Honor Women’s History Month by Prioritizing Women’s Needs

March 19, 2021

COVID-19 has set gender equality back years, due in part to women taking on the lion’s share of extra domestic and caregiving work. This year, Women’s History Month is like none in recent memory, as the past year has laid bare existing inequities and created new ones. Policymakers have begun to fix this with the enactment of the American Rescue Plan, which acknowledges and addresses the gender disparities of COVID-19 impacts and should be seen as a blueprint for gender-conscious policymaking.

However, as Emily DiVito writes, “no single law can fully relieve the deep-rooted and unfair burdens women face in the economy”––this will require additional structural changes like President Biden’s commitment to a New Deal-like economic agenda

Building on the momentum of the American Rescue Plan, policymakers must not only take inspiration from the New Deal but learn from its failings. In particular, they must design policies to proactively reach women, especially women of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. To do so, in addition to working on plans for physical infrastructure such as roads, highways, and bridges, policymakers must think about social infrastructure such as universal daycare.


Drawing inspiration from the New Deal while heeding its lessons and flaws

FDR’s America needed bold, inventive government action to protect families, stabilize the economy, and build a more stable future. The New Deal responded to this need with government actions that directly invested in the economy and shifted power away from corporations and to everyday people.

 Although FDR told Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to “make a country in which no one is left out,” the New Dealers left in place, and in some cases built, laws and practices that excluded people by race and gender. For example:

  • The Social Security Act’s retirement insurance benefits reached the majority of women as dependents rather than as workers in their own right.
  • The government enshrined a system in which men’s jobs paid more than women’s. This was achieved by pumping money into the economy through government subsidies of enormous construction projects (largely jobs for men) and encouraging women to take on less visible work like domestic service. This was also achieved by paying women less than men in federal employment programs. 
  • In order to preserve the racially segregated labor structure underpinning the Southern economy, domestic work (mostly done by Black and brown people) was excluded from new labor laws and regulations; hours, benefits, and working conditions were private––and dismal. 

It should also be noted that gender and racial discrimination intersected in many New Deal programs, a dynamic that left Black women in particular unprotected by the already-leaky New Deal umbrella.


The stark reality for women in the COVID-19 labor market

Women have lost significantly more jobs than men since the pandemic began, essentially erasing more than 30 years of progress in labor force participation in less than a year. These job losses have been driven by disproportionate layoffs and quit rates. But the pandemic is not creating a new problem; it’s exacerbating an old one. 

The economic effects of COVID-19 have hit hardest in female-dominated industries––particularly education, hospitality, and retail, where women were already overworked and underpaid. Moreover, even women working at jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic––such as grocery stores, nursing homes, and hospitals––have unstable schedules, limited or no access to paid sick days or family leave, and low wages. This inflexibility means that when women can’t come to work because of caregiving responsibilities, they have to exit the workforce.

Women (especially those who are parents) have also been forced to take on additional burdens at home. With schools remote and childcare centers shuttered, many have had to become teachers and childcare providers—and sometimes home care aides. Without care infrastructure in place, women in the US are bearing the brunt of this care work and are consequently at a disadvantage in the labor market.


The policies we need to improve women’s lives post-COVID

Women are likely to be doubly displaced—first from the jobs they held before the pandemic, and then when the pandemic ends, from the caregiving roles they have been forced into. A successful and equitable pandemic recovery requires a workforce development system that explicitly helps women reenter the workforce after periods of caregiving in the home.

To that end, while some of these challenges are unique to the COVID-19 era, the structural flaws in the US childcare system are long-standing and rooted in white supremacist and patriarchal traditions. Centuries of forced, free, and underpaid labor done by women, and especially women of color, have led Americans to undervalue and ignore care work. Dramatically expanding access to childcare to make it easier for parents to stay fully in the workforce and raising wages for predominantly women-held childcare jobs are necessary steps if the nation is to make progress in closing race and gender wage gaps and increasing families’ economic stability.

 To truly address the ways in which race and gender intersect in our economy, we need to acknowledge and eliminate the many ways our economy is designed to keep Black women without power. As “Black Women Best: The Framework We Need for an Equitable Economy” explores, by making policy and political choices through the lens of “Black women best” (an economic principle that argues if Black women can one day thrive in the economy, then it must finally be working for everyone), policymakers can create real solutions to centuries of systemic exclusion, extraction, and exploitation. For example, Black Women Best proposes tying automatic stabilizers (like unemployment insurance and welfare) to economic indicators that include race, such as the Black unemployment rate


Learning from the past and looking forward

The past is prologue, and women are watching! This moment is not only about recovering from a pandemic and an economic crisis. It is an opportunity for a transformational restructuring of our economy, which has been built on centuries of systemic exclusions, extractions, and exploitations that hold back both women (especially women of color) and our economy as a whole. Congress should not only look to New Deal programs as an example but must also learn from their imperfections. 

We need real structural changes, like the ones discussed here, to shape economic and societal outcomes and shift power to women. And we need them now.