Feminism vs. COVID-19: How a global pandemic has failed more than just our vacation plans

By: Catherine He

TW: Mention of domestic violence and abuse

Feminism is sometimes seen as too aggressive or too intense of a term, but only by those who unknowingly misinterpret the word. In fact, more people are feminists than are willing to admit. Feminism is about more than just women. Feminism is not the degradation of men. Feminism has finally become the “Little Engine that Could”, chugging along the newly set tracks through hills and over rivers, but then COVID-19 came along and smashed the steel and bolts to pieces.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, feminism is “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.” Note that nowhere in this definition is there the belief that women are superior to all, or that men should yield to women.

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There is a common misconception that, because feminism strives to achieve equality between the two sexes, men must be discriminated against. This misunderstanding stems from the 1990s Third Wave Feminism, which, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, was made possible by greater economic and professional power that women achieved in the second wave, leading to a massive expansion of opportunities. There was a shift in perceptions of gender, with a new perspective of seeing women for their unique and true personalities – “sexual liberation” expanded to become newfound freedom to express authentic gender identity. This movement was aggressive (a means to a long sought-after end), however, a bad personality trait does not define a person, and in this case, the same prevails in that aggressive (and overdue) action does not define the movement’s values.

It is incorrect to think that feminism stands for being hateful and violent. In actuality, this thought process is exactly why feminism’s ideals have yet to be met – men are threatened by their privileged status quo potentially changing.

Feminism stands for equal standing between the sexes, with no one sex being seen as better or more competent. In order to get to that position, we must uplift a group that has historically been discriminated against.

Now, you may be thinking, “Good to know, but how does this relate to COVID-19 whatsoever? Isn’t one a social issue, while another is a health issue?” That’s a great question, and that’s exactly what we’re going to be delving into.

Workforce inequality stronger than ever

Feminism’s ideals have never been reached in the contemporary world. Thus far in the campaign for equality, there is still no country in the entire world where the sexes are seen as equal to one another. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, it will take an average of 135.6 years for women and men to reach equality on a global scale. This timeline has grown by a whopping 36 years in the time frame of just 1. This is the largest gain in a single year since the annual report began in 2006. How did this happen?

The answer is simple, yet not so simple: COVID-19.

The pandemic is a microscope and has magnified all existing inequalities. Working from home as a marketer for a global corporation is much more convenient and feasible than a job like construction; in fact, many manual labour jobs have been lost over the course of the year due to restrictions. Employees with good salaries and benefits are much better protected than those without. Self-isolation is less of a taxing experience when you have access to a large and spacious home, instead of a cramped and drafty apartment.

Yet, throughout it all, women’s independence has been a silent victim of the pandemic. This hasn’t been broadcast on the news in the same manner that massive movements such as Black Lives Matter have, but it is still prevalent, and it still affects women all around the world. Coincidentally, this is another example of common patriarchal micro-aggressions.

As explained by The Atlantic, while the physical disease of the coronavirus may not affect women as severely, with the suspension of normal life, job losses are virtually inevitable. With the closures of schools and household isolations, the work of child care is moving from our paid economy – child care centres, schools, and babysitters – to the unpaid one, which is usually women. In an essence, COVID-19 has smashed and burned the bargain deal that so many families have been relying on; the ability to be dual earners while someone else looks after the children. With the new world of online schooling, this means that children as young as 4 are being thrust away from kindergarten and back into their homes. Of course, such little kids are unable to care for themselves alone in their house, so families have no choice but to leave a parent, a member of their ‘bubble’, at home and with the children. More often than not, women end up in this position. This is because in the workforce’s internal structure, their jobs tend to be flexible and dispensable.

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Even prior to the onset of the pandemic, as investigated by Payscale, in the average heterosexual relationship, women made less money than men, and women were more likely to be employed in part-time work in comparison to their male counterparts. So when this virus decided to go ahead and sweep the globe, women were more prone to lose their jobs because part-time work is more ‘replaceable’ in that sense – employers could afford to lay off employees who only required 2 weeks of training and few prerequisites, rather than full-time workers who had years of education, experience, and training. Given the statistics, this blow hit working women the hardest.

Lin He, an established travel agent in New York, felt the same way. In an exclusive interview with The Cajor, when asked how the pandemic has affected her job, she explained, “I work less hours [now] so I earn less money. Essentially, business is not good, and the lack of working hours means less income for me and my family.” In terms of how the pandemic impacted her growth opportunities within her profession, she said that, “I am working part time as my job is a travel agent and during the pandemic travel is not common. Previously, my job was full time.” Obviously, even for the small percentage of women that were fortunate enough to be employed full-time, they have still been impacted quite heavily.

Second shifters

More and more women are now working from home and trying to educate their children, while their partners become the “breadwinner” of the family. The stereotype of “women belong in the kitchen” has materialized yet again before we even knew it was happening. While men work and generate family income, women, put out of a job or with hours lessened, now spend much more time caring for their kids. According to Childcare Canada, it’s a fact that women have always on average spent about three times as many hours on childcare when compared to men. Regarding increased hours put in towards caring for her elementary school-aged son, He says, “I feel like I have become more evident in my child’s life as a caretaker.”

