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America's coronavirus response must center on women. And the Black Plague helps show how.

As the changes in medieval Europe following the plague illustrate, when women are freed from burdens in the home, the future grows brighter for everyone.
Illustration of couple with bubonic plague
Miniature depicting a couple suffering from the blisters of the Black Death, from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images

When a major crisis threatens to destabilize the economy and society, there are two choices: We can respond by trying to keep old systems in place, or we can rethink them, innovate and create a better path to prosperity.

Attitudes and practices related to women are going to have a major impact on how we fare during the coronavirus pandemic, and full recovery seems unlikely until the challenges they face are placed front and center. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the weakness of outdated social norms and poor policy choices in the United States that have, among other things, placed painful burdens on women — ranging from unworkable family roles and a meager social safety net to insufficient labor protections and intrusions on autonomy.

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the weakness of outdated social norms and poor policy choices in the United States that have, among other things, placed painful burdens on women.

Even in the best of times, these conditions are bad for the country’s social and economic well-being. In the worst of times, they can be devastating.

It is time to recognize that female status and empowerment are critical to the country’s resilience. America can push through this crisis and emerge in a position to lead the future, but only by securing women’s equality in the home and the nursery, expanding their opportunities in the workplace and the political sphere, and insisting on their fundamental right to make choices about their own bodies.

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If such big shifts seem daunting in the middle of a pandemic, consider what happened in 14th century Europe. The plague outbreak known as the Black Death, which decimated the population, created a widespread shortage of male workers during a period when patriarchal restrictions enshrined by the Catholic Church and the social order prevented women from working outside the home. If those attitudes had not changed, Europe’s economy would have never recovered from the plague.

Instead, employers began to hire women, especially teenage girls, to fill in the gaps, and rigid attitudes began to loosen. As young women realized the ability to financially support themselves, their lives changed dramatically — as did family structures.

As the feminist economist Victoria Bateman discusses in her recent book, with this wide-ranging social reconfiguration, women gained more choices about whether, when and who to marry, and could have fewer children by marrying later — which further increased their own and their families’ economic stability.

Not everyone was happy about the changes. But women’s heightened power eventually led to a more egalitarian structure in the home and the broader society, which was reflected in more democratic institutions and governments that benefitted everyone.

This progress on women’s work and family roles, argues Bateman, helped turn northern Europe into an economic powerhouse and set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Today, many women in northern Europe still have more freedom than those in most other parts of world. Countries in that region enjoy the strong economies that go along with this advantage.

Americans can learn plenty from this historic example. Currently, the United States lags behind much of the world in women’s treatment and opportunities, ranking a dismal 53rd in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 global report on gender parity. We don’t even break the top third of 153 countries!

This plays out in plenty of destructive ways. Women are still perceived as having a greater duty than men to look after children. U.S. employers often reinforce this attitude, commonly labeling women “primary caregivers.” Fathers are seen as ancillary parents, while mothers are viewed as somehow lesser employees.

If our attitudes do not evolve, then we could sink back further into a 1950s female-caregiver/male-breadwinner model. Journalist Helen Lewis has warned that women impacted by the pandemic may feel pressured to cut back on work hours because they are expected to attend to children or sick family members, while fathers continue working.

We could instead acknowledge that in the 21st century, the talents of all Americans are required both in the workplace and the home, regardless of gender. We could insist that the United States finally adopt gender-blind parental leave, as other countries and forward-looking companies have, and support men in their role as nurturers. In the modern economy, government needs to play a more active role in providing affordable and accessible childcare, as it does in other parts of the world — allowing parents to balance their responsibilities.

In America, however, the face of poverty and low-income work is still largely female. Women represent about 80 percent of single-parent heads of households, more than a quarter of whom live in poverty. They also make up the majority of minimum-wage workers in almost every state. Imagine how much better-situated our society and economy would be right now if these women received livable wages and had access to affordable medical care.

We could start out by expanding unemployment benefits to all women who did not get them in the latest stimulus package — like those working for companies with more than 500 employees or fewer than 50. But there are bigger changes needed, such as expanding Medicare, which could play a critical role in promoting female economic security — and thus the stability of families and the entire economy.

Because caring for others is still seen as women’s work in America, it is not surprising that two out of every three paid caregiving jobs a held by a female. Yet the stimulus package leaves in limbo the non-medical home care workers who bathe, feed and provide other critical services for those that cannot care for themselves.

Women also do most of the unpaid caregiving in the United States. Research shows that the average family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman attending to her mother — labor she typically performs while working full-time. We need paid family leave available at all times, not just during a crisis, to prevent the debilitating lost wages and unhealthy stresses that juggling work and caregiving causes.

We could also improve the economic status of our elders by expanding America’s Social Security system, which already penalizes women because of their lower earnings, gaps in employment due to home care work and longer life spans. As sure as the sun rises, short-sighted politicians will be calling for cuts to Social Security in response to COVID-19 — as they did during the last recession. We must fight to see that this misguided and cruel response to the needs of our aging population is a non-starter.

Unfortunately, when women do come into view in COVID-19 conversations, many politicians seem to be trying to increase their burdens, like the governors and state attorneys general who are using the crisis as a pretext to block access to legal abortions. America’s future will not be enhanced by exposing women to physical harm by preventing them from access to a procedure that grows riskier later in pregnancy, and endangering them and others when they are forced to travel across state lines to obtain care.

Nor will the nation’s situation be improved by putting women and their families in economic jeopardy, both through the high immediate costs imposed through these restrictions and the slew of negative long-term effects that follow women who are denied abortions — including increased rates of poverty, deceased educational and job opportunities and economic instability.

An abundance of studies have shown that when women have access to reproductive health care and family planning services, economies and societies reap benefits. The crisis is a time to expand access and not, as Jenny Black, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Votes! South Atlantic puts it, to “stigmatize abortion and deny women access to essential health care.”

Feminist scholars have long pointed out that economists, political scientists and historians tend to think of the market and the state as the key spheres of reality — while regarding the home and the family as afterthoughts. But as the changes in medieval Europe in the wake of a terrible pandemic illustrate, when women are freed from burdens in the home and gain opportunities to participate fully in all aspects of life and work, the future grows brighter for everyone.

Ignoring this reality in responses to COVID-19 will come at a cost America can ill afford.