Feminism in Lockdown
The pandemic has foregrounded women's exploitation in the home and challenged feminism to once again go beyond middle-class concerns.
December 16, 2020
Dec 16, 2020
25 Min read time
The pandemic has foregrounded women's exploitation in the home and challenged feminism to once again go beyond middle-class concerns.
1. A Feminist Marriage is Still a Marriage. During the Obama administration, a lot of feminists were getting married and a lot of feminists were writing personal essays about getting married. Their weddings and their marriages, they insisted for a dollar a word, were going to be different. Yes, they were entering into a patriarchal institution, but, like, not in the same way. Their marriages were going to be feminist marriages.
The pandemic and its stress on the domestic space have made one thing clear: to function, let alone thrive, the nuclear family requires that someone be exploited.
Jessica Valenti was one such feminist, in one such feminist marriage. As a sign of her marriage’s progressive consciousness, she proclaimed in the Guardian, she would keep her last name. Apparently this had shocked the people around her. Not to worry, because the man she was marrying also identified as a feminist, evident in the fact that he took on half of the wedding planning labor. The marriage that the wedding commenced would flow from these same egalitarian intentions and desires.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown, Valenti has frequently written that men should commit to doing more housework, care work, and child rearing, taking more active roles in the household. Considering how frequently her writing over the past years boasted of her partner’s feminist enlightenment, and that she now maintains a gritted-teeth commitment not to discuss her personal life in these personal essays, one might be tempted to wonder how their egalitarian marriage is panning out. One can assume, though, that a feminist marriage is still just a marriage. Adding the “feminist” qualifier does not change the fact that marriage is a legal agreement in which women volunteer to be exploited and oppressed.
The lockdown has stressed out even the most dreamy of our romantic couplings, as the pandemic forced most of us into our homes and separated us from almost all external forms of support. Closed schools, phasing in and out of remote learning, have forced parents to incorporate their children’s educations into their daily routines. The social and material support of the white-collar workplace has disappeared, leaving many scrambling to recreate that office space and replace the resources, such as office supplies, air conditioning, heating, or internet bandwidth. Outside caregivers—from hired workers such as housekeepers, nannies, and babysitters to the unpaid domestic assistance of grandparents, neighbors, and friends—were also difficult to access.
As a result, many women—already disproportionately affected by furloughs and unemployment due to women’s overrepresentation in the service jobs in hotels, travel, and restaurants most directly impacted by lockdown orders—had to step away from work in order to prioritize caregiving responsibilities. It wasn’t possible for two adults to work fulltime in the nuclear household with children in the house and new domestic responsibilities, previously outsourced, to be taken care of. Thus women, who typically make less than men and are less likely to have full time employment with benefits, were forced back into the traditional mode of housewife. Without access to domestic service and care workers, themselves often underpaid and exploited, white-collar women are leaving the workforce while decades of what has been considered feminist progress unravel.
The pandemic and its stress on the domestic space have made one thing clear: to function, let alone thrive, the nuclear family requires that someone be exploited. Historically, this has been both the wife and the domestic servants—maids, nannies, housekeepers, cooks, and other domestic workers were an integral part of the middle- and upper-class family up until the mid-twentieth century.
After WWII housekeepers and maids started to disappear from middle-class households. But, rather than domestic labor falling on the wife, wives often outsourced it to dayworkers—sending tasks such as laundry out. The tech revolution has since made that labor, and the people (often women) who perform that labor, more invisible. Now we receive domestic care through the touch of a button in an app. We can order a maid, a dog walker, a taco, a fresh load of laundry, a round of groceries, or a case of wine without ever seeing the people providing these services. Not to mention, the bulk of what we pay for these services goes to the intermediary, the tech company behind the app.
