Column

Feminist and Under Lockdown

Most American women identify as feminists — but what does it matter if we’re all stuck at home?

Young mother holding her newborn baby in the kitchen while the father works on his laptop in the foreground.
Young mother holding her newborn baby in the kitchen while the father works on his laptop in the foreground.
Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Taxi/Getty Images Plus

It’s an irony perfectly matched to the horror of 2020: The majority of American women now describe themselves as feminists, right as they’re being pushed out of the workforce and back into the kitchen.

A new Pew study shows that 61% of women in the United States identify as feminists, with about 20% of women saying the term describes them “very well” and more than 40% agreeing it describes them “somewhat” well. For women like me, who came of age in an era when feminism was a dirty word, this is incredible news. Finally, progress!

If only it didn’t come in the midst of what is looking to be one of the biggest setbacks for American women in decades. As we’re marching in the streets, supporting reproductive rights, and embracing feminism online and off, Covid-19 has ensured that women with children are being forced back into the domestic sphere.

One study shows that mothers have reduced their working hours up to five times more than men — this is on top of the fact that women were already doing a disproportionate amount of childcare and domestic work before the coronavirus hit. Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard University, told the New York Times that those inequities are now “on steroids.” Even the United Nations is warning that women’s gains could be rolled back because of the pandemic.

But we don’t need studies to tell us what every working mother in America already knows. We’re the ones overseeing the Zoom classwork, becoming ad hoc camp counselors, and letting our work suffer in the process.

There’s no progress for women if we’re being kept from the public sphere.

At the start of the pandemic, some researchers predicted that men would step up to do more work at home. Their reasoning was that because women are more likely to be essential workers, male partners would have to pick up the slack. Three months ago, I predicted that the opposite would happen — that women’s second shift would turn into a third and a fourth — and I was right: Men haven’t stepped up at home (though they tend to believe they have).

Job losses that have accompanied the pandemic are mostly women’s, and experts fear that the gender wage gap is only going to widen.

There’s no progress for women if we’re being kept from the public sphere. That said, at the end of the day, this isn’t a “women’s issue” as much as it is men’s. If men treated their responsibilities at home as anything other than optional, women would not be in danger of losing decades of progress.

And so while I’m thrilled that the cultural attitude toward feminism has shifted, I have to wonder — does it matter how many women call themselves feminists if our political values end at our doorstep?

Feminist author & columnist. Native NYer, pasta enthusiast.

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