Social Reproduction Amidst a Pandemic: Falling Through The Gaps in Gender Equality Left by (Neo)Liberal Feminism

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic resulted in extensive societal changes to curb the spread of the virus. These changes included temporarily closing schools and decreasing access to daycare centres, both of which place greater demands on parents. Media headlines have variously asserted that women are ‘bearing the brunt of’ and ‘being squeezed by’ the additional caring duties the current pandemic has created. As a result, some have argued that ‘the coronavirus is a disaster for feminism.’ 

However, the coronavirus is not the origin of this disaster for feminism; it simply highlighted the limitations of liberal, now neoliberal, feminist advancements towards gender equality. Traditional gender roles did not disappear upon women’s entrance into the paid workforce. The achievement of greater equality requires that we go beyond simple reforms. First, we must critically examine how patriarchal gender roles, built into capitalism, have been accepted in the past. Second, we must then collectively envision a path forward that leaves the capitalist-patriarchal gender norms behind.  

From Liberal to Neoliberal Feminism: The Establishment and Widening of Gaps in Gender Equality 

Mainstream liberal feminism in the 1960s-1990s was primarily concerned with promoting the rights of women through minor reforms to established institutions. Equality, for liberal feminists, was defined in terms of equal access to every component of the public sphere (i.e. government, education, medicine and law). At least in part, this effort was to combat ‘the problem that has no name’ (that, as described by Betty Friedan in 1963, was truly a boredom with domesticity resulting in anxiety and depression experienced by predominantly middle-class women).

With this push for equality in the public sphere, however, liberal feminist efforts have legitimated capitalist advancements that run contrary to feminist goals. Governance models shifted from state-managed to neoliberal, financialized, capitalism at the height of liberal feminist efforts. By the 1990s, there was a desire among government leaders for policies promoting greater individualism through a reduction of social benefits. This has resulted in gaps in gender equality.

Gaps in gender equality can be seen both horizontally (between men and women of similar classes) and vertically (between women of different classes). Horizontally, women continue to struggle to achieve the same employment outcomes and levels of self-sufficiency as men. On average, women in Canada now have greater levels of education than men. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, 10 percent of women in Canada had no certificate, diploma or degree as compared to 12.9 percent of men. Furthermore, 30.9 percent of women had a university certificate, diploma or degree at bachelor level or above as compared to 26.1 percent of men. Despite the trend in higher education, women continue to be overrepresented in part-time employment and continue to experience a gender pay gap. While all women continue to experience barriers and limitations in the public sphere, the severity varies on the basis of profession. With traditionally female-dominated jobs valued lower than traditionally male-dominated jobs, the gender pay gap and level of part-time employment are larger in the former.

Hence, vertical inequality between different classes of women is growing in significance. Individual women have been able to make great strides in advancing their careers largely at the expense of racialized and lower-class women. Harriet Taylor in 1868 argued that men and women should be competitive equals in the public sphere but failed to theorize what the private sphere might look like with women entering into the public sphere. In reality, higher income women have become the employers of racialized and lower-income women as domestic servants, live-in caregivers, and child care takers (regulated and unregulated). This ultimately perpetuates women’s over-representation in lower paying, and more precarious, traditionally female-dominated jobs without efforts to raise the value of this type of work.

Despite these gaps in equality left by liberal feminism, there has been a turn to ever greater individualism with the shift to neoliberal feminism. The goal of neoliberal feminists now is to achieve higher employment positions: to ‘lean in’ and break through glass ceilings. Neoliberal feminists believe that women can have it all if they simply work hard enough and the government’s failure to provide the necessary programs to change  a male-breadwinner system to a dual breadwinner system (or the single-parent system) is not identified as a problem. Failure to have it all is seen as a personal problem rather than a policy problem. Turning the focus to the private sphere in times of pandemic, conversely, suggests that the reality of having it all does not come from an embrace of individualism. 

