COVID-19, Economics, Feminism, Top Stories

No, COVID-19 Is Not a ‘Disaster for Feminism’

I wasn’t especially surprised to find an essay in the Atlantic calling the COVID-19 pandemic a “disaster for feminism.” But I am disappointed. It seems that the author, Helen Lewis, undervalues “women’s work” simply because it is unpaid labour. But to undervalue unpaid labour is to reaffirm corporate ideas of what constitutes valuable work. The denigration of home economics has always been a blind spot within feminism, which often champions traditionally male markers of professional and corporate success as success itself, rather than celebrating the un-corporatized nature of traditional female work. To repeat, I am not surprised by this anti-female logic at this late date, but I still find it disappointing.

There are, of course, good reasons why feminists fought to emancipate women from the home. Economic independence transformed societies, economies, and the individual lives of many women, and allowed them to pursue intellectual, creative, professional fulfillment they had hitherto been denied. However, the kind of professional and capitalistic contemporary feminism (of which Lewis is apparently an adherent) seems to require the denigration of home economics and child rearing. This is both unnecessary and, in a time of crisis, particularly unhelpful and narrow-minded.

Lewis’s article darkly undermines family interdependency itself, the very thing to which we must turn during times like these. She points out, probably correctly, that women will make career sacrifices in order to look after their families, while men, likely with higher incomes, will continue to forge ahead with their careers comparatively undisturbed. For Lewis, this is regression: “Dual-income couples might suddenly find themselves living like their grandparents, one homemaker and one breadwinner,” she writes. “Well, of course,” I think. It takes me a moment to realize that I’m supposed to find this idea offensive.

Why would anyone find a family unit taking care of its members a “disaster” for feminism? How childish—and frankly un-feminine—has feminism become that it must see childrearing and nurturing a family unit as a step down during a time of crisis? A step down from what? It often seems like it’s mostly feminists who disparage female work and praise so highly the world of corporate and professional success. (It is not men who suffer from our entry into what has traditionally been their world, but rather corporations that benefit.)

After outlining how traditional gender roles might reassert themselves during this crisis, Lewis satirizes the ideal of family life as a whole: “No one should be nostalgic for the ‘1950s ideal’ of Dad returning to a freshly baked dinner and freshly washed children, when so many families were excluded from it, even then.” She then goes on to say that single parents, mostly single mothers, who have no partner to carry the load of breadwinning or childrearing will find life “even harder” during this pandemic. Yes. Well spotted. Single mothers will have a harder time precisely because they have no ideal family to rely on. In other words, maybe we should be just a bit nostalgic for the ideal of family life in the 1950s because it—and I can’t believe this still needs to be said aloud—often works very well.

I am a single mother, and I understand perfectly what Lewis is talking about. There is no part of me that doesn’t appreciate her acknowledgement of the precarious situation in which I now find myself: stuck at home with two energetic daughters, where I’m expected to work for the next few weeks, and then, most likely, find myself unemployed for the next four months. I am a contract university instructor, with a PhD and a healthy teaching CV, but no tenure, and therefore no job security. The campus plans to shut down for the summer term, and if that happens I will have no way to feed my kids. Lewis is apparently in a position to scoff at the idea of a breadwinner walking through her front door to a freshly baked dinner and clean children. I am one of many women who is not.

As I’ve watched civilization as we know it come to a standstill over the last few days, I have thought a great deal about family networks of care and financial support. I have enjoyed seeing the Instagram stories my suburban mom friends have posted where they share creative ways to homeschool their kids and keep their households running (relatively) smoothly. I have seen the pictures of families that have drawn toward each other to weather the crisis together. Perhaps I am seeing these things through the rose-tinted filter of social media. But I haven’t yet seen any Instagram posts from mothers saying, “I’m so happy I still get to do my life-fulfilling job from home.” Rather, it’s “My life keeps getting in the way of ‘working’ from home, and oh well, pass the wine!” From these posts, it strikes me as self-evident that the reversion to more traditional family roles is the very thing helping everyone to get through this crisis. It has become obvious that the foundation of our commonwealth is more than just our capital wealth. Much more. How can family life and the roles we take so that we can rely on each other be disparaged at a time like this, when it is one of the few things we have left to cling to? What kind of petty nihilism wants to tear down the very thing sustaining us?

