is exasperated by experts who point out that people like Isaac Newton and Shakespeare did their best work during a XNUMXth-century plague in England. “None of them,” she notes, “had childcare responsibilities.” Trying to write King Lear, while their own little Cordelias, Reganias and Gonerildas grab your T-shirt and complain loudly that they're bored...

In places like the UK and the US, where most mothers are employed, women are under new pressure to leave paid work. In most heterosexual families who have two incomes and also children, historical wage inequalities mean that women's earnings are generally lower. So if someone has to spend the day babysitting full-time, it makes economic sense for them to do it. In the United States, 11% of women already unwittingly work only part-time, many of them in part-time jobs. Even women who have chosen to balance housework with part-time employment can be pressured to leave these jobs.

As Lewis says, this all makes "perfect economic sense":

“On an individual level, the choices of many couples in the coming months will make perfect economic sense. What do pandemic patients need? Careful. What do older people who have isolated themselves need? Careful. What do children who stay home from school need? Careful. All of this caregiving, these unpaid caregiving tasks, will fall more to women because of the existing structure of the workforce. ”

Furthermore, as women who choose to leave work for a few years to care for very young children are well aware, it is almost impossible to return to paid work at a position of salary and status similar to the one they left. And forced withdrawal will not make things any easier.

Social reproduction? What is that? And why is this important?

This semester, I'm teaching a final course in urban studies at my university, the University of San Francisco. We focus our attention on something that shapes all of our lives: work; what it is, who has it and who doesn't, who gets paid and who doesn't, and many other questions about the activity that occupies most of our time on this planet. We borrow a useful concept from Marxist feminists: “social reproduction”. It refers to all the work, paid or unpaid, that someone has to do so that workers can show up for their jobs and perform the tasks that generate a wage, while employers benefit.

It's called reproduction because it reproduces workers, both biologically and in terms of daily effort, so that they can recover enough to do it again tomorrow. It's social reproduction, because nobody can do it alone and different societies find different ways to do it.

What is included in social reproduction? There are obvious things any worker needs: food, clothes, sleep (and a safe place to sleep), not to mention a certain level of hygiene. Have more. Leisure (recreation) is part of this, because it “recreates” a person capable of working effectively. Education, healthcare, childcare, cooking, cleaning, buying or producing food and clothing – all of these are crucial to keeping workers and their jobs. If you want to learn more about it, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recenting Oppression by Tithi Bhattacharya is a good starting point.

What does all this have to do with our pandemic moment? The way social reproduction is organized in the United States leaves some people more vulnerable than others in times of economic crisis. To cite one example, for many decades restaurants have taken over and collectivized (for profit) significant portions of the work of preparing, serving, and cleaning food, acts that were once largely done at home. For working women, in some cases, the availability of cheap takeaways has replaced the need to plan, buy and prepare meals seven days a week. Food service is a stratified sector that ranges from high-end establishments to fast food establishments, but includes many low-wage workers who have now lost their jobs, while those still working in take-out or supermarkets risk health so others can eat.

One way that dual-income working couples in the United States coped with the tasks of social reproduction was by outsourcing important parts of their work to poorer women. Fighting over who gets to do the cleaning and laundry at home? Don't make your woman do everything. Hire another woman to do it for you. Do you want to have children and develop a career? Hire a nanny.

Of course, the cleaning lady and nanny in your home will likely have to do their own social nurturing work when they return to their own homes. And now that your kids aren't going to school, somehow they'll have to take care of themselves too. However, in many cases this will be possible because your work is not considered an “essential service” based on some states’ stay-at-home orders. Therefore, they will lose their income.

At least here in California, many of the women doing these jobs are undocumented immigrants. When the Trump administration and Congress finally pass a relief bill, they, like many casual restaurant workers, don't get the funds they desperately need to pay rent or buy food. Immigrant rights organizations are trying to step in to make up some of the shortfall, but what they finally get won't be enough. Fortunately, immigrant workers are among the most resourceful people in the country or they wouldn't have made it this far.

