Women leaders successfully fighting coronavirus show why we need a feminist foreign policy

Isolationism hasn't helped the pandemic. Empathy and putting people first has.
New Zealand Government Provides Coronavirus Update During Country Lockdown
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a press conference at Parliament on April 23, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images file
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By Lyric Thompson and Gawain Kripke

In recent weeks, calls have abounded to pay more than lip service to women’s contributions to the global economy. Suddenly we are hearing more about the female face of essential workers — both on the homefront and on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis has shown, again and again, “women’s work” — otherwise known as the care economy — is essential work. Yet laud it though we might, care work is all too often unpaid and consistently among the lowest-paid job categories. Economists estimate that women’s unpaid work provides a subsidy to the global economy of more than $10 trillion annually. That’s bigger than the nominal GDP of India, the U.K. and France combined. And that’s a conservative estimate.

The crisis has shown, again and again, “women’s work” is essential work.

The pandemic has also shined a spotlight on how intersecting streams of marginalization across race, class and ethnicity combine to keep some segments of the population poorer, sicker and more powerless. The resurgence of breadlines and pandemic-induced joblessness has left many people suddenly without employer-provided health insurance, and reminded us that policies that don’t put people first are ill-equipped to hold the social fabric together in a time of crisis. There is a reason why countries with female leaders appear to have more success in fighting the pandemic: The emphasis with their leadership is on empathy, human dignity and care, rather than pitting the formal economy against the goal of saving lives, as though those two goals were at odds. Look at New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, who came into office promising empathy. It paid off.

A small but growing number of policymakers at both the state and federal level in this country are now calling for a “feminist” response to the pandemic. As Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., wrote this month in The San Francisco Chronicle, that means “treating women as the essential workers they’ve always been by ensuring economic security with a $15 minimum wage, hazard pay, universal paid family and medical leave, and a robust safety net.” Crucially, she underscored, we must insist that workers cannot return to work unless the next coronavirus aid package invests $50 billion in our child care industry and commits funding to prevent and respond to domestic violence — a trauma that is on the rise, as women are trapped at home with their abusers. Already we have seen that shelters, food pantries and hospitals are unable to keep pace with the spike in the need for their services. Similarly, Hawaii recently became the first state to call for a feminist economic recovery as its State Commission on the Status of Women called for a “deep cultural change” that prioritizes the care economy and the health and well-being of the most marginalized: indigenous women, women of color, incarcerated people, aging women, domestic violence survivors and LGBTQIA+ people.

Think a feminist approach to policymaking sounds Pollyanna liberal and unimplementable? It’s not. It’s already successfully happening in a handful of countries. The idea (and phrase) “feminist foreign policy” was first made policy in Sweden in 2014, followed a few years later by similar announcements in Canada, France, Luxembourg and, most recently, Mexico. These countries now strive to have equal numbers of women and men in leadership positions — from ambassadors to ministers and deputy ministers — as well as to take women’s rights issues into account in matters from trade to immigration to diplomatic engagement, and in supporting women’s rights groups through their aid programs.

Could these ideas work in the U.S.? At the International Center for Research on Women, we conducted a research review of these countries’ efforts, convened a global summit with officials from these governments to further understand their approach, and consulted with women’s rights, LGBTQIA+ people’s rights and climate justice activists from more than 40 countries to understand how policy changed practice in their aid and diplomatic engagements. Then, together with colleagues from Oxfam and more than 50 leading women’s rights, foreign policy and human rights groups in Washington and around the world, we undertook a series of workshops to refine the global picture into a tailored vision of what a feminist foreign policy would look like here. Our report, Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States, launches today.

Each of these feminist approaches seeks to reconceptualize the idea of “national interest.”

What we found is that each of these feminist approaches seeks to reconceptualize the idea of “national interest” — a shift from prioritizing military security, profit, dominance, competition toward putting people’s health and personal safety, peace and inclusion first. It’s an approach that invests in public health around the world, lifting up and caring for most marginalized, and it emphasizes collaboration and learning.

It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if this sort of global, interactive and collaborative approach had been in place when the pandemic began. We might have seen greater success across borders immediately. If this crisis has shown us anything, it is that isolationism has not protected us. A return to multilateral cooperation and a more humble and empathetic posture is what is urgently needed. This is radically different than what the U.S. currently prioritizes both at home and abroad. Paying lip service to the women and people of color who constitute the majority of essential workers is fine. Paying them a living wage is better. We must go beyond simply admiring their courage, resilience, and humanity and actually support them with resources.

In the international arena, cooperation and care should take a larger role. That means, most obviously, restoring funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), which President Donald Trump has attempted to abandon. It means reinvesting in the U.N. Family Planning program — which provides family planning information and services as well as leading global efforts to respond to gender-based violence — at a time when it’s predicted that the pandemic will cause some 7 million unintended pregnancies while women are unable to access supplies and health services, and an additional 31 million cases of domestic violence as women are stuck home with abusers. And it means not just returning to the Paris Climate Agreement, but also making new commitments to stretch those goals: that means, among other things, consciously supporting the female farmers who produce the majority of the world’s staple foods with drought resistant crops, and investing in the indigenous women who are organizing communities to salvage ecosystems and foster resilience.

Imagine a feminist national task force for COVID-19 response, with representation of the people on the front lines.

Feminist policymaking seeks to understand how the status quo disenfranchises some populations — women, people of color, gender minorities — and to course correct. It looks a lot more like America — with more women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ people at its helm, consulting and co-creating its approach alongside the people it is intended to benefit. Imagine a feminist national task force for COVID-19 response, with representation of the people on the front lines: the shelter providers, health care workers, teachers, child care providers, food growers, processors and purveyors, domestic violence prevention professionals and elder care providers. That’s a feminist approach.

Momentum has been building for a feminist approach to policymaking that prioritizes women’s rights, advances equality and seeks to correct for sexist, racist and environmentally damaging policies and societal structures, at home and abroad. It’s no surprise that the handful of countries led by women have been among those with the best response globally.

Together, with a broad coalition of more than 50 leading foreign policy, human rights and women’s rights organizations, we’re calling for the United States to follow in those footsteps. The time is now to heed the call.