Lewis raises valid concerns about the likely effect on women’s lives in developing nations. She is no doubt correct to say that during the Ebola epidemic, for instance, more women died in childbirth because energies were focused on fighting the disease. Yet what Lewis fails to notice is that had hospitals not redirected resources towards fighting Ebola, many more mothers and many more children would have died from the disease. I feel her frustration, but I am baffled by her reasoning. The finite nature of our medical resources is the entire reason for a global shutdown now intended to flatten the infection curve.

I also appreciate Lewis’s heartfelt concern for those living with domestic violence. I understand the entrapment of domestic abuse because I have experienced it. But I am not so depressingly myopic that I believe these grave concerns outweigh the refuge that a family commonly provides from fear and uncertainty. I am also quite aware that women will, as we have done for centuries, bear most of the burden of domestic work and nurturing our children and—a not unimportant job—our partners and husbands. Lewis is no doubt correct, again, to say that this reversion to tradition roles will occur.

Yet it is not the reversion to these roles that we should find worrying, as Lewis does, and as do the complaining standard-bearers of contemporary feminism more generally. Rather, we should be troubled by her inexplicable undervaluation of women’s ability to act heroically in times of crisis. Lewis seems to find it somehow intolerable that women are asked to make professional or personal sacrifices in a time of national crisis—that it is unfair to impute to women the heroic ability to put others’ needs before their own self-interest. What a shamefully low expectation she must have of women, of the capacity of mothers especially, to do the noble thing—and to accept this sacrifice without complaint, and without the need for approval in the form of paychecks or professional advancement. A (tolerably) tidy house and happy children will do.

Feminism will always be a victim of social inequality if we continue to define equality with sameness. Certainly our grandmothers understood this, and they would surely have been as confused as I am by the idea that women are precluded from performing heroic acts that are the bedrock of our civilization. The return to domestic work that Lewis calls a “disaster” may be the only treatment we currently have for contingencies of the modern economy and the precarious position we now occupy between nature and the state.

A final point bears mentioning—four paragraphs into Lewis’s complaint is the callous, throwaway admission that, “Purely as a physical illness, the coronavirus appears to affect women less severely.” Interested readers who follow the link will discover that this euphemistic observation hides a sobering statistic: COVID-19 seems to be killing twice as many men as women. And what does Helen Lewis’s feminism have to say about the disaster of that particular gender gap? Not much, apparently.


Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book entitled Lovers: A Humanist’s Ode to Sex.


  1. Article: “…COVID-19 seems to be killing twice as many men as women. And what does Helen Lewis’s feminism have to say about the disaster of that particular gender gap? Not much, apparently.”

    It’s not only Lewis’s feminism.
  2. I agree with the original goals of feminism, in terms of equality of opportunity and equality under the Law. But I have grave misgivings about loose coalition of concepts which suggest we have socially constructed a patriarchy designed to keep women down. This implies that regardless of your current place in the socio-economic, going out to work is always superior to staying home with your kids. So, if I am a woman and my job is cleaning toilets should I then want to trade three hours of my time, so that some woman I don’t know gets to supervise my infant in a creche? Even in an inadvisable system of universal childcare, built upon economically trading down, an hour-for-four exchange seems like it works against my interest.

    The problem with third and fourth wave feminism is that it works against ordinary women’s interests. It presupposes that everyone has the important jobs which could accurately be described as careers, assuming that the high SES careers which only 20% of men and women occupy are some form of human universal. It’s like an investor who naturally prefers expensive high quality wood windows and doors over PVC, and can’t see why anyone would want to drive around in anything other than a BMW or Mercedes. It’s a strange form of cognitive dissonance which asserts that every woman’s life is the same.

    Plus, many women like the division of labour that sends the man out to work, with her staying home to rule the roost. Many more, a majority in fact, prefer a healthier work-to-life balance which sees them working shorter hours for to enjoy their home life, whilst their husband continues to work every hour under the sun, the Employment Gods send their way.

    And let’s be frank- it’s always the woman who decides how the money is spent, with 85% of buying decisions made by women- so it’s always the newly fitted kitchen or walk-in closets, rather than the fast car or boat for fishing trips, unless it has oars. If you’re lucky, she’ll let you buy a shed, so you can hide away when her friends come round, after an hour of being the dutiful husband- and smart if you argue that it will save you money on replacement gardening equipment.

