In the three weeks since people across the United States have been relegated to self-isolation in the interest of public safety, many Americans are discovering, for the first time, that women do a lot of work. And that women’s work is really hard.
Teachers should be millionaires, as many people have tweeted out of homeschooling-inflicted exhaustion. Preschool and day care providers are worthy of sainthood. House cleaners make the world go round, and nurses are literally saving it. Strippers and sex workers ― how we miss them in this era of no contact. We miss restaurants, where we can get help feeding our families and ourselves.
Now, it’s clearer than ever how vital this work is ― and who, all this time, has kept the dust from collecting, the beds made, the food hot, the weddings planned, the graduation parties organized, and the pantry stocked.
By and large, it’s women. And it took a global pandemic to realize it.
The statistics speak for themselves. Most of the workers whose labor is now happening at home are women: More than 75% of teachers are women. A vast majority of house cleaners are women, and outside the formal housekeeping industry, women do most of the house cleaning anyway, without being paid to do so.
Many of the people on the front lines of the coronavirus response are women as well. More than 90% of nurses are women, and statistics show that the number of young female doctors is rapidly rising. There are twice as many female psychologists as there are male ones, and social workers are also predominantly women. As for elder care staff ― who are particularly essential during this pandemic, since people over 65 are at a heightened risk for contracting the virus ― 90% are women, too.
The economic ramifications of this pandemic are going to be devastating for a long time to come, and even in the effort to combat the economic losses via a comparatively paltry stimulus check, less traditional forms of work ― sex work, house work, emotional labor in a time of such chaos ― have been overlooked.
But with every collapse arises opportunity. After all of this, maybe there’s a chance to truly value the work that women do, and have always done, to keep everything from sinking.
Undervalued And Underpaid
The type of work that’s traditionally done by women has always been vital ― that just hasn’t been reflected in how it’s financially compensated.
“We assume that history is made by men and that what’s going on in women’s lives is just a sideshow: that men create prosperity and women simply benefit from it,” Professor Victoria Batemen wrote in her 2019 book “The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich.”
“Women’s freedom is all too often seen as a by-product of growth, rather than as an underlying driver,” Bateman said.
Mainstream U.S. politics ― if not the Republican Party ― has accepted that a policy response is needed to combat gender inequality. Traditional measures would include strengthening teachers and nurses unions and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have sought to amend the pay gap for women of color in particular, and detailed plans to do so when they ran for president.
“We assume that history is made by men and that what’s going on in women’s lives is just a sideshow: that men create prosperity and women simply benefit from it.”
But more grassroots, radical approaches are also circulating ― and might find eager proponents amid the worst health and economic crisis in a generation.
Five years ago, Lauren Chief Elk, Bardot Smith and Yeoshin Lourdes started one of those movements: the Give Your Money To Women (or #GYMTW) campaign, centered on men paying women directly for their labor, mainly through apps like Venmo, Cash App or PayPal.
To the founders of that movement, the coronavirus pandemic is proving what they have been saying for years: Feminized labor ― both outside of traditional workforces and on top of them ― needs to be compensated as well.
“I think we’re definitely seeing what ‘essential’ work in a society is, and it’s all coming back to various forms of care work,” Chief Elk said on Monday. “Whether it’s in a formal workplace or now what’s at home, as home is ground zero for everybody right now.”
“The people who have to still work their ‘real’ jobs at home, especially women, are now also schoolteachers, and the workload of cleaning and washing clothes and cooking is exponentially higher. We’re really seeing what’s still keeping people and society going, what is necessary ― it all comes back to feminized, unseen labor,” Chief Elk said.
And most workers in these women-dominated industries have historically been wildly underpaid.
“I think this highlights the fact that in our economy, feminized labor has been excluded from our modern economy,” Smith said.
To close the gender gap, society has to recognize unpaid care provided mostly by women ― and pay more for it, Bateman writes.
When women have “an unfair burden of responsibility in the home, it feeds through to create inequalities in the marketplace … by affecting women’s ability to engage in paid work and … through the way in which society undervalues the types of jobs associated with being female.”
The Case For Direct Financial Redistribution
When Smith, Chief Elk and Lourdes started Give Your Money To Women five years ago, feminists argued that it gave “feminism a bad name.”
Now that we’re all a part of a global crisis, Smith says, the tides have changed.
“Before there was a crisis, people had opinions about it ― that we were selfish, lazy, getting money for nothing,” she said. “But now everyone is in the same boat, and handing people actual money makes the most sense.”
The campaign was started by sex workers who wanted to ensure that women were compensated for all of the unseen labor they did. It spread beyond sex workers as other women started using financial technology and sites like GoFundMe to solicit payments or donations.
Now, sex workers are often unable to collect on direct payments, since they’re barred from platforms like Cash App and Venmo while others benefit from the campaign they started.
Part of why Smith and Chief Elk take their campaign so seriously is because giving money to women is arguably the most surefire way to help women escape violent situations. And in times of great economic uncertainty and rising unemployment ― especially when women are housebound ― violence in the home skyrockets. As shelter-in-place orders are announced across the country, victim services and nonprofit support are scarce.
“This goes back to how much women need cash,” Chief Elk said. “These supposed safety nets just can’t be there and cannot be reliable. But what would be reliable is if women had money for gas, and gift cards for hotels and groceries.”
“I think we’re definitely seeing what ‘essential’ work in a society is, and it’s all coming back to various forms of care work.”
Bateman echoed this, telling HuffPost over email that both violence and unexpected pregnancies can have dire effects on women’s financial security.
“So much longer-term financial disadvantage has its roots within what goes on in the home, and so the more time we’re spending at home, the more that will take its toll on women’s future,” she said. “And that’s why women who are already the most vulnerable will be the ones who suffer the most.”
Bateman trusts that the economy can recover ― but only if women are given the freedoms and rights they need to prosper.
Those freedoms and rights include higher pay for care workers and workers in other feminized industries, as well as access to affordable birth control and abortion procedures ― something many right-wing legislators are eagerly chipping away against, and using COVID-19 to do so.
But Bateman also highlights women’s freedom to choose how they make their money, including by doing sex work.
“The emphasis of policy should be on opening up options for women, not closing them down, such as by making access to birth control more difficult … or criminalizing the buying (or selling) of sex,” she wrote.
But when policymakers can’t or won’t step in to ensure financial security and bodily autonomy for women, there is still the power of cold, hard cash.
“A lot of things right now are pointing toward what women really need,” Chief Elk said. “Which is cash in hand.”