Working class women, in many ways, have borne the brunt of the catastrophic mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and the pandemic-triggered recession in the U.S. Women are at the front lines of the pandemic as hospital workers and care workers, they have suffered disproportionate job losses, and in many communities, schools have not been open for nearly a year, causing a childcare crisis for millions. The pandemic has shined a light on which of society’s workers are truly essential, and women workers in healthcare and education sectors in particular are leading workplace struggles to fight for necessary safety measures for both workers and their patients or students.
by Erin Brightwell, Socialist Alternative
For working-class people and women in particular, starting a family has always been daunting from an economic perspective. There is no guaranteed paid parental leave, no universal childcare or preschool in the U.S., and women who have children face a significant financial penalty on their future earnings. The pandemic childcare crisis, in many regions, has taken away the one universal, free service providing childcare: public schools, which offer education, meals, physical activity, etc.
Millions are attempting to work from home while also caring for children--often an impossible task. The ongoing mental health crisis is making parenting more difficult as kids are suffering from isolation and stress, and among mothers, burnout is rampant. For essential workers who cannot work from home, there are very few choices. Higher paid workers might be able to afford paid childcare, and some have help from extended family members. But there are also many children who are staying home alone and even reports of parents who have to bring their kids to the job and hide them from supervisors in unused rooms.
Women have been pushed out of the workforce by high unemployment and by a lack of childcare, putting women’s workforce participation back to its 1988 level. The New York Times estimates that one million women had to quit their jobs due to a lack of childcare. Women who have had to leave the workforce are missing income, and time out of the workforce for childcare is one of the key reasons for the gender wage gap. Women will be paying for this childcare crisis for years to come in lost wages and lost opportunities for advancement on the job.
Unemployment and the childcare crisis is hitting Black and Latina women harder than white women. Black and Latina mothers have left the workforce in higher numbers – either because of lack of childcare forcing them to quit or because they were laid off. Black women are also more likely to work in front-line, essential jobs meaning they do not have the choice to work from home.
Women Workers on the Front Line
From shortages of PPE to dealing with the emotional trauma of caring for so many dying COVID patients, healthcare workers have faced horrific conditions over the course of the pandemic. At least three thousand healthcare workers have died of COVID, but the true number is not known as, shamefully, reliable nationwide statistics are not recorded. Amidst criminally inhumane conditions, workers, and particularly nurses, have led the fight for safety on the job. Nurses have staged demonstrations and strikes, and the National Nurses United union reports nearly twice the number of newly organized workplaces in 2020 compared to 2019. In a country where privatized healthcare creates stunning inequality, workers and patients will benefit from a more powerful unionized healthcare workforce. The nurses union has been at the leading edge of the fight for a Medicare-For-All healthcare system that would provide free healthcare for all, and that is broadly popular in society.
The upsurge in workers taking strike action of recent years was cut across by lockdowns and job losses in 2020. However, women were in the forefront of workers who did strike, with education and healthcare workers representing 75% of the workers in major strikes in 2020. This is part of a worldwide trend of women in the lead of workers fighting back against the poor workplace conditions that have been the result of decades of neoliberal cuts to social services.
Struggles for Reproductive Rights
On top of the multiple hardships to women caused by the pandemic and financial crisis, abortion rights are being chipped away. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court took away the ability of pharmacies to mail prescriptions for abortion pills--a measure that is particularly important given the danger of coronavirus transmission, and the lack of childcare. The state of South Carolina has recently outlawed virtually all abortions. While the South Carolina law has been suspended as it is challenged in the courts, this is part of a longstanding assault on reproductive rights from the right. Already, abortion access is extremely limited: 38% of U.S. women live in counties where there is no abortion clinic.
While pandemic life for working class women and particularly mothers is extremely difficult, women fighting back in their unions have been a real inspiration. With the Democrat Biden taking office along with the first woman vice president in Kamala Harris, there will be expectations that conditions for women and LGBTQ people will improve. However, the history of feminist struggle shows that women’s rights and social roles underwent transformative change because of grassroots organizing and mass struggle. The task of cementing abortion as a legal, accessible and free part of healthcare will have to be taken up by a future feminist movement. A new movement for reproductive rights, as well as free high-quality childcare and guaranteed paid parental leave can look to the gains won by feminist mass movements in Ireland, Poland and Argentina for inspiration.