    But the really productive, positive policies which might create a naturally more equal workplace, are often overlooked by feminists because they are so down on men, and fathers in particular. Fathers have an incredibly beneficial effect on children. They increase their genetic longevity, by lengthening telomeres. They improve cognitive and motor skills in children, probably through the mechanism of rough play. In other words, they raise the IQ of your child, especially if they are from a high SES background. Fathers teach children to engage with the world through play and having adventures, whilst women’s more maternal instincts naturally tend to focus on care.

    Fathers literally improve a child’s outcomes in almost every aspect imaginable. They significant reduce the risk of teen suicide, homelessness and incarceration, whilst increasing the chances of you children finishing high school and going to college. Their most vital role is as social enforcers within communities, reducing juvenile violence rates and making the chances of teenage boys succumbing to gang grooming techniques tiny. This is perhaps why a child raised in a single parent family in a neighbourhood with a high proportion of fathers has a higher chance of social mobility than a child raised in a two parent family in a neighbourhood with a low proportion of father. Fathers provide social immunity.

    And whilst, there are always a few odious and abusive fathers lurking in the woodwork of the social framework, as a woman, you and your children are at far lower risks from a father and husband, than from a series of transient and unreliable males. Before the British stopped keeping such records and censored the existing ones out of existence, it was found that women and children in stable married homes were 33 times less likely to be the victims of domestic and sexual abuse than single mothers and their children.

    So if you want to create a more equal and fair society, in which men and women share the load more equitably start singing the praises of fathers, and buy your husband and employer a copy of The Boy Crisis. Generally men tend to be less useful in the first year of life, although they should certainly share the load. It’s as a child grows older that fathers come into their own.

    You may know their doctor, but he will know which monsters scare your child and which superhero they really want to be. You might know their Primary teacher, but he will know exactly how high to push you daughters swing to get her excited, without getting her scared. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Let’s starts praising the strengths of fathers. Maybe if they knew how important they were to their children’s development they would spend less time at the office chasing the next promotion, and more time at home raising their kids.

  3. Of course someone would find a way for privileged upper class white women to be special victims of the coronavirus.

    I’m waiting for the third-wavers to destroy the article and cancel the author with the observation it is really black and latinx women who are the victims. 100% there will be a racial gap in mortality rates, because minority women are more likely to take public transit and work service jobs that put them into greater contact with people, and also have higher incidence of comorbidity. I mean, err, racism-sexism-homophobia.

    Then maybe the TIMs will blast the 3rd wavers with the claim it is transwomen who are the true victims, because their life-saving reassignment surgeries are being postponed, their suicidal ideations are being ignored, and their higher participation in prostitution means they’re more likely to contract the virus. If there’s one thing you can count on in a crisis, it is the circular firing squad of the left.

    Back in reality, somehow I’m getting less work done with my husband home. Probably only because I’m spending so much time thinking about coronavirus, though. It is wonderful to have the help, and feminists will be happy to hear the crisis is making it clear my husband makes a better househusband than I do a housewife. And he knows it, the bastard.

  4. It would have been an odd move to choose domestic work and child rearing as a career choice while I was studying in university, single, and childless. I am grateful for the wonderful education I’ve received, and for my job as a university teacher (which is, actually, a fairly traditional female career). The opportunity to be a stay at home wife/mother as a career never materialized for me, I guess because I was emotionally reckless and married the wrong guy. Now I must work outside of the home unless I’d like my children to starve. But believe me, as a single mom I do enough domestic work to hold it in high regard.

  5. Dear lord, your white-knighting is overpowering. Give it a rest.

    Seriously, you’re looking for sexism where it isn’t even harder than a typical feminist.

    We all know that feminists whine incessantly that they are “oppressed” by the consequences of their own choices, particularly their career choices, and that any outcome disparity is “injustice” no matter the reason. Hoisting them on their own petard is more than appropriate.

    Reddit’s famously misandrist TwoX subreddit is not only celebrating the gender skew in deaths, but also crowing about the female majority in nursing, as though women are saving the world.

    They’re extraordinarily toxic.