The fragmentation of the work is yet another way to render the domestic worker invisible. Rather than having one person enter your house on a regular basis and perform domestic labor, a person you might get to know and who might make visible the consequences of this exploitation, dozens if not hundreds of gig workers might come to your residence in the course of a year to perform the tasks you desire. These gig workers are frequently made vulnerable through their economic or migration status. But COVID-19 has complicated this exchange. Many services are no longer safe, while others have become too expensive with the furloughs, cut hours, and unemployment of household members. Now, as always, the wife is responsible for picking up the slack.
For as long as domestic work has been a feminist priority, feminists have struggled with how to make the division of household labor more equitable. It is clear that this is a structural issue.
For as long as domestic work has been a feminist priority—peaking in the second wave, right around the time it was no longer economically or socially feasible for most middle-class households to have regular maids—feminists have struggled with how to make the division of household labor more equitable. It is clear that this is a structural issue. On average, women in heterosexual marriages put in one and a half more hours of housework a day than their male partners do—even when each partner works full time, and even when the woman is the primary breadwinner (and, one assumes, even if both partners declare themselves to be feminists). This is an issue that has persisted for centuries, and one that affects women in one of their most intimate and emotional relationships. It is worth asking whether it is an issue that should be subject to policy and public debate or something women must confront as individuals in relationships with other individuals?
• • •
2. What Is Wrong with Men? In May a story in The Lily went viral. The piece foregrounded women who were forced to leave their jobs to take care of their families and homes during the pandemic. One of the women profiled in the piece, Aimee, co-operated her own business. When the pandemic hit, her husband had been staying home to take some time off between professional projects. So, upon going into lockdown, it was expected that Aimee’s husband would take care of their three-year-old while Aimee continued to work from home. After a few days, that agreement broke down. Aimee’s husband could not keep up with the domestic obligations and Aimee was forced to shutter her business to become a fulltime wife and mother.
The story caused an emotional outpouring—primarily of rage—on social media. There had already been a few viral personal essays by women complaining that their husbands were not pulling their weight in childcare and housework during the pandemic; or not giving them enough time to write their New York Times essays about how they didn’t have enough time to write. And there were more to come. These essays echoed decades of feminist “emphasis on the ‘tyranny of maternity’… [and] the portrayal of housework and childcare as drudgery,” as Angela McRobbie summarized the feminist campaign against housework in Feminism and the Politics of ‘Resilience’. This familiar message has been pounded out by media feminists since the second wave examined some bored housewives and rebranded their ennui as “the problem that has no name.”
The responses to these essays, including Valenti’s essays mentioned above, were a white-hot collection of “What is wrong with men?” Why aren’t they helping out around the house? Why do they struggle to manage a three-year-old for the length of a working day? Why won’t they do an equal share? Why do women always have to sacrifice first? Meanwhile, a survey suggested that about one-half of the men polled believed they were doing their fair share of childcare during the pandemic, if not more; only 3 percent of women agreed.
Lenz suggested that she had a solution to the unfair division of labor in heterosexual marriages: divorce.
The personal essay approach to bringing awareness to these widespread problems has had the effect of making the solution appear personal as well. The disproportionate allocation of domestic labor in a marriage seems like a failed negotiation between partners. Men, then, should just be hectored and shamed into doing their fair share—which seems to be a popular public reaction after reading these personal essays. The Lily reports that after Aimee’s story was publicized in their piece, readers harassed and threatened her husband.
Into this environment stepped Lyz Lenz. Lenz had previously gained prominence through a personal essay for Glamour magazine that explained how, after shouldering the domestic burden in her marriage, she had gotten a divorce and would never again provide certain services to men, such as cooking. The essay was a hit. Women gathered around it online to discuss the ingratitude of their male partners and to share all they had performed and sacrificed in the name of wifely duty. “What is wrong with men?” “What is wrong with men?”
Lenz suggested that she had a solution to the unfair division of labor in heterosexual marriages: divorce. Through the family court, the legal system could enforce her desire for an equal division of labor. Her ex-husband was obligated, by law, to commit to a certain number of hours and amount of financial investment in their child. During her marriage, Lenz had struggled to find the time to work (her work was not make or break for the financial well-being of her household, but something presented as fulfilling and meaningful in and of itself). What she wanted to do was write a book; now that her ex-husband had court mandated hours of custody, she had the time and space to do so.
