IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

We're just beginning to understand the extent of Covid-19's feminist nightmare

Covid-19 is driving women out of work and back into the role of homemaker.
Image: A woman carrying her crying child and groceries looks back at a man heading to work with a briefcase.
Across the country, women are leaving the paid job market in record numbers.Eleni Kalorkoti / for MSNBC

Erin thought 2020 was going to be her year. "I was supposed to get my life back," she said. "I would be able to go back to work, dig out of debt and be a person again." Instead, she's supervising 14 Zoom calls a day between her two daughters, both in elementary school, as they oscillate between disengagement and meltdowns. They're barely treading water financially, but her husband's job necessitates living in a Southern California city with a soaring cost of living. "We are wildly lucky in so many ways," she said. "But it's still impossible."

Nearly eight months into the pandemic, the uneven contours of Covid-19's societal wreckage are becoming clear.

Erin's far from alone. Across the country, women are leaving the job force in record numbers: out of necessity, through the lack of funding for industries like child care, in which they are the majority of the workforce, or out of sheer desperation.

When asked to describe her family situation, Erin first responded with: "Pretty traditional," adding, "More traditional than planned." She's married to a man and has two children. Because of struggles with infertility, multiple miscarriages and precarious pregnancies, she was unable to work for several years. When her first daughter was born, she had multiple medical issues and required extensive care, so Erin continued to stay home. When her daughter went to elementary school — at a specialized school for kids like her — the cost was too much, even with financial aid, for Erin and her husband to afford child care for their younger daughter. So she continued to stay home. "My husband makes more money," Erin said, "so I've always been the default caregiver."

Rae has run an online sewing pattern business since 2010 from her home in Michigan. Her husband has a data management business that, pre-Covid-19, brought in solid although sometimes sporadic income, and Rae's work added financial stability for their family of five even when her husband took a pay cut this year. But then the pandemic sent her kids (ages 13, 11 and 6) home from school.

Since her kids came home, she has struggled to find child care providers that feel safe or are taking Covid-19 precautions seriously. It's no longer an option for her husband to pull part-time hours. So Rae's trying to wedge emailing and projects into the small crevices of her day, averaging less than five hours of work a week. "I feel unmoored and unhappy," she told me. "I can't work, which normally fulfills me, and I feel like I'm missing out on opportunities to use my sewing business to help connect people and help them feel grounded right now — let alone feel connected and grounded myself."

Every day, she said, is a roller coaster — but also somehow the same. The thing that has changed? The amount of sheer rage that's building up inside her. "I am so angry I could scream," she said. "Most of the time I just want to cry. I desperately want to return to work. But when? Right now, it feels like there is no end in sight."

At this point, we're just beginning to understand the extent of Covid-19's feminist nightmare — and just how regressive this pandemic will prove for women in general and Black women and other women of color in particular. You might be living a story similar to Erin's or Rae's. Or you might have heard stories similar to theirs. If you haven't, you haven't been paying attention: They're everywhere, and there's likely to be more of them every day.

Nearly eight months into the pandemic, the uneven contours of Covid-19's societal wreckage are becoming clear. Entrenched forms of systemic racism in the U.S. have meant that Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected, both physically and economically, by the virus. And unlike during past recessions, women are shouldering the economic burden more than men: Over September, about 865,000 women dropped out of the workforce — compared to 216,000 men. But even among women, the recession is uneven: According to September job figures, the unemployment rate is 12 percent for Black women, 10.5 percent for Latino women and 7.3 percent for white women.

If one family was dealing with this — that’s a problem. Millions of American families dealing with it? That’s a massive societal problem.

Some of those women lost their jobs. Others had to make a choice: quit or watch their already tenuously balanced family lives unravel altogether. (It's no coincidence, of course, that September was the first month many children were back in school.) Millions of families are facing these sorts of dilemmas all over the world: how to balance safety, finances, schooling and elder care — all of which is made more difficult if you throw even one complicating variable into the mix, whether it's a family member who's at high risk, a parent who's an essential worker, a special needs child or someone you love who is dying from Covid-19 or is dealing with its long-term side effects. This already unmanageable scenario is made even more challenging as day care centers and preschools are closing or shifting to older age groups. The women who run and work in these centers have lost their jobs — and safe, reliable child care has become incredibly difficult to find.

If one family was dealing with this, that's a problem. Millions of American families dealing with it? That's a massive societal problem. And contrary to the long-standing American belief that all problems can be fixed by individuals and "the markets," this pandemic has shown just how bankrupt that belief has become. Massive societal problems are solved through governmental response, response that, at least hypothetically, is accessible to all those who need it, not exclusively to those with connections or family wealth or even to the children photogenic or remarkable enough to spark viral GoFundMe campaigns.

But we don't have a coherent or sustained government response. Instead, we have a bungled business assistance program, an impossible-to-navigate unemployment system and a whole lot of companies that think making a few announcements about increased flexibility will solve the problem. Which means that the larger problem of domestic management falls, as it so often has fallen in heterosexual partnerships, to the woman.

Before the pandemic, women in the United States still made only 82.3 cents for every dollar men made. Even with the wage gap decreasing, it's still a significant gap — and when a household is faced with needing a full-time caregiver, it's the person who makes less (usually the woman) who quits her job. In Covid-19 times, it makes twisted sense: She was probably doing most of the home-school supervision anyway, even if her husband thought otherwise. She likely also carried the majority of the "mental load" — that is, the never-ending list of tasks that need to be completed for the family to function. In most of these cases, a woman isn't actually quitting work. She's just quitting the one of her jobs for which she was paid.

Many women I spoke with about quitting or cutting hours were furious about what it suggested to their children about whose work was valued and whose was not and who were worried about how they'd make ends meet financially. But they were also relieved to be stepping back from a life-juggling ordeal that, pre-Covid-19, had been deeply exhausting. For many, doing one job as a caretaker — even if they found that job boring or tedious — was a respite after years of having struggled to balance a family's schedule and needs with the demands of a job.

That doesn't mean that Covid-19 has shown that more women should quit the workforce. It means that, at least in the United States, our society — from our school schedule to our meager social safety net — is still set up for two-parent homes in which one parent either doesn't work or works very little. Parents weren't exhausted because they were both working. Parents (and moms in particular) were exhausted because they were battling that system. Now, depending on resources and ever-dwindling supplies of stamina, women are finally giving up on a game that was always stacked against them.

In most of these cases, a woman isn’t actually quitting work. She’s just quitting the one of her jobs for which she received monetary compensation.

Still, even if both parents agree to give up work, it's the mom who's almost always actually dropping out. And if we don't change the system, it always will be. The wage gap is poised to widen by 2 percentage points after the pandemic recession, and it will widen even further for women of color. If the recovery from this recession is anything like the last, the jobs added back will have less security and fewer benefits, and they will overall be more precarious. It will take years for the child care industry to recover, and it can take years for people who have dropped out of the workforce, either on their own terms or through layoffs, to regain their previous levels of pay and security.

We have to start listening to these stories now. We have to start making plans for how to address the vast, ever-widening imbalances left in their wake. These aren't personal problems or failures. They're societal ones that demand a societal response — including from those who aren't parents — that attempts to address the way we devalue women's work in and outside the home, the sustained labor imbalances in the heterosexual home, the way we support single parents and how race and location and class intersect with all of those things. This isn't a step back that can be easily regained. There will be no V-shaped recovery from the "first female recession." It will leave scars and deeper inequities that will endure for decades.