The Pandemic and the Patriarchy: a Grudge List

Because you can’t think about sourdough starter and so many subscription services all the time: Here is a list of the things you can’t get out of your mind when you teach Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies during a global pandemic.

You think about essential workers — grocery employees, cleaners, nursing home and hospital workers, nurses, doctors, delivery folk, bus drivers, those providing child care for these people’s children — and you are painfully aware that most of these jobs (highly-trained medical professionals excepted) pay crap and have low benefits. Even though they were always just as important to the functioning of society as they are now. You hear them called “heroes” and you wince every time. Not because it doesn’t take real, physical courage, doing what they do. Because it feels like throwing someone in a gladiatorial ring and then calling them heroic for fighting the lions.

You think about comparable worth. You’ve always known job earnings bear zero relation to the job’s importance: just look at football players, who make millions. We can cancel their games without any harm to the fabric of society, while our poorly-paid school teachers are painfully missed on a minute-by-minute basis across America. Recently, though, you’ve also learned that in the U.S., “the greater the proportion of women in an occupation, the lower the pay,” even when those “employers’ own job evaluations” indicate that they should receive higher pay. Duties and responsibilities being equal, jobs held by more women than men are valued lower financially. And the pandemic has revealed just how damn important many of those jobs are.

You think about how the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy (yes, you know it’s jargon, but call it what it is, right?) is set up to exploit the labor of most people — but to justify that exploitation through a few reliable pieces of propaganda: (1) telling you that hard work is why some thrive and get wealthier and others do not; (2) telling you that you should not ask a good wage for care work, nurturing work, teaching work, feeding-people-and-keeping-them-alive work, because you should want to to do this work regardless of money; and (3) telling you that we can only save each other by consuming, not redistributing. That, while it is sad that some have vast advantages while others lack basic needs, it would be yet more wrong to require the most wealthy and privileged to share.

You think about how many women work outside the home in normal times, even with young families. Because, since the 1970s, more fulfilling careers have opened to women and it’s become increasingly difficult to support a family on one middle-class adult income (it was never possible for low-income folk). You know these women. You hear them talk about running Zoom meetings with their toddler playing in the background or bouncing their baby on their knee while they grade papers. You know that sometimes there’s a very good reason their husbands aren’t doing 50% of the bouncing: in many cases, they’re at work. But also, sometimes, there isn’t one.

Because habits are hard to break. Generational cycles are hard to break. Most women do the things they saw their mothers doing. If they don’t, they feel guilty. Some choose to live with the guilt, but that’s different than not feeling it.

“I know that all women have a sore called ‘Guilt over a messy house’ or ‘Household work is ultimately my responsibility.’ I know that men have caused that sore.”
– Pat Mainardi, “The Politics of Housework

You read about how men in your profession, academics, are sending more articles out for publication (the key to future promotion) than they did before the pandemic. Women, on average, are sending out fewer. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing have given men more time — distraction-free work time — and women less. (Again: on the average.) You think about Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” It’s clear same applies to writing academic articles, or other mentally engaged tasks. 

It is wonderful to think how many women had a room of their own, where they could shut the door and expect to be undisturbed until they were ready to come out, before COVID-19. And confusing that so many more men than women seem to have one now, in lockdown. What is the reason? Seriously, why?

To be clear, you know individual men are not to blame for this, exactly. Patriarchy is an “it” (a system), not a “he” or a “them,” as Allan Johnson reminds you. But still, you wish more men were drawing attention to it.

And then there are the women locked down with their abusers: wives, daughters, elders. (And yes, sons too.) You know some of these women personally. You have recently learned that

“a woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Just to be clear: not nine minutes, but nine seconds. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women.”

Nine seconds. You let that sink in a moment, shocked anew as you type it out. Then you think of all the horrifying statistics you have seen, comparing daily COVID-19 deaths to the death toll of 9/11, and to various wars. You recall, from Rebecca Solnit, that “the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides since 9/11 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the ‘war on terror.’” Those statistics are from 2013, out of date. Thanks to coronavirus, these already-high domestic violence rates are spiking. You speculate that #StayHomeStaySafe rings like a bitter joke for many.

You think about the favored chant of right-wing extremists — “Lock her up” — and how easily it slips from woman target to woman target. Many women being beaten; many women being killed by men; many women who lead being targeted and threatened. You know these things are not unrelated.

It wrings your heart to think that, unlike in countries who have come together as a united front against the virus, a loud minority of Americans seem uninterested in saving each others’ lives. But you suspect you know why. Through a combination of biological happenstance and systemic inequality, COVID-19 is deadliest for the population groups who some Americans see as contributing least, or not at all, to our economy: the elderly, the medically vulnerable, low-income people (often of color). For over a century, America has tried actively to reduce these very same populations via eugenic policies. (Eugenics is curated population control — whether through genocide, euthanasia, sterilization, selective immigration, incentivizing “desirable” childbearing, or more subtle means). To those in favor, this virus must seem almost a godsend. “The weak” are dying, and the only thing “the strong” need do is stand idly by. Without masks on.

You notice we don’t see this in Germany, who are keeping more people alive in this pandemic than almost any other nation. Nazis killed far, far more racial/ethnic outsiders, people with disabilities, and elderly folks than America’s eugenic programs (the models for the Nazi policies) ever did — but after losing WWII, Germany coped with the painful fallout of these choices. America, basking in heroic glory, never had the same reckoning. Decisions like Buck v. Bell still haven’t been overturned; the population war on the vulnerable continued. You’re not trying to claim that protestors of stay-at-home orders are consciously thinking of these things. You simply believe that those in power who support them see the value of life in economic terms.

You see echoes of this even in state and medical calculations about whose life is worth saving.

This leads you to wonder about the people in cages on America’s southern border. Are they dying in droves of COVID-19? Or still dying more slowly of the flu, exposure, and lack of medical treatment? You’re not even sure where to find trustworthy information.

You would dearly love to end this litany of depressing reflections on a positive note. Your Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies students, among others, could surely use some encouragement about now. But it’s hard to know how to take positive action during a global pandemic. You won’t march on the capitol when the right thing to do is stay home. You can call your legislature, but they may not even be in session. You know voting rights are being stripped even as we shelter in place, but you can’t really think of anything to do about it.

History is the one thing that helps you. With its tides and currents, eddies and pools. No one story has a monopoly on history, and that can be discouraging when things are going your way, and yet it is encouraging, too. You can’t depend on progress, but you can depend on change. It will come.


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