By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — The virus doesn’t discriminate but the disease does. COVID-19 is reversing progress on gender equality and women’s rights, according to Dr. Beatrice Duncan with U.N. Women.

“We have seen a three-fold spike in the incidence of domestic violence. We are seeing situations in which women are being abused not only by their husbands but sometimes by their adolescent children,” Duncan said.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason is President and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The IWPR is a think tank devoted to winning economic equity for women and eliminating barriers to women’s full participation in the workforce.

Duncan said women are not getting the protection they need from the police who are frontline workers and unable to respond to their needs. Courts are shut down, too, and women are not getting protection orders they need and not getting maintenance for themselves or their children. 

“There are school closures in 177 countries. This affects 1.66 billion children all over the world. Who is bearing the brunt of taking care of the children? Who is bearing the brunt of taking care of the online school sessions? It’s the women. Women bear the brunt of unpaid care work three times more than men,” Duncan said.

About 150,000 women have been widowed by COVID-19 and by law one in five can’t inherit from their late husbands. 

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington D.C. tracks women’s economic progress and is devoted to eliminating barriers to women’s full participation in the workforce. 

“This is a really an unprecedented time. It’s an extraordinary moment and one that will define us for generation to come,” said Dr. C. Nicole Mason, President and CEO of IWPR. 

Mason said just a few months ago women were celebrating that for the first time women made up 51% of the workforce. 

“COVID-19 has really exposed some of the fragility of our economy and the social and political system. Many of those things we were just talking about celebrating just a few months ago have just about been wiped out,” said Mason.

She said the economy has shed more than 30 million jobs in the last month and women were working most of those jobs in the service sector, healthcare, education, and hospitality industries. “Now the unemployment rate in the U.S. is about 16% and that figure was just 3% just a few months ago.”

Many women have been in lockdown and lost access to daycare and childcare. Some are working from home 40 hours a week. They care for children and see to their schooling. This is difficult but those women are lucky.

Mason said women who cannot work from home and who are considered essential are forced to make really tough choices between being able to take care of their family and make a living. 

“More than 3 million women are the primary wage earners in their family. For these workers, it puts them in a very precarious situation.” She said many single moms were struggling before the coronavirus hit. 

“What we know is that women were already earning less than their male counterpart in many sectors. Because women were making less before the pandemic it means they have less money in savings to ride out an economic downturn like the one we are facing not only in the U.S. but globally,” Mason said.

Dr. Estela Rivero is a researcher with Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute for Global Development. She says in the midst of the pandemic, women around the globe are bearing the burden of housework and care-giving in addition to working a paid job.

Men spend more time on paid activity than women but women work more hours per week than men. In short, women spend more time than men on unpaid activities like care-giving and housework. This is universally true although the degree of these disparities varies by country regardless of age. 

For example, in Mexico Rivero found the Pandemic increased women’s work by 6 hours per week taking care of children and cut back paid work by 4 hours per week. Men showed no change.

When family members got sick, caregiving by women increased to 14 hours and they got 5 hours less sleep per week. Men did 3 more hours of housework, 5 hours of direct care, and also lost 5 hours of sleep. Rivero said it’s difficult to predict what permanent changes will emerge as a result from COVID-19.

“There is a positive note. As household members are spending more time at home they may be more able to see what women do. And this might help make women’s work at home more visible,” she said.

Historian Kirsten Swinth looked back to the 1918 flu pandemic and drew two parallels with today. The Spanish flu killed 765,000 Americans. Coronavirus will kill at least 100,000.  And the U.S. has not seen unemployment hit such high levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Women were already organized in American cities as part of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th Century. By 1920, women got the right to vote and they played a huge role in nursing those who became sick from the flu.

“It’s comparable to the way women today are on the front lines of nursing in hospitals and nursing homes and as home health aides. Nursing was, as it is today, a profession dominated by women,” said Swinth.

Working women are widely accepted now but it was not always so. 

“An employed woman was taking a job away from a man and in theory every women should have a man to support her,” said Swinth.

She said during the 1930s employed woman faced incredible hostility and it fell particularly hard on women of color. Even so, women joined labor unions in droves and female union membership increased by 300% in the face of severe unemployment during the Great Depression.

Swinth said housewives became militant organizers of consumer strikes that became a nationwide uprising of mothers against the high cost of living. 

“You had mothers in New York, in Richmond, Virginia, in Los Angeles—all across the country. You had immigrant and native-born mothers. You had black and white mothers, Jewish and Christian mothers. It was truly a broad-based nationwide movement.” 

“These women staged anti-eviction protests, consumer boycotts, rent strikes, protests for better education and affordable public housing. They created large-scale barter networks where people could trade food for labor.” 

“These activists thought government should regulate prices as well as wages to bring down the high cost of living so all American could afford decent housing and basic staples,” Swinth said. 

This article was produced with the support of Ethnic Media Services, the Blue Shield of California Foundation, and the California Health Care Foundation.