Amid all the changes that the Covid19 pandemic is bringing to our societies and will bring in future one is particularly close to the heart of feminists: the realization in large parts of society that it is care workers who are essential to survival and wellbeing of a society. Yet, far from promoting care work to become ideologically, politically and economically the centre point of our future economies, all signs point to feminist advances for women sliding back. Some fear that we will return to the 1950s as women increasingly shoulder the greater burden of unpaid care work in families and home throughout the lockdowns and, probably, in the future. Women are more likely to be employed in casual jobs which are/were the first to be slashed and will probably be the last to come back. Women are also in most families the lower wage earners and therefore keeping their job is probably not the priority. Women earn less than men and are therefore more likely to have spent their savings after this crisis. Women are also more likely to have been doing the double shift anyway: working in a job at day, caring for the family in the evening.
What is clear in this picture that this sanitary crisis shows how insufficient feminist advances have been in the past decades. ‘We work like men, but we are not married to wives’, as a colleague once said. While women have fought their way into jobs and sometimes up the career ladder, they have done so without radically upsetting the foundations of companies and institutions. Women have made place for themselves at work and, to a lesser degree, in politics – but men have not gone out of their way for that matter. As women have gained their place in the workforce and in the public realm not at the expense of men, they have only been able to break out of the house by accepting and benefitting from the outsourcing of care work to other women, whether in salaried form as nannies, cleaners and teachers or in informal form as female family networks where grans, nans and nieces baby sit and take over after school care. Parity in the workforce has yet to be matched with parity in the house. Men still do far less household work and child care, and the families where the work-care relationship has been turned upside down are a tiny incy-wincy minority. Women are also far more often single parents with children as it is still the social and legal standard that women have custody of children after a separation or divorce. Yet, this also means that in the current situation of lockdowns and social distancing or isolation they face the burden of home schooling while working (if still holding a job) alone.
Paradoxically, it is also feminists who find themselves thrown back into the carer role and who discover that their feminist lives have extensively relied on the professionalised outsourcing of care rather than on achieving parity at home. It almost seems that by providing women the chance to work and develop their own careers, patriarchal institutions have effectively undermined feminism from within. The patriarchal bargain has been far too often that both, the woman and the man in the household should have a career; not that the men would give up theirs to become father-at-home and househusband. Or, even less conceivable, that our economy and economic institutions would change and accommodate a parity household and family.
The Covid19 crisis opens up opportunities to see this changed. Not only is there a growing realization that care and education jobs are essential in our societies but also that there is a death-and-life limit to their outsourcing and privatisation. The strict barriers that capitalism has erected between home and work are practically showing how porous and artificial they are. How much gender and social division they need to be upheld. How detrimental they are to every single one of us, individually and socially. How much those feminists who have focussed solely on women-in-jobs and their careers have contributed to upholding them.
Now, that we see how detrimental they are because we are all locked up at home together, juggling work, family, care, sorrow, fear and hope, is the time to rethink these barriers. I’m not talking of neo-liberal work-life balances to increase work’s efficiency even more. I’m talking about returning to another meaning of economy, that of balancing productive and reproductive work, of thinking work, care and production together as social and collective project, not as individual self-fulfilment with a fat salary cheque for mindful but capitalist individuals. We need to use the insight that we can only get through this crisis through altruistic acts like staying at home even if I am personally not in any known risk group, wearing masks not to protect myself but others, stepping up for my vulnerable family members or neighbours or colleagues or simply others not for my own protection but for their survival. We have to find ways how we can work all the while taking care of each other, and how we can take care of each other as meaningful and meaningfully rewarded work.
Care, education and service have to be recognised as essential beyond this crisis, rewarded correspondingly and, most importantly, be seen as collective responsibilities and not as opportunities for profit and exploitation. This means changing our institutions, from our families to our companies, not forgetting our political institutions – the matter of organised activist struggle – but it also means changing our own behaviour. We have to slow down, we have to withdraw from the demands of ever greater efficiency and we have to make the case that careers are as much caring for the collective as they are ‘producing’ something. Our natural environment is already showing its gratefulness for the forced degrowth all across the world and while my facebook and twitter feed contains a range of sad and frightening and irritating news, there is also a lot more solidarity, friendliness, gratefulness and, simply, fun as people are forced to spend time with their families, with their fears and hopes, and are unable to run or work away from their undeniable presence in society.
Covid19 is not throwing feminism back to the 1950s. But it does show that there is still a very long way to go until we live in a world where productive and reproductive work will be in balance.