Essential women

The New York Times recently reported that American women are taking the place of men in the pandemic work force, as one in three of the jobs dominated by women have been deemed essential. Female employees dominate health care, social work, and retail, as well as the unpaid labor involving child and home care.

And it’s news!

Except it isn’t, of course. Immediately the Great Depression of the 1930s comes to mind. With many men unemployed, women took over to the point where some declared it an era of matriarchy (consider Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath). Despite unemployment statistics, women’s numbers in the workforce increased rather than decreased. In the movies, women’s roles became stronger and more nuanced (and it would be almost 90 years before they became strong again). Female students and faculty also opened new avenues in educational settings. And then, like now, their work was underpaid.

But it also happened before the 1930s. Clerical work had been a male purview prior to the American Civil War, then women took it over. From the mid-19th century onward, many entered the nursing profession, formerly dominated by men. Then consider two world wars, where women went to work in factories because so many men were at war.

It’s not that men aren’t available now — it’s that the industries which are male-dominated are the ones hardest hit by the pandemic: commerce and finance.

Consider that during the 1918 pandemic, the U.S. had similar economic problems (here’s a good source, but skip to page 20). The difficulties were short term, and began with an pay increase in many places. This benefit was also short term. Just like in the Black Death, when 1/3 of the population of Europe died, workers in demand can insist on more pay temporarily, until the traditional forces regain the strength to stop them.  Smithsonian Magazine claims that the pandemic increased women’s rights, their service convincing people to support suffrage.

Women fill the gap, then, (1) when there are not enough men around, or (2) when the jobs dominated by men are temporarily not needed, or (3) when they dominate the sectors needed most. We have the latter case now. And we know it won’t mean more respect, or more pay in the long run. But it certainly isn’t news.

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