The result was Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women. It falls neatly into contemporary “radical” writing by middle-class white people, characteristically acknowledging that things are worse for people with less privilege, yet doing little to center those stories or take into consideration the full scope of what that worse experience might look like. The book is described as an investigation into the horrors of modern day pregnancy, childbirth, and early childcare, set against rising maternity death rates and disappearing abortion, family planning rights, and social welfare programs. But really, like most of her personal essays, the book actually is about the troubled power dynamic of her marriage. In the acknowledgments Lenz offers this dedication to the unsupportive men in her life: “I wrote this book in spite of you.”
Belabored does effectively lay out how difficult it is to be a wife, a mother, and a worker in the contemporary United States. Not too surprising, considering that we live in a neoliberal, patriarchal hellscape after all. When it comes, however, to the part of the book where one might ask what we should do about any of this, she instead writes, “Is this where I offer policy solutions? Or… where I tell us to stop making viral videos about how hard it all is and to start lobbying Congress to pass some parental leave?” But no, Lenz decides, throwing her hands up in the air, saying, “you sure as hell won't listen to me,” and giving up on the prospect of structural change.
Mainstream feminism now acknowledges structural obstacles to a fairer society, but has few ideas on how to begin to deconstruct them.
This is common within mainstream feminism, which now acknowledges structural obstacles to a fairer society, such as patriarchy and capitalism, but other than “#revolution??????” has few ideas on how to begin to deconstruct them. If the most radical solution Lenz can think of is parental leave, it’s not surprising she ignores the more imaginative domestic proposals feminism has produced: from socialized domesticity to general strikes, to the top-to-bottom restructuring of housing, family management, and childcare. What’s left, then, is survival. If women are up against patriarchy, with no end to it in sight, anything women do to survive their own patriarchal oppression—including the oppression of others—is forgivable. It is possibly even heroic. (“I wrote this book in spite of you.”)
In her personal essay about her divorce, Lenz mentions that she hired a “cleaning lady” so that she would have more time to write. Nothing about this woman—how much she is paid, what her immigration status is, what she is expected to perform and under what conditions, whether she would also like to write a book—is revealed. Nor does Lenz consider whether the solutions to her problems— family court, outsourcing domestic labor—might cause problems for the women she makes passing mention of. Nor does she consider the history of the judicial system she makes use of.
Court ordered paternal involvement—whether through payments of child support or alimony, or custody arrangements—has long been used as an excuse for the punishment and surveillance of working-class men, particularly Black and brown men. The push to force men to pay “their fair share” of family support was part of the effort to dismantle social welfare programs. If families have a man to pay their way, they won’t need the state. Men who fall behind on payments or other standards set by the court find themselves in bureaucratic nightmares, serving jail time or finding their wages harshly garnished. This is what it means to enforce that men take responsibility for their families.
This is not to say that the problems Lenz presents are not real; women are losing their jobs during the pandemic at four times the rate of men. Women suffer huge financial penalties in their work life when they have children. But Lenz ignores that that penalty is much greater for women in lower paid realms—such as domestic workers—than it is for the better paid women who hire them so they can pursue their ambitions.
• • •
3. We Should Talk about the Sourdough. Not long into the lockdown, the sourdough wars began. Now that we could no longer photograph and distribute photos of what we were eating for brunch, or selfies taken at a good angle when out with our friends (to prove to the world both that we are attractive and we know other people who like to be around us), we had to find something else to broadcast our desirability and competence to the world. So, we started to make sourdough bread and post photos of it.
