Podcast: ‘A Disaster for Feminism’

Why have the economic and psychological stresses of the pandemic hit women harder—and what can we do about it?

Nearly a year ago, Atlantic staff writer Helen Lewis predicted that the pandemic would be “a disaster for feminism,” and far too many of her predictions have proved true. With women leaving the workforce at unprecedented rates, why has the pandemic’s burden fallen so much harder on them? And what can we, as a society, do about it?

Lewis joins staff writer James Hamblin and comedian Maeve Higgins on the podcast Social Distance. Listen to their conversation here:

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What follows is a transcript of the episode, edited and condensed for clarity:

James Hamblin: Almost a year ago, you made some pretty prescient predictions about how the pandemic would have a different impact on women than men.

Helen Lewis: Yeah; I have an unfortunate record in journalism, which is that only my bad predictions come true. Last March, I wrote a piece called “The Coronavirus Is a Disaster for Feminism.” And the reason I said that was that I thought it would be interesting to talk to researchers about the gender dimensions of previous pandemics. And unfortunately, it’s very difficult for women when schools close and the types of jobs that women do are differently affected by pandemic responses.

So I made this prediction that for lots of heterosexual couples, at least, there would be a return to the kind of breadwinner/homemaker divide—the 1950s model of what a husband and wife do—simply because men are much more likely to work full time and, in straight couples, more likely to be the higher earner. It makes sense on a couple level if you’re really worried about one of you [losing] your job. And obviously the effects for single parents, the majority of whom are women, are far, far worse. But it’s very obvious that having all of the support that was keeping women in the workforce—grandparents, extended family, and friends—having all of that taken away, as well as schools and child-care nurseries ... It’s just like being repeatedly punched in the face by a giant bear, effectively, for women in this crisis.

Maeve Higgins: The numbers are massive in America. 2.4 million women have exited the workforce since you wrote that piece, compared with less than 1.8 million men. Almost one million mothers have left the workforce, with Black mothers, Hispanic mothers, and single mothers among the hardest hit.

Lewis: And I think we’re going to see the results of this for years and years. One of the long-term effects will be pension and Social Security contributions. If you’re not working and paying into that system, it can really affect what money you have when you retire. One of the biggest predictors of poverty in older women is getting divorced—because they lose access to their husband’s pension, and they may have had to take a career break themselves.

Well, if far more people have had to take a career break or one has [had that] forced on them by being fired, that has effects for the rest of their lives. It’s not just about the fact you’re going to find it quite sketchy the next year or two as you struggle to make ends meet. It’s going to have an impact until you’re dead, essentially.

Hamblin: Is it worse than you had imagined?

Lewis: It’s a tough question to untangle, because different countries have had very different responses, both in terms of being able to contain coronavirus and the policy response. If your case rates go up to a certain amount, you have to close schools. Britain has been much more reluctant to close schools than America, but nonetheless, they are currently closed now for all except vulnerable children. The U.S. is in this particularly bad situation [in that] it has very little federally funded leave—the employment-rights situation is very low—and it’s got a pandemic that’s been raging absolutely out of control. America is probably one of the worst-hit sets in the world, really—more so than countries which are poorer than America but have managed their pandemics better.

Hamblin: [President Joe] Biden has a recovery plan with some proposals to help working families. What do you think would be most important? What’s possible, and what could be done in coming weeks and months to try to stem some of this damage?

Lewis: The Biden proposals are interesting. There’s an $8,000 tax credit to spend on child care. Also, this idea of a much greater entitlement to paid sick leave. Both of which would be hugely beneficial: not just for the individual people involved, but also the social ability to control the pandemic. One of the problems consistently has been the idea that you have to stay at home and self-isolate. Which, if you’re in a precarious, low-paid job, you can’t [easily work from home].

Pandemic infection has often been driven by people who are too poor to do the thing that we would want them to do, so I’m hopeful that it’s possible for the Biden team to make a case that this [isn’t] feminist special pleading. This is actually about helping the whole of society manage the pandemic better. The one thing that the U.S. has been really bad at is opening schools. And I don’t know whether or not that is a lack of will, a reflection of the fact that you’re looking at individual state-level decisions, a fact that the teaching unions have been very reluctant because of huge fears about whether or not workers will be protected if they go back.

But other countries have been much more aggressive about saying: Children really suffer when they’re out of school. This is the first thing that we would reopen and the last thing that will close. And I think that America has really suffered from that. And when you look at the more fine-grained details of which women are doing worse, it’s women in their late 30s and 40s [who are] particularly badly hit, because they’re often the ones with a nine-year-old, a six-year-old, and a three-year-old. And that’s the point at which trying to do that and home working becomes just physically impossible. The New York Times did this really good thing called Primal Scream where they had a helpline that people could just phone up and scream.

Higgins: If they had the time!

Lewis: I imagine a lot of people found it very therapeutic. But one of the pictures that went with it was really fascinating. It was of a guy sitting in his home office and a woman on the phone doing a work call while also trying to potty-train the toddler. And people were very hard on the guy. And if you read the story, he was working three jobs, but that is exactly the picture that I’m talking about. You’ve ended up with breadwinner/homemaker without anybody really wanting that to happen. And I think that there will be a lot of women who feel really sore about that. They worked really hard. Women are now more likely to go to college than men in America. We’re looking at generations of women for whom having a good job and a profession has been an important part of their life, as well as having a family. And they’ve basically been told by their government and by society: Sorry, we’ll get to that if we can.