More than 160,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. Almost 50 million people have filed for unemployment. With dramatic underreporting of deaths and many, including undocumented immigrants, not qualifying for unemployment at all, the already unfathomable scale of this crisis is likely worse than what is being reported.
While widespread, the devastation is not being experienced equally. The murder of George Floyd triggered a mass movement that has highlighted the deep roots of racism in U.S. society, where in addition to facing rampant police brutality, black and brown people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19, incarcerated in jails and detention centers where outbreaks have spread rapidly, and being laid off.
Women are also under attack. Reports of domestic violence have skyrocketed and abortion rights are being rolled back, all while women are more likely to both be essential workers, and face layoffs. This is in addition to women taking up a lion’s share of increased domestic work and childcare as kids stay home from school.
The systemic oppression of women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and other oppressed groups was alive and well before the dual crises of the global health pandemic and an economic depression. Centuries of subjugation have made these oppressed groups more likely to face housing insecurity, work in low-wage jobs, have limited access to healthcare, and face police and state violence. Now more than ever, these realities are becoming lethal.
Increased Reports of Domestic Violence
It is well documented that domestic violence increases during crises, like during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, or even after Hurricane Harvey. Under quarantine conditions, women and other victims of abuse are forced into closer contact with abusers who can more easily monitor their behavior and prevent attempts to seek support. Globally, domestic violence hotlines have seen spikes in calls and in the U.S., calls to police departments have increased in dozens of reported cities.
In the U.S., domestic violence shelters run at capacity with long waiting lists in the best of times. With a surge in demand, already strained services are being pushed over the edge. Domestic violence service providers are overwhelmingly nonprofit organizations that rely on federal and state funding, as well as individual donations. Often, high-profile fundraising events like annual galas provide significant chunks of funding for these services; under the coronavirus crisis, many of these events have been cancelled. Add to this reduced individual donations from laid off workers and threats to government funding, in a time of heightened need, some shelters and nonprofits are facing the prospects of closing.
Attacks on Reproductive Rights
Abortion was legally guaranteed to women in the U.S. in the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, but the ruling left an opening for states to limit abortion when a fetus can sustain life outside the womb. Since then, the Republican Party, with passive statements of dissent from Democrats, has slowly chipped away at this right by passing endless regulations and restrictions.
In the past few years, a number of states have restricted abortion in direct violation of the Roe v. Wade ruling in hopes of challenging the ruling at the federal level. Trump’s appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was devastating not only because he was credibly accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, but also because it tips the balance of the court in an unfavorable direction when there is a challenge to Roe v. Wade.
Beyond legal challenges, resources for abortion have been slowly strangled, particularly in red states, by policies like the Hyde amendment, cuts to Planned Parenthood funding, and unnecessary, prohibitive regulations. In Texas for example, last year there were only 22 clinics for 29 million people.
During the pandemic, state lawmakers are using CDC guidelines that recommend banning non-essential surgeries under COVID-19 to ban abortion. Texas governor Greg Abbott led the way banning both surgical and pill induced abortions, with Ohio, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Iowa, Tennessee, and West Virginia following suit. The attorney generals from 18 states signed onto an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the Texas ban. On top of that, the coronavirus relief CARES act passed in March included language allowing the small business administration to deny loans to Planned Parenthood, and language preventing state and local governments from using funds to provide abortions.
Medical experts agree whole heartedly that abortion is in fact essential, and delays in access to abortion can lead to medical complications, more expensive (and often prohibitive) medical costs as women get further into their pregnancies, and in some cases can force pregnancies as women miss cut off dates for when medical providers will carry out the procedure.
Following legal challenges, none of the COVID-19 abortion bans are at the time of writing in effect, but they did remove access in all 9 states for a number of months. And this is certainly not the end. While a Supreme Court ruling in June struck down a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana, Justice Roberts who was the conservative swing vote has already indicated he will seek to further restrict abortion in the future.
Women More Likely to be Essential Workers, and Face Layoffs
1 in 3 jobs held by women have been designated essential under the coronavirus crisis, with women of color the most likely group to be working essential jobs. Healthcare workers, who are heroically responding to this pandemic with a criminal lack of PPE and necessary equipment are overwhelmingly women. Registered nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists, home health aides, health care workers in senior living facilities, pharmacists, pharmacy aides: all majority women. In addition, a majority of grocery store checkouts and fast food counters are run by women.
