Essential Women in a Broken System

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Women are underpaid but at the same time essential to a working system during the global pandemic. Besides the general frustration, this is also a chance for modern feminism, since historically, revolutionary movements grow when injustice becomes more visible.

By now, we know that a large percentage of the so-called “essential workers” in this 2020 pandemic are women: around 60 % of nurses, caregivers, cleaning staff and retail workers are female. By now we also know that it is mostly women who opt to receive reduced wages in favour of family duties – and that the question of how to combine career and kids is mostly perceived as a woman’s task.

The conclusions drawn from these insights are various. The idea that the COVID-19 crisis means a downturn of feminist achievements is very common: “The Atlantic”, for example, wrote that the coronavirus is a disaster for feminism because the pandemic is re-enforcing traditional roles and inequalities between the genders. The sociologist Jutta Allmendinger said in an interview, “[w]omen will experience a drastic retraditionalization. I do think we will lose at least 3 decades of female empowerment. I believe that through the pandemic, many women will become traditional housewives.”

To be honest though, it doesn’t look so good for women at the moment. Women are, according to experts, more often victims of domestic violence and opting for an abortion has been made harder and harder over the recent year, with Poland being the latest unfortunate example. Studies also found that women are, in the long run, affected more heavily in economic terms by the pandemic than men (besides already earning less because of the global gender pay gap…).

But does this mean that the pandemic is really harmful to all feminist achievements over the past decades? Not necessarily, I believe.

In general, I am not the best optimist. But I learned to appreciate the radical power of discriminated minorities. When people realize what kind of discrimination they’ve faced their whole lives, they tend to get angry. However, it’s the angry women that (will) change the world!

I think it is wrong to assume that social and revolutionary movements are weakened when the social actors are going through an especially hard time. Why would that be? The relevance of these fights will become more visible: unavoidable, important and clearer to a wider audience. It’s true, it can be that our female essential workers at the moment now do not have the resources, time, or energy to protest – but it can also be that many other people now join the movement because they see that there is a hell of a lot of work to do. The seemingly radical inequalities and injustices we see today have been around for a while. The system is simply broken, but all systems can be changed.

“It is a mechanism of power and control: to hide the pain it causes for those who are not part of the powerful”, in the words of German philosopher, Theodor W. Adorno. But the pain of all these women, who suffered bad working conditions and being underpaid for years is now clearly visible. So where does this leave us?

If you assume the fight for equality and women’s rights is now forgotten or on the backburner is underestimating what feminism actually is: the rebellion against and intolerance of injustice. So why would the rebellion be tamed, when the inequalities continue to increase? Women who realize their importance realize their power. Besides all the existing frustration and burden women have to carry on their shoulders, we have to add an additional layer of self-understanding which gives us new resources to fight for our rights. There is no better time than now to ask for a pay raise, more childcare facilities, and better protection from domestic abuse.

I am aware that it is a lot to ask and expect of women to also engage in a home-riot. Every rebellion needs resources. But, and that’s the point here, we should never underestimate the resource of anger. “What I want is power. But not the power to endure – I want the power to act!” Words by Susan Sontag.

This power to act will grow the more we all realize that we are not the only ones experiencing these inequalities. Collective anger, collective action: “anger that is transferred into actions and words is a liberating act of clarification.” (Audre Lorde) And there is a lot to clarify, I believe.

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  • drawing by daniel zineldin

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