The phenomenon of being an unpaid caretaker and simultaneously working is known as the “second shift”, which is exactly what it sounds like, and this has become even more prominent during COVID-19. According to Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends, women, including those with full-time jobs, do more housework and have less leisure time than male partners. Especially in March 2020, after the initial alarm of the pandemic first hit, there were memes floating about the internet characterizing suburban moms (“Karens”) into the panic-buying stereotype, crazy women on a shopping frenzy at the grocery store. However, no one seemed to notice how it was always “Karen” being featured, and never “Mike” or “Andrew”. It has become an unsaid responsibility of mothers and women to be in charge of household management, rather than fathers and men. This enormous weight of responsibility takes a huge mental toll on women in particular.

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Expertly illustrated by French comic artist Emma in The Guardian, the “mental load” within homes is the weight of always having to remember and carry out tasks, which is almost completely borne by women. It’s permanent, it’s exhausting, and it’s invisible. It’s men asking women what needs to be done, wanting to be under other management, unwilling to take a fair share of the load.

To put this into perspective, just imagine being a school principal, who is in charge of ensuring children of an entire school receive and education, but then add in managing operations and communications, without the various teachers of each department, the custodians, and other staff to ensure that things are running smoothly. It would be absolutely wild. This is exactly what second shifting women face, and this has been compounded by the pandemic. Lin He agrees with this, and says that, “Fathers and mothers work together to take care of their child, so I believe good communication and trust needs to be established.”

Silent but violent

If you or someone you know are facing domestic violence, please reach out. You are not alone.

Call: 1 800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1 800-787-3224

Text: “START” to 1 800-799-SAFE (7233)

When women’s place in society falls, it’s a given that women become more likely to become a casualty of the various side effects of inequality. However, this particular aspect of inequality has always been more unspoken when compared to other components. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Sustainable Development, lockdowns are increasing the risk of violence against women and girls. In some countries, cases of domestic violence – physical, sexual, and psychological – have increased a massive 30%.

Using the Ebola epidemic as a reference, we know that seemingly ‘just a health crisis’ can affect an entire society. Shutting down schools directly alters girls’ life chances. The longer schools are closed, the more likely it is for girls to drop out of education altogether. We also saw that during Ebola, domestic and sexual violence rose, and more women died in childbirth because resources were diverted to other health needs. As Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global-health policy at the London School of Economics, puts it, “There is a distortion of health systems, everything goes towards the outbreak, things that aren’t priorities get canceled, and this can have an effect on maternal mortality or access to contraception.”

The fact of the matter is, while governments call upon you to stay home to stay safe, home isn’t safe for everyone. According to HuffPost, domestic violence calls in Canada nearly doubled in over the course of COVID-19. With less time spent with trusted social groups, reduced trips out of the house, and abusers spying on online activity, these factors have all exacerbated the risks of being at home, when it’s supposed to be the safest place to stay. In addition, in a report published by Women’s Shelters Canada the preceding November, it has been found that victims of abuse are experiencing more severe injuries.

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Despite this uptick backed by facts and evidence, police calls related to domestic abuse and assault haven’t risen at the same dramatic rate as helplines, informs CP24. “Statistics tell us that domestic violence goes on long before someone actually picks up the phone to call the police,” Sgt. Julie Randall told the Canadian Press. “So anecdotally, I can say that often our calls are lower than what’s actually happening in the community.”

Even though we have the best interests of the population at heart, by asking people to shelter themselves away at home to stay protected from the disease, we are exposing them to a greater risk of other forms of harm.

Fight for what’s right

Just like there isn’t one single reason for the inequality of the sexes, there isn’t one defining factor that has caused us to go back 36 years on gender equality. While workplace disparities, work-life imbalance, and domestic violence are all components that have contributed to the downfall of feminism during COVID-19, there are so many other ingredients to disaster that we can’t even begin to account for.

This must change. We need to fight for what’s right.

When we’re all stuck inside our unchanging routines, you may think that there’s nothing we can really do to make a difference. However, it is exactly that ideology that has prevented us from moving forward, and it is what we need to avoid to collectively recover from the effects of COVID-19 on the quickest timeline possible. As a united front, there is so much we can do from the comfort of our homes to undo the damage.

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To all the individuals in relationships reading this, give your partner a break! You may not have been aware of what you were feeding into previously, but now you do. Reflect on your daily activities and how that plays into the hardships of your partner’s life, exacerbated by COVID-19. Keep the information on the “mental load” in the back of your mind as you’re completing your day-to-day tasks of cooking, sleeping, caring for your children. Acting on your awareness of this issue just within your own home is enough to help the cause immensely. Plus, you’ll feel good about it afterwards!

There are also a multitude of organizations that would appreciate support during these chaotic times, be it through additional volunteers or donations. Those listed below are focused on decreasing the explosion of inequality over the past year and beyond, as well as assisting those facing violence. These are mainly Canadian organizations, but those with an asterisk (*) are international.

Ending Violence Association of Canada

Canadian Women’s Foundation

The National Domestic Violence Hotline

National Council of Women of Canada

*MATCH International Women’s Fund

*Association for Women’s Rights in Development

COVID-19 hasn’t just failed our perfectly-crafted plans to travel to Bora Bora, it’s backtracked the very society that is supposed to house us all equally and justly. Now, it’s up to us to steer things back towards the right direction – towards a brighter future.

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