As we continue to learn about the current coronavirus pandemic, one of the facts that appears frequently (no matter which news sources one consumes) is that women are suffering fewer negative health consequences as a result of the virus than men. Women are therefore well-represented among the ranks of “essential workers.” Even those who are not in this category certainly aren’t kickin’ back. Many women continue their careers from their new “home office,” but have also become de facto teachers, house managers, and on top of that, are still moms.
This is unsurprising considering that pandemics have illuminated the utility of women during outbreaks dating back hundreds of years. Each time society has leaned more heavily on women, women have in turn left their mark on history.
I first learned of how pandemics led to women playing an increased role in public life when I took a college seminar on plagues in history and literature. I was fascinated to find out that 400 years ago, women in England proved to be indispensable and were able to affect society during a plague by attaching the stigma of the plague to their fellow townspeople, including wealthy landowners. My professor, Richelle Munkhoff, who studied this topic extensively, wrote that During the Renaissance, women (mostly widows who needed to work to earn a living) were hired by their local governments to “examine and codify diseased bodies.”
Now only 100 years in the past, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 contributes to this pattern: a pandemic that affected men disproportionately while women were charged with the task of making society function by assuming positions in industries such as manufacturing, which men could not fill while they were ill or deceased. This was a major factor in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920.
So how will women who are not considered “essential workers” help write the story of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, even without leaning our homes?
I suggest that we draw attention to the “second shift,” which is the disproportionate load of housework that women do regardless of whether one or both partners are employed outside of the home. Now that many families in quarantine-like situations see both partners working from home, the “second shift” is on full display to all. While some male partners have dutifully pitched in their equal share of the housework, it is likely that many have not.
With both household adults homebound in many cases, even the household adult who is not used to seeing the work that goes into running a household has every opportunity to do so. This may be the first time that this person can actually see all of the work that goes into keeping the home running to the standard to which the family has become accustomed.
As funny as it may sound, it may not occur to a person that laundry does not do itself and used coffee mugs do not wash themselves and then magically place themselves back into the cabinet. Children, generally speaking, do not put themselves to bed, make sure they eat nutritious foods, and put on pants without being told. Such tasks may be a revelation for those who have not previously been asked to help take care of these and many other household functions.
Of course, no one wants to hear that they are a non-factor in running a household, so it is best to broach this topic in a sensitive way and without a tone of judgment (tempting though it may be for some). Perhaps ask for help with one chore and explain how it is usually done and be clear about why it needs to be done within a specific timeframe. Then show gratitude for the help so that your partner knows that the contribution is appreciated, and eventually move towards an equitable division of housework. Continue to encourage and show appreciation for these contributions even after the lockdown situation is over.
Also, show patience and be kind. In my childhood household, it took my father a while to figure out ways to help my mother with the housework, but eventually, he deployed his skills from his short-lived job as a “cook” in the Army Reserves by becoming the salad preparer at dinner. As for my own home, my husband may not have entered our marriage with an eagle’s eye for household chores that needed tending to, but he evolved into graciously helping with chores he was asked to do and eventually to sharing equally without being asked.
When women do not have to slog through as much endless housework, they have more opportunities to further their careers, pursue hobbies, or even focus on their family relationships as well as their friendships. It is an indisputably worthwhile goal and would take only a few small changes to achieve.
Just as women received the right to vote 100 years ago as of August, “splitting the second shift” will be a process that will take time. However, this “pause” on a large proportion of activity outside of the house is an opportunity to accelerate a world in which household chores are shared more equitably.