The sourdough was everywhere, but it wasn’t just bread. All kinds of trophies of domesticity took over Instagram. Suddenly people were posting pictures of their gardens, large carrots pulled freshly from the earth of the raised bed garden. (My timeline primarily showed purple, yellow, or white carrots, rather than orange. An orange carrot is just so basic, you know?) Women were posting knitting and embroidery projects, everything all warm and fuzzy. Certain recipes from cookery stars quickly went viral, and people would compete to show their version of the food in the best possible light. The plating would be professional yet casual, inviting yet impressive; the countertops on which the dishes were placed would be clean and shining.
Regular domestic labor—laundry, childcare, dishes, providing sustenance for your loved ones on a budget—is still a bore, while performative domesticity has become a new professionalized sphere.
The pictures were revealing in a way other than what their photographers, I’m sure, thought. “Oh, interesting,” I would think, scrolling through a writer’s domestic display. “You have a whole fucking backyard. During a housing crisis. Fascinating.” There were granite countertops and marble countertops. There was French cookware. And the background, carefully and consciously included in the photograph, was always tasteful and tidy in a way that either said, this is someone with leisure time, or this is someone who is still bringing in a cleaner during a respiratory-based pandemic.
It seemed that these pictures could only earn status if their subject matter was frivolous. The people posting pictures of homemade bread could easily afford a $2 loaf of whole grain bread at the store. Those bragging about their homegrown tomatoes and radishes were not food insecure. No one was posting pictures of the socks they had to darn because they could not afford to replace them. The likes and the envy were reserved for superfluous domesticity—the kind of domesticity that becomes a fulfilling hobby, rather than a method of survival. A whole cottagecore aesthetic emerged, a fantasy about “returning to the land” and living a simple life where women could till the fields while listening to Taylor Swift albums and wearing spotless, white, lace gowns. (Where women could also post the pies they baked to Instagram for approval, natch.) Regular domestic labor—laundry, childcare, dishes, providing sustenance for you and your loved ones on a budget—was still a bore, while performative domesticity became a new professionalized sphere, just something else to compete at on social media.
This phenomenon is not necessarily new, other than the visibility of it. In 1989 Phyllis Palmer wrote in Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920–1945 that “making housework look like something other than work was a job requirement [for the wife], making accomplishment look effortless, a measure of proficiency. To succeed in this role, the model wife needed another woman to do the hard and physical labor.”
As Palmer points out in her book, the domestic worker wasn’t made an essential part of the nuclear household simply because domestic labor could not be done without her. In order for the wife to ascend in society, and fulfill her socially-instilled fantasies about what comprises a meaningful life, the more arduous work had to be offloaded onto someone less fortunate. This allowed the wife leisure time, but, perhaps more significantly, it offered someone that the wife could define herself against. Unlike a poor woman, the wife became a woman who only had to work if she chose to do so.
The wife became a woman who only had to work if she chose to do so, while the more arduous domestic work was offloaded onto someone less fortunate.
With the loss of the family wage, more women now work to earn enough to maintain a secure household. But the workers—the agriculture laborers, childcare workers, teachers, laundromat employees, restaurant workers, and so on—remain employed and underpaid for the ambitious middle-class woman to define herself against. Their skills and services are utilized and poorly compensated so that the average middle-class woman can pursue more meaningful work. These workers supply the foundation for the middle-class woman’s life, so that she is able to triumphantly wave around the pie she made or the book deal she received. These workers allow her the leisure time to give interviews about how she manages her “work-life balance.” All in the name of “having it all.” McRobbie writes:
The very idea of ‘having it all’ is an expression of upper-middle-class white identity: to express such a desire is to be potentially within reach of fulfilling such an ambition. … the expression ‘having it all’ also has an aggressive intent: it is a boundary-marking exercise designed to ward off and belittle those for whom it cannot possibly apply.
• • •
4. Why Can’t We Just Be More like Denmark? When feminists do envision a more egalitarian domestic life, one supported and subsidized by the state, they often gesture toward Scandinavia. There, it is believed, women walk around unburdened by their children, supported by health care, generous parental leave policies, childcare, robust educational institutions, and subsidies. Within this configuration they can relish the company of their children while wearing knitwear and lighting scented candles.
