Rainbow Rant: Inside the she-cession

Joy Ellison
Canton Repository file photo

For women in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused what some experts are calling a “she-cession.” 

The economic fallout of stay-at-home orders, widespread shutdowns and the shift to remote learning has worsenedeconomic disparities between men and women. Women’s employment and labor force participation rates have fallen to their lowest levels since 1986. For the first time since the US government began tracking women’s employment statistics, women are losing jobs at a higher rate than men.  

The pandemic is also forcing women to perform an astonishing amount of unpaid care work, labor like childcare and housework that represent a staggering subsidy to the economy. Commentators worry that women are losing decades of progress toward gender equality. 

One of those commentators is writerKim Brooks. Brooks recently published an editorial decrying the way that additional care work, particularly childcare, has harmed mothers during the pandemic. “How meaningful was the progress we’ve made in the last three decades if it can be undone so quickly and so ferociously?” she asked.

“Feminism,” Brooks continued, “has failed women.” 

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Brooks raises important questions, but in answering them she makes the same mistake that white feminists have been making for decades: She fails to really reckon with the impact of race. 

All women suffered unprecedented job losses when the pandemic began, but Black, Native, Latinx and Asian women have endured greater losses and a slower recovery. White women are living through a she-cession, but women of color are teetering on the edge of a depression. Care labor is at the heart of the reason why.

One of the reasons the pandemic has hit women of color so hard is that they are disproportionately represented in care work and in-person service industries, sectors hit hardest by recent events. That is to say, women of color are suffering now because they were employed doing the labor that allowed other richer women to work full-time. The pandemic has laid bare the ways that the economic gains of upper-class women have been made possible by the low wages of teachers, childcare workers and home health workers, who shouldered those burdens and also the care of their own families.

“Feminism meant cheering on women trying to gain status in this broken system,” Brookswrites. But that’s never been the feminism advocated by women of color. Feminists of color have long been clear that simply entering the workforce wasn’t going to be a path to liberation for women. They knew that because they were already working outside the home when Betty Freidan gave voice to the “the problem that has no name” in theFeminine Mystique. 

Women of color were never shy about telling white and middle-class feminists thatbigger changes were needed, but today people like Brooks still aren’t really heeding their wisdom. 

Feminism isn’t failing women, only the feminists who ignore the impact of racial capitalism. 

Post-pandemic economic recovery plans must take into account the compounding economic inequities facing women of color. The Biden administration can begin to tackle this problem through a “green-plus” plan that fights both climate change and racial and gender inequalities. To do so, the administration should expand the definition of a green job to include low-carbon jobs that produce a “double dividend” by improving working conditions in the care, education and service sectors, where women of color are poised to benefit most. 

These policies, alongside universal basic income, Medicare For All and paid childcare, could be the beginning of bigger economic transformations to prioritize human needs and environmental justice, the kind of changes that feminists of color have been advocating for generations. Will we finally listen to them?