At the start of this pandemic, your author here harbored a cautious optimism. Yes, businesses were shuttering. Yes, people were going to lose their jobs. The devastation, the pain, the loss cannot be overstated. But in the wake of it all, perhaps—perhaps—what would emerge was a more humane work culture that finally, for once, understood what millions of women in this country have to deal with. Those early zoom months seemed so fertile with possibility; suddenly there was no escaping the din and clamor of home life, children begging for attention or starved for entertainment, barking dogs and dinging washing machines. With the distractions of home life now inescapable, perhaps eyes would be open to how these demands disproportionately weighed on the women expected to balance them on top of work. Perhaps people would grow more understanding of the interruptions that come with having a family (something women are so often arbitrarily punished for), and maybe our work culture would come out the other side more compassionate and better suited for a balanced life.
THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS – 2020/07/24: In this photo illustration, a young woman looking for a job … [+]
But deep down, doubts remained. If we could glean anything from history, it’s that women get booted from the workforce as soon as it becomes convenient. We saw it in the aftermath of the Second World War, especially, as women had to walk away from jobs that now “needed” to go to returning GIs. The jobs, the livelihoods of men were the priority. In short, we were no longer needed, and we’d best go back where our labor belonged: the home.
There’s little to be gained in rehashing the where and how, the what and why; structural sexism exists, and anyone who insists it doesn’t has either been unusually sheltered or unusually blessed. Instead, let’s look forward, not at where we came from, but where we’re going. After the last five years, an era inaugurated with the Women’s March and pussyhats and followed through with #MeToo and #YesAllWomen, it should be clear that the problems facing women are, and will remain, in the forward ranks of the national conversation alongside race as a fault line between the progressive left and reactionary right. And that makes women’s jobs, like everything else about us, frustratingly political.
Why ought it be? Because gains for women, especially in the case of a fragile economy, are understood by a critical mass of the American people as coming at the expense of men, as if there is a zero-sum game being played rather than what the right supposedly values: the expansion of economic opportunity and, by extension, economic growth (which Republicans have been more or less maintaining can be potentially infinite for forty some-odd years now anyway). The present contraction of the market, which has seen over two million women leave the workforce and bring our participation levels down to their lowest point in thirty-three years, is going to take more than the invisible hand of the free market to correct. Instead, we face a perilous political climb.
The twenties won’t be able to escape it. Millions of women have had their jobs either taken from them or been forced out, and we have precious little reason for thinking that will be the end of things. Over the last decade, we’ve seen increasingly politically organized women, especially younger women, who will be disproportionately impacted by these losses as time goes on and opportunities dwindle. We already have so much to be angry about—concerted efforts to turn back reproductive rights, for example, or the unfair division of household labor. In these fraught and combative days reducing America to a veritable nation of anger, a loss this profound is going to be felt across the land. If, as it is often maintained (and with some degree of accuracy), that economic anxieties can fuel radicalization as communities pull inward and look for someone to blame, the economic losses women have faced over the last year—and which dwarf any single economic loss women as a whole have faced in centuries—is going to have shockwaves we can’t fully anticipate.
Here in the United States, we’ve already seen this begin to play out. Think especially about how the Black community, with Stacey Abrams at the fore, organized itself during the Trump era, building such a formidable voter mobilization effort that Georgia itself flipped. That was a response to a perceived and very real threat, already at crisis level, that heightened dramatically as the pandemic devastated marginalized communities. So too did we see increased political participation from women in the 2020 election cycle in both parties.
Women thrown out of work, and the millions more who will have to deal with the increased pressure and reduced opportunities that come with that, are a pot of water on the stove, slowly simmering as the heat grows, a political bloc that may not fully know that it already exists, waiting for the opportunity to return to the fray and fight for what’s been taken from them. The trick is going to be finding out who gets to marshal that bloc and to what aims. Economic conditions can breed powerful things; the Depression gave us the New Deal, after all, with everything that came with it: jobs for millions, mass electrification, road and infrastructure construction, and even federal support for struggling theatres. The Depression reinvigorated the labor movement, spurring hundreds of thousands to protest. But it also birthed a country that flirted actively with dictatorship and isolationism.
So too could this bloc turn sour, and one suspects a significant portion likely will, blaming other marginalized communities, for example, for their privations. That scapegoating is already well underway. Nothing magically ensures women maintain sisterhood or solidarity, or keeps us from turning on other marginalized groups; “divide and conquer” has been the best way to keep the helots in line since Sparta.
Our opportunity, here and now, is to organize ourselves. To educate ourselves. To mobilize our votes. To assert our dignity and value. To challenge norms that still insist, even in 2021, that we really belong at home when push comes to shove and treats our presence in public life as something granted out of benevolent magnanimity rather than what simple justice demands. We have the capacity to take the energy and anger that we can see over the horizon and channel it toward the wellbeing of women and girls the nation and world over. Women are extraordinary, a lever and fulcrum that a clever Archimedes could use to move the world. We must wield that lever ourselves, or be wielded by others. The choice belongs to us alone.
I am a global CEO, entrepreneur, business leader, linguaphile, philanthropist, feminist, and mother. After living, studying, and working in five countries across the