A variety of data shows that COVID-19 has had a catastrophic effect on women’s employment, and that it has been particularly punitive for mothers’ paid labor. Millions of mothers, in the United States and elsewhere, have been forced to cut their working hours, scale back their careers, and leave the workforce because of caring responsibilities. Indeed, as of January 2021, over one-third of all mothers living with school-age children in the United States were inactive in the labor force. Decades of labor force gains have been lost as a consequence of the pandemic, and women are increasingly being pushed into the home, dubbed by some as a “return to the 1950s.”
In February, Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the mass exodus of 2.5 million women from the U.S. workforce since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic constituted a “national emergency.” This is indeed a huge crisis, and one that has disproportionately affected non-college-educated women and women of color.
Yet this trend of women’s, and especially mothers’ forced exit from the workforce is not particularly new, even as it has been dramatically exacerbated over the past year. As I discuss in my book, Heading Home: Motherhood, Work and the Failed Promise of Equality, published a year before the beginning of the pandemic, mothers are almost twice as likely to leave the workforce as women without children. Even educated and well-off mothers—whose experience I recount in the book—continue to be forced out of the workforce by factors not of their own making. These factors include work structures and work cultures that are utterly incompatible with family life, the denial of requests to work part-time, gender pay gaps, precarious work contracts, lack of suitable and sustained childcare support, and stubborn social perceptions and contradictory cultural expectations about women’s role as both workers and caregivers.
This is indeed a huge crisis, and one that has disproportionately affected non-college-educated women and women of color.
The women I interviewed for my book were profoundly disturbed, even terrified of becoming a 1950s’ housewife. “I’m like my grandmother!” mused Beatriz, a forty-one-year-old mother of two, who was forced to leave her career in journalism because of precarious work contracts, unaffordable childcare, and an unequal division of labor at home. “I’m basically like my grandmother who didn’t have options and couldn’t work because she had to look after the kids!”
Helen, a forty-five-year-old former senior accountant and mother of two, was pushed to quit her job as the result of the toxic workplace that both she and her husband found themselves in. She, not her husband, however, left the world of paid labor. Helen recounts how she did everything she could to avoid falling into the housewife trap, in which she’d be expected “to have everything dusted” and “make hospital corners on beds.” However, she, and many of the women I spoke to, experienced a sense of entrapment, frustration, and deep disappointment, resonating with what Betty Friedan in the United States and Judith Hubback in the United Kingdom identified in relation to housewives in the 1950s.
The women I interviewed for my book were profoundly disturbed, even terrified of becoming a 1950s’ housewife.
Mounting evidence underscores the structural failures that have led to this dire situation. Indeed, the pandemic has dramatically—and tragically—laid bare the myriad ways that governments and workplaces have bitterly failed mothers–from the absence of paid parental leave, to the lack of affordable childcare, to the shortage of humane workplaces that are compatible with family life.
Despite the structural nature of these problems, mothers continue to be inundated with cultural ideals that consistently individualize and privatize their successes and so-called failures. The pandemic has wrought havoc on women’s (and especially mothers’) economic security, mental health, and safety. And yet social media, women’s magazines, television shows, newspapers, lifestyle coaches, wellness instructors, and some medical professionals incessantly exhort women to think positively, live in the moment, build their resilience, learn gratitude, and find happiness in small things. These exhortations work to deflect responsibility from unequal structures, whilst placing the blame for gender inequality on individual women’s shoulders. Crucially, they also serve to make it more difficult for women to demand equality in the home, in their marriages, and in society more generally.
In Heading Home, I demonstrate how, despite the fact that the women I interviewed identified the social forces that helped determine their decision to leave paid employment, they still read their “failure” to “have it all” as personal. Consequently, rather than funneling their disappointment and anger at the institutions that have profoundly failed them, or at their male partners who benefited from an “unequal egalitarianism,” they repeatedly, if unwittingly, muted their disappointment. The mothers bore the brunt of the house chores and childcare but didn’t say anything to their male partners, even when the women had a full-time job, and even when they were the breadwinners. They avoided “making a fuss” when their employers penalized them for needing to make adjustments to care for their children.
On this Mother’s Day, the harrowing accounts of mothers feeling entrapped, exhausted, and angry reverberate loudly, everywhere.
Indeed, the women that I interviewed have internalized the messages that keep telling women to be positive and mothers to be patient, to show gratitude, build resilience and not to rock the boat. “Keep calm and carry on.”
Once again, women, and particularly “covid moms,” are being commended for their incredible ability to absorb frustration. But if there was one thing I learnt from the ambitious, hard-working and incredibly able women I interviewed it is the urgency of externalizing and amplifying—not internalizing and muting—female disappointment.
The words of the suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone from her famous 1855 Women’s Rights Convention speech ring more salient than ever: “It shall be the business of my life to deepen that disappointment in every woman’s heart until she bows down to it no longer.” The crucial task ahead, then, is making that disappointment voluble and ensuring that it is heard not by a handset, but by our partners, our workplaces, our children’s schools, and, critically, our governments.
Shani Orgad is professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is the author of Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality.