With Schools and Daycare Closed, the Coronavirus is Worsening Women’s Inequality

tags: gender, womens history, sexism, childcare, COVID-19

Lisa Levenstein is director of women's, gender and sexuality studies and associate professor of history at UNC Greensboro. She is the author of They Didn't See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties (Basic Books, 2020).

The New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Depression, transformed the role of government in people’s lives by introducing policies such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, disability benefits, public housing and the right to unionize. The rights and social safety net created by these policies helped foster a long period of economic stability.

Yet the New Deal also shored up the inequalities in a workforce starkly segregated by race and sex. Roosevelt and his advisers focused on supporting white male breadwinners by prioritizing the kinds of jobs they tended to hold. Much of the legislation disproportionately benefited white men, excluding or offering minimal assistance to everyone else. The retirement benefits offered by the Social Security Act of 1935, for instance, covered only half of workers and 60 percent of those exempted were women. When it came time for the Senate to vote, Southern Democrats also would support the legislation only if the Old Age Insurance program excluded agricultural and domestic laborers. The result was that nearly two-thirds of all black people in the labor force were denied coverage, and probably about 85 percent of black women.

Similar battles played out over the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour workweek. Southern Democrats and anti-New Deal Republicans would support the bill only if it excluded farmworkers and domestics.

When New Dealers created jobs to put people back to work, the vast majority went to men. One of the largest public works projects, the Civilian Conservation Corps enrolled more than 2.5 million men but had spots for only 8,500 women. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed women to teach, staff libraries, preserve food and make mattresses, clothes and blankets. But even the WPA gave most jobs to men, many on construction projects.


Since the 1930s, while public policies have increasingly expected — and required — women to hold jobs outside the home, very little has been done to account for their disproportionate responsibility for child rearing and household labor. The only piece of federal legislation focused on these issues was the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new child, recover from a serious medical condition or provide care for a seriously ill family member, if you work at a company with at least 50 employees. Yet because the leave is unpaid, nearly half of those who qualify cannot afford to take it. And around 40 percent of workers do not qualify for the leave because they work at smaller companies. The paucity of policy support for childbirth and care work are the result of a system that still envisions the ideal worker as a man.

Read entire article at Washington Post

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