But as Gina Schouten points out in Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor, even in Denmark “significant gender inequality exists.” While family support policies effectively shore up the financial security of households, and therefore support the physical and emotional wellbeing of each of the individual members, the problems of labor specialization (paid work for men, unpaid work for women) persist.
Schouten lays out some suggestions that might help break down this division of labor and spread the work more equally between adult partners. Schouten points to studies showing that if a man is coerced into taking parental leave in the early months of his child’s life, he is more likely to do an equal amount of childcare and domestic labor throughout the rest of the child’s life. There are various ways this can be coerced, including cutting the wife’s maternal leave drastically if the man does not take his own paternal leave. It turns out that incentives such as paid leave and governmental subsidies are not enough to deliver equality. The threat of punishment to the wife by reducing her maternity leave from three months to one is necessary to get progress moving. (Think of all of the content this will provide the personal essayists: “My ex wouldn’t even take parental leave to save my paid time off!”)
Though allowing equality to men through financial means is significant to addressing feminist goals, looking to the workplace to provide those means only reinforces the dominance of the marketplace.
But there are doubts as to whether this level of coercion is smart or ethical, even if it does generate a more egalitarian society—or at least a more egalitarian middle class. Is this necessarily a better idea than the conservative forms of coercion to keep families intact, such as restricting single persons access to social welfare programs? Schouten argues against this line of thinking. She writes, “The choices individuals make about how to arrange their domestic lives and the norms that influence those choices—and that are sustained by them—play a crucial role in sustaining gender equality.” Policy is one way of interrupting those choices, or at least directing toward different potentialities.
McRobbie is skeptical of the feminist ideal of liberating women from housework to participate in the more meaningful paid work world: “Writing as a feminist and socialist, it becomes urgent for me both to make the case for and against work.” Though allowing independence from and equality to men through financial means is significant to addressing feminist goals, looking to the workplace to provide those means only reinforces the dominance of the marketplace.
So why shouldn’t the government step in and pay caregivers for their work? Valenti and other family-oriented feminists have argued that the government should pay caretakers for their work. But Schouten argues against this kind of universal benefits program:
Basic income plausibly would set back progress toward gender egalitarianism by lessening women’s attachment to paid labor: By lessening workers’ need for income from paid labor, it would free them up to do more caregiving; and without any inducement for men to be the ones to exchange paid work for increased caregiving, basic income would effectively subsidize women in making that exchange.
By hardening the division between the male breadwinner and the female caregiver, we enforce the idea that one’s sex decides the destiny of one’s work life.
Though I share McRobbie’s skepticism, I am also writing as an anarchist and believe it urgent to make a case against governmental involvement in the home. Given how U.S. social welfare programs currently operate—subjecting those within their care to heightened surveillance and bureaucracy—it is not difficult to imagine that if we ask the government to give us money to raise our children they will also insist on having some sort of investment in our children’s outcomes. After all, if you ask for food assistance, the kind of food you are able to buy and consume is strictly controlled. If you ask for housing assistance, the location of your home and who is allowed to stay there is strictly controlled.
In fact, we already have a program that pays caregivers for their care: the foster care system. In this system the oversight by governmental agencies somehow manages to be overbearing and entirely inadequate. Participants frequently abuse the system, and the outcomes of the children within the system could rarely be considered a success.
• • •
5. But Then Again, Who Cares? It has long been declared that what benefits the middle-class woman would also benefit the lower classes—the privilege would trickle down, if you will. But in reality, relieving the burdens of the middle-class woman means placing them on someone who is in a position less likely to protest.
Schouten argues that, ultimately, we need a change in our workplace culture. Work schedules and expectations have not shifted since the day of the family wage, when one person was paid adequately enough to support an entire household on one income. Now that both parents frequently must work— and each is often expected to make themselves fully available to their employers with the line between home life and work life increasingly blurred—employers need to accept the fact that there is not a housewife supporting their every employee. No one is waiting at home to do the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing necessary to keep workers healthy and available.