There is one more type of social reproduction work done primarily by women that, by its very nature, is the opposite of “social distancing”: sex work. You can be sure that no rescue project will include some of the country's poorest women, those who work as prostitutes.

Women at home and in vulnerable situations

It is a painful coincidence that women are confined to their homes at a time when an international movement against femicide is taking off. One effect of staying home is to make it much more difficult for women to find shelter from domestic violence. Are you safer outside risking the coronavirus or inside with a bored and angry partner? I write this with full knowledge that one economic sector that has not suffered from the pandemic is the arms business., for example, which sells ammunition online in all but four states, more than tripled in revenue the previous month. Maybe all that ammo is being bought to fight zombies (or the immigrant invasion the president keeps reminding us about), but research shows that gun ownership has a lot to do with domestic violence turning into murder.

Each week, Washington Post advisory columnist Carolyn Hax hosts a conversation hotline that offers helpful suggestions of various kinds. Over the past two weeks, her readers (myself included) have been horrified by messages from a participant caught quarantined in a small apartment with a dangerous partner who just bought a gun. Standard advice for women in such a situation is not just to run, but to prepare an escape plan, quietly gather the supplies and money you need, and secure a place to go. Mandatory stay-at-home orders, while necessary to flatten the curve of this pandemic, could indirectly cause an increase in domestic femicides.

As if women haven't already been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic, Senate Republicans are trying to squeeze a little extra misogyny into their version of a bill. In the same month that Pakistani women risked their lives in protests under the slogan "Mera jism, meri marzi" ("My body, my choice"), Republicans want to use the pandemic in another attempt to stop, that's right, clinics. of family planning.

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent recently revealed that the proposed $350 billion to support small businesses that don't lay off workers will exclude nonprofit organizations that receive Medicaid funds. Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide health care to millions of uninsured or underinsured women, are exactly that kind of non-profit organization. Democratic congressional aides who alerted Sargent to this suggest that Planned Parenthood would not be the only organization affected. They also believe that “…this language would exclude from eligibility for this financial assistance a wide variety of non-profit organizations that obtain Medicaid funds, such as home and community care providers for the disabled; to nursing homes, mental health and health centers; group houses for the disabled; and even community support centers for rape victims. ”

Meanwhile, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas are trying to use the coronavirus as an excuse to block women's access to abortion. On the grounds that these procedures are not medically necessary, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered abortion clinics to stop terminating pregnancies. Previously, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent letters to Ohio clinics banning all "non-essential" surgical abortions.

Back to normal?

When Warren Harding (who ran a notoriously corrupt government) ran for president in 1920, his campaign slogan was "a return to normalcy" as it was before, that is, before the First World War. What he meant was a return to economic dynamism. As we know, the "Roaring Twenties" provided it in great numbers until that little crash known as the Great Depression. Today, like Harding, another corrupt president promises an immediate return to normality. He's already pretty pissed off about the 15-day period of social distancing he announced in mid-March. At his March 23 press conference, he suggested that the United States would be "open for business" sooner rather than later. The next day, he suggested the country reopen for business on Easter (a "very special day for me"), saying he wants to see "full churches across the country." It cannot wait until everything, including our deeply unequal health and economic systems, returns to normal as it was before the spread of the coronavirus; that is, until we are again unprepared for the next inevitable crisis.

Unlike the president, I hope we don't go back to normal. I hope the people of Venice appreciate the glittering canals their dolphins return to. I hope the rest of us are hooked on cleaner air and lower carbon emissions. I hope we learn to value women's lives.

I hope that instead of going back to normal, we recognize that our survival as a species depends on changing just about everything, including how we produce what we need and how we reproduce as human beings. I hope that when we survive this pandemic, the peoples of the world will take everything we've learned about collective global action during this crisis and apply it to another foreseeable crisis, the one that threatens all human life on a planet that is unmistakably warming.

*Rebecca Gordon is a professor at the University of San Francisco

Translation: Ricardo Kobayaski

translation review: Luiza Ribeiro

Originally published on

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