At the same time, layoffs have impacted sectors of the economy with high concentrations of women including restaurants, retail, and hospitality. Over the course of the pandemic, women have represented a disproportionate share of job losses, and have continuously had a higher unemployment rate than men.
Unpaid Domestic Work
Despite the fact that women are more likely to be essential workers working out of the house, women are still taking on the bulk of increased domestic work and childcare as kids stay home from schools. Even under normal times, if women in the U.S. earned minimum wage for work around the house and caring for relatives, they would have made a staggering $1.5 trillion in 2019, and $10.9 trillion globally, more than all the revenue of the 50 biggest companies in the world the same year.
Reports indicate that women are taking up the majority of housework under lockdown, including increased childcare demands and even homeschooling. In households with children under 12, 80% of women reported doing most or all of the housework and homeschooling.
Capitalist Origins of Sexism & Misogyny
Gender based violence, attacks on reproductive rights, economic exploitation and unpaid domestic work were crises for women far before COVID-19. Sexist ideas that lay at the basis of all these forms of women’s oppression have largely been created and perpetuated under class society and the development of capitalism. To understand how to fight oppression, particularly as women face ramped up attacks, it is important to understand where it comes from.
Early human civilizations were largely egalitarian and even matriarchal, with women playing a central role in the organization and collective decision making of communities. Labor was often divided along gender lines, but not hierarchically. Men traditionally hunted, although some women did too, and women gathered, which provided the majority of food for communities.
As early civilizations domesticated animals and crops to create food surpluses, individual groups of men were freed from production (either hunting or gathering) to oversee the storage and distribution of food. This overseeing group was the embryo of the first exploiting class, which developed private ownership over the surplus. This became a way of producing wealth, and led to the development of distinct classes (those who controlled wealth, and those who worked to survive).
Over many thousands of years, individual families replaced kinship groups as the main economic and social unit in society, where women became largely economically dependent on men. Men who now owned land and capital needed to guarantee their wealth was passed on to their children. Controlling women’s bodies was necessary to do this, and the family unit was an effective tool to enforce gender roles and expectations. This process was institutionalized and legitimized by the emergence of a state apparatus to protect the interests of the emerging ruling class.
As Friederich Engels brilliantly explains in “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State,” sexism and misogyny are not an omnipresent reality, but were constructed with the emergence of class society and the development of capitalism.
Over hundreds of years, the need for the control of women’s bodies and their relegation to the home has developed and taken on a disturbing life of its own. Sexist and misogynist ideas were created to justify the second class role of women in society, and have proved extremely beneficial for the ruling elite.
For example, today women make on average 81 cents for every $1 a man makes. That is 19 cents that a company pockets for every dollar earned by every woman worker they hire. This also helps explain the concentration of women in precarious, low wage work. Governments globally do not need to provide public childcare, public restaurants and dining, or collectivized laundry, all of which have been fought for by women workers historically, because of the sexist notion that these are women’s tasks.
Domestic violence, sexual assault, and femicide are the most lethal manifestations of sexism in which (predominantly) men inflict violence upon a gender that the society they live in has denigrated, has said is less valuable, has said is theirs to control.
The #metoo movement has helped to expose the rampant sexual violence committed by wealthy, powerful men in society. Violence against women also comes from working class men. Socialist feminists absolutely oppose this violence and seek to fight it. To do this, we have to fight the misogynistic ideas at the heart of this violence, and the economic and social system of capitalism that created and continually perpetuates them. We need to passionately challenge gender based violence, and build the confidence and organization of working class women.
Toward a World Free of Oppression
As long as we live in a society that prioritizes profit over human need, that chronically underpays women, that foments the dehumanization of women that lies at the heart of gender based violence, that traps women in dangerous and abusive situations because of a lack of social safety nets and affordable housing, we cannot end the oppression of women.
- Universal rent control and housing for all: no one should be trapped in an abusive relationship because they can’t access affordable housing, or face eviction due to economic hardship, especially under a pandemic.
- Medicare for all: including pre and post natal healthcare, and abortion services.
- Mass unionization drives in precarious, women dominated industries including retail, food service, grocery, healthcare, and education.
- Universal, free public childcare for all that need it: create tens of thousands of high quality, union jobs to provide these services
To truly rid ourselves of sexism and misogyny, we have to get rid of the system of capitalism itself.