  6. I don’t think feminism has done a very good job over the years at teaching, that is training, young women not to marry the wrong kind of man.

    Instead, feminism seems to have been far more interested in teaching young women how to deal with things after they’ve married and bred with the wrong kind of man.

  7. Thanks for the astute observation, but I never said that it was.

    If you don’t give a “shit” that men seem to be seriously moreso disproportionately killed by WuFlu, then you’re in the same simpleton camp as these types of feminists espousing nonsense about how ‘women are more effected’. Feminism over humanism then, eh? Give yourself a well deserved pat on the back.

    Thanks for the sage advice but in my own case it wasn’t really necessary. This is all well known.
    And I didn’t say that this had anything to do with feminism. Rather I was agreeing with the author that feminism is I’ll served by these types of feminists that were spawned from it.
    I suppose that we’re even, in that I don’t give a half-arsed-fuck about you personally either.

    Wrong… again.
    I do have some fairly decent western hats and shit loads of caps though, if you really are interested?
    This does beg the return question:
    You’re a White Knight, right? Care to show us your armour collection and Feminism Defender awards?

    Your all knowing crystal ball is in need of some major recalibration, @Kiashu

  8. “Economic independence transformed societies, economies, and the individual lives of many women, and allowed them to pursue intellectual, creative, professional fulfillment they had hitherto been denied.”

    This is true. It has little to do with feminism. It has to do with the market. It has to do with affluence. It has to do with fathers being in a position to support their daughters in ways not feasible before. The first black woman to attain an advanced degree from Oberlin College, for example, did so around 1870. Her father was a successful doctor, with a practice in Washington DC.

    Fathers and mothers do not delight in limiting the freedom of their daughters, rather they submit to the limitations imposed by necessity. The weaponized chivalry of modern feminism is wickedness. It is dishonest, cruel wickedness. It threatens to break the chivalry principle itself, which will be a matter of profound regret for women, if it ever happens.

    Shut down the harpies. Do it now.

  9. Of course WuFlu hits men harder than women. Men are losing $1.00 for every $.79 women are!!!

    (I can’t take credit for that. This Covid-19 has spawned some awesome memes!)

  10. Sure. What I mean is, modern feminism is almost entirely based upon demands that women make of men, and the acquiescence of men to these demands. I call it weaponized chivalry, because women often make absurd, irrational, false arguments to support their demands, and men let the absurdity, irrationality and falsehood pass, when they would never let them pass if they were coming from other men. Men suspend the rules on which their own agreement rests, and on which they have built this civilization. They treat women as children essentially, to be indulged and mollycoddled. This is chivalry, nothing more.

  11. When discussing the ways in which young boys are being ill-served by modern culture, I always remember to mention that between their single mothers and overwhelmingly female schoolteachers, they rarely encounter men in their lives, and when they do, the men are their mothers’ boyfriends, which is to say, the sort of men who have no better options than single moms.

    That is not intended to be a compliment to the men.

  12. I agree with this comment.

    I am entering my mid-forties and NEVER wanted to have children. One of the many reasons being because I would run “shrieking for the hills at the sight of a screaming baby & dirty nappy” as @Ella-B mentioned. Luckily for me, I married a woman with a medical condition that made pregnancy very unlikely, so no problem. Well, It took 20 years but life finds a way. Oops!

    5 months ago we had a son, and my wife nearly died in childbirth. She didn’t even get to see her son until a couple days later. I spent the first 2 weeks being his sole caregiver while she was in the ICU, and then another 6 being the caregiver to them both while she recovered. In a short time I went from “DIRTY BABY DIAPERS RUN!!!”

    … to needing to help my wife use the toilet.

    At the end of this though there was a quiet pride I never would have understood any other way. And I feel a special connection to my baby boy for all those weeks where I was all he had. I would never wish what happened on my wife, but I am so very grateful I was given the opportunity to be forced to man up and get it done.

  13. No, they do not. No one in society (generally speaking) wants to hear men complaining----if we are lucky, our mothers and sisters care enough to listen. Men are expected to sacrifice silently, without complaint. It is quite sobering really to contemplate how a high IQ woman can be so oblivious of why men shut up, and put up with huge amounts of sacrifice. It’s what men do. It’s what they have done for millennia. It’s how civilization got built. The blood, sweat and tears of men.

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