If we are to change workplace culture, we should first expect the government to start to provide the services we too frequently ask employers to supply as 'benefits.'
Some employers responded to the pandemic by trying to create a more compassionate workplace for parents. Some offered increased time off, more flexible hours, bonuses, and other benefits. But this came at the expense of workers without children, who found themselves picking up the work their colleagues could not complete. Without a socially acceptable excuse, such as a child’s Zoom class, childless employees could not find time off for unconventional caregiving responsibilities and opportunities. Childless employees could not take advantage of benefits unfairly granted to those who had won the heteronormative lottery in finding a spouse and having offspring. If we are to change workplace culture, we should first expect the government to start to provide the services we too frequently ask employers to supply as “benefits”—namely health and dental insurance, education and training, and retirement support. Any other benefits employers want to offer to entice qualified candidates should be offered blindly to all employees, regardless of their marriage or parental status.
• • •
It is true that it is now more difficult, more expensive, and more exhausting to raise children than ever before. As detailed in Maxine Eichner’s The Free-Market Family: How the Market Crushed the American Dream, public resources such as education, recreational spaces, health clinics, and cultural programs have been increasingly privatized, restricted, or made to be competed over. (Many public pools have disappeared, but if you pay a ton of money you can get Olympic swimming training at this private gym for your kid, and it looks great on a college resume.) Setting children up for success means training them, before they are even born, to attain entrance into certain elite universities. The means to accomplish this are expensive and time-demanding, requiring a larger investment from working parents.
Could the radical answer to the domestic 'crisis' set off by the pandemic, then, be to ask ambitious middle-class families to live within their means?
And yet…isn’t this just professional-class anxiety about being proven common or average? Aren’t they simply fighting to retain an unfair advantage and secure an unfair amount of wealth for themselves and their children? What benefits the middle-class family does not necessarily benefit society as a whole. Giving so much attention and concern to the state of the middle-class white woman, with the expectation that those below her aspire to her lifestyle, has not proven itself to be great feminist policy. Do I, as a taxpayer, and a childless worker, really want to subsidize through my tax dollars the writings of Lyz Lenz by helping to pay for her childcare? Errrrr.
The family wage was only made possible for white workers because of the racialized division of labor. White people’s benefits were provided by withholding fair pay to everyone else. Could the radical answer to the domestic “crisis” set off by the pandemic, then, be to ask ambitious middle-class families to live within their means? To not strip the resources around them, whether capital or labor or attention in the New York Times, for the good of their own families? To deconstruct this idea of “having it all” and see it for the aggressive hierarchical status-marker that it is?
We must rebuild the welfare state—not with middle-class aspiration in mind, but with an eye to supporting and validating a variety of lifestyles and traditions. McRobbie outlines the social pressure put on women to find their greatest meaning through work such as fashion magazines’ profile CEOs, politicians, models, and celebrities, while the domestic sphere is increasingly portrayed as a trap or prison. “The self-respect of contemporary womanhood, no matter how low her level of qualifications, and how adverse her circumstances, requires that she be in the workforce, and this becomes a defining mark of respectability and citizenship,” she writes. Presenting the workplace and the home as the only valid spheres for women leaves little time for community participation and organization.
Changing this will require a serious realignment of priorities, both on a governmental level and in the way feminist media decides whose issues are worthy of concern and whose lifestyles are worthy of aspiration and validation. When we judge whether the welfare state is working, and whether women are supported enough by their partners and society, I do not want to hear success stories about one woman fulfilling a lifelong dream with a six figure book deal. Instead, I want to celebrate the day when that writer calls for a “cleaning lady” to come clean her house, and that woman has the opportunity and ability to turn the work down and say, “Actually, today, you can clean your own damn toilet.”
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
December 16, 2020
25 Min read time