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She-cession: The hidden COVID-19 casualty

“I had just gotten the alert on my phone that the city was on full lockdown, and next thing I knew, I received an email from Human Resources telling me that I was being let go. It was a really scary time — to be entering a pandemic with no income, and my husband and I are still terrified today.” I interviewed Sandra Baynes, a Houston native and former furniture store manager of seven years, outside and socially distanced on a sunny spring day in early April 2021. The budding trees and plants around us signaled the beginning of a new season, a stark contrast to the tone of our conversation. Ms. Baynes is one of the millions of women who have lost their jobs in an economic crisis that C. Nicole Mason, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, refers to as the “she-cession.” 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, unemployment rates for women have been disproportionately high, with women accounting for over 55 percent of the 20.5 million jobs lost by April 2020, according to a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s worse, even with vaccines signaling a return to the in-person workplace, a report by the Women in the Workplace Organization concludes that one in every four women considers stepping back from the workforce permanently to focus on pandemic-related obstacles like virtual learning for children and insufficient child-care. This report also indicates that women contribute more than eight trillion dollars to the United States’ gross domestic product each year, clear evidence that women are crucial to our nations’ financial success. However, this record-breaking atrophy of women from the workplace has equal if not far more severe implications in areas other than economics. 

In her novel The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan discusses a “problem with no name that burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife” in the 1960s that manifested as extreme tiredness, desperation, unhappiness, and depression. Friedan later concludes that this problem among women was a “dissatisfaction” with a life of domesticity — they wanted something “more than my husband, my children, and my home.” Friedan suggests that relegating women to household jobs can have serious physical and mental consequences. In pandemic America, women are prioritizing the well-being of their families over their careers and professional goals. During my conversation with Ms. Baynes, she admits to feeling “guilt about leaving my eight-year-old alone with my mom to do online school. It’s already so hard, and I don’t want to make things more difficult by not being there for him.” As more women transition to domestic-centered roles, a mental health crisis similar to that of Friedan’s 1960s will likely unfold.

It is important to note that these crises, both the “she-cession” and the mental health emergency that will inevitably follow, may impact women of color more severely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that in April 2020, unemployment rates for Black women and Hispanic women were as high as 16.4 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively. Furthermore, Black and Hispanic women are returning to work at a slower rate compared to white women (The Bureau of Labor Statistics). The disproportionate impact of the “she-cession” on this group is compounded by the culturally rooted, patriarchal system that treats women inferiorly to men. The long-standing marginalization of women of color is deep-seated and well documented. For example, The Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist organization, discusses how a Black nationalist pamphlet from the early 1970s claimed that “equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in an abstract world.” In a similar vein, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Movimientos de la rebeldía y las culturas que traicionan illustrates how in her LatinX culture, it is unacceptable for wives to “expect their husbands to help with the child rearing and the housework” or “want to be something other than housewives.” The fact that these domestic expectations are reinforced by members of their own communities compounds the slow rate by which women of color are reentering the workforce following the pandemic.

So what’s next? How do we help women, particularly women of color, recover from this record-breaking recession? How do we help women feel confident and less burdened about re-entering the workforce? How do we prevent a “she-cession” from occurring again? The answers to these questions bring us both good and bad news.  The good news is that we as a society already have coherent plans for what we need to do — we can draw upon the demands of past women’s movements. For example, the National Organization for Women (NOW) Bill of Rights, published in 1967, demands “that child-care facilities be established by law on the same basis as parks, libraries, and public schools … as a community resource to be used by all citizens from all income levels.” These facilities would provide safe childcare for working mothers. The NOW also calls for “equal employment opportunity to be guaranteed to all women, as well as men, by insisting that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the prohibition against racial discrimination,” which would advocate for women, including those of color, to find jobs and remain in the workforce. The Redstocking Manifesto, published in 1969, suggests that “the poorest, most brutally exploited women” should be defined as the priority for help, and that extreme efforts should be made to “recognize and eliminate any prejudices we may hold against other women.” These past demands could help prevent the firing of women at a disproportionate rate compared to men and empower them to return to work. 

However, the aforementioned “bad news” is that these requests were first published over fifty years ago, and they have been consistently reiterated by women, but the results have been inadequate. While some emergency responses to the pandemic have been put into place to help working mothers, like the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, unemployment insurance programs, and funding for child-care, these implementations are too little too late, as millions of women are already facing the irreversible effects of the “she-cession.” Critical to future success is ensuring that these politics remain in effect well past the pandemic. These responses should not be withheld until women are in crises. They should not be withheld at all. If these pro-women policies were in place before the start of the pandemic, millions of women would still be employed today. America failed women during the pandemic. But it does not have to fail women in the future. By dedicating sufficient time, money, and resources to working women, America can not only avoid another “she-cession,” but they can also protect the mental health of women and prevent already marginalized women of color from becoming further targeted. 

Celia Adams

Williams '24

Freshman at Williams College planning on majoring in Political Science and Economics.
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