Social Reproduction and Pandemics 

There are three key elements of what is termed social reproduction: biological reproduction, reproduction of the labour force, and practices connected to emotional, care work. The latter encompasses a large portion of unpaid work done within the private sphere of the home. Women, in the pursuit to have it all, continue to perform higher levels of unpaid care work, lower levels of paid work, and slightly higher overall levels of work as compared to men (See Figure 1). What this data suggests is that women were ‘being squeezed’ and ‘bearing the brunt’ long before the current pandemic.

Figure 1: Time Spent on Work by Gender (Minutes/Day)

Critical feminist scholars have long discussed the ‘crisis of care’ where the emotional care work of social reproduction has been put out of reach for many.  Within a capitalist system, women can reach higher economic positions so long as they are able to appear man-like in their dedication to work without needing to attend to care work. 

This appearance ultimately breaks down when hired help is no longer an option to keep care work hidden. As a result, while great advancements have been made since the 1960s, ‘the problem that has no name’ identified by Betty Friedan could be making a return among middle-class women in Canada. In a recent survey, Oxfam Canada found that 71 percent of Canadian women are feeling more anxious, depressed, isolated, and overworked during the current pandemic. With symptoms reminiscent of ‘the problem that has no name’, a cause of women’s problems can be found in the rapid shift in responsibilities. 

Overall, according to Statistics Canada data, men’s employment levels have been less negatively impacted by the pandemic than women’s employment levels. These statistics have led to the declaration of a ‘she-cession’. The Royal Bank of Canada has reported that women’s labour force participation rate is at its lowest in three decades, falling from an all-time high before the pandemic. All women with children, given social norms, are likely to now face even greater levels of unpaid work. 

However, not all women experience equal financial repercussions. Research shows that women with children and the lowest incomes have seen substantial job losses whereas women with children and high incomes have only experienced marginal job losses. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), set to end on August 29th, will leave low-income women who have lost work increasingly vulnerable. Many of these women do not qualify for Employment Insurance (EI) under existing rules that frequently exclude part-time and precarious workers. Thus, while middle and upper-income women experience a return of ‘the problem that has no name’, lower-income women who previously alleviated ‘the problem’ will experience greater levels of poverty. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

(Neo)liberal feminism is not revolutionary; it works within patriarchal structures and institutions. To avoid upper and middle-class women developing “the problem that has no name” as well as lower-class women falling deeper into poverty (further increasing vertical inequality) when crises occur, we need to abandon small reform tactics. We must recognize that the liberation of women and the achievement of equality between the sexes goes well beyond participation in the public sphere. In reality, ‘having it all’ does not come from rapid individualism. Rather, it does in fact require substantial transformation that corrects the imbalances such as those illustrated by figure 1.

To do this, we can look to more revolution-oriented Marxist / socialist feminist ideas and initiatives. In the 1970s, the Wages for Housework campaign supplied a Marxist argument for understanding unpaid social reproductive care work as a highly exploitive job that required women to form an inclusive union to fight for wages and better support systems (i.e. establishing socialized and collectivized housework schemes and disengaging from the unpaid feminine role supporting capitalist accumulation). More recently, socialist feminists have advocated for greater use of women’s strikes and the establishment of a movement representing feminism for the 99%.  

The current neoliberal model of feminism is not creating true equality for any women, regardless of class. If women are able to unite – across class, race, and ethnicity – to move the feminist agenda away from individualism and towards collectivism, as some feminists have long tried to do, the current gaps that exist in gender equality can be filled and leave no woman behind.  

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.

Lori Oliver
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Lori Oliver is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University and a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Doctoral Scholar. Her research interests include gendered welfare state politics, poverty, housing/homelessness policies, and intersectional inequalities. Lori previously worked on community-based research projects with ACORN Canada, Adsum for Women & Children, and the IWK Health Centre. Her current PhD research is critically assessing gaps in social safety nets and homelessness initiatives that contribute to increasing levels of family homelessness.

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