The pandemic and the economic catastrophe it has triggered are threatening to roll back decades of gains in terms of women’s liberation. Capitalism in crisis can offer only counter-reforms. To end oppression, we need socialism.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Equal Pay Act, which sought by law to prevent discrimination in terms and conditions of employment between men and women. Despite this fact, the COVID-19 crisis is on course to reverse the lion’s share of the gains women have made over the past 50 years on every single front.
Five decades of progress are being erased in a matter of months. This is not because the laws themselves have been erased, but because capitalism in crisis is clawing back these gains in practice. If 50 years of progress can be wiped out in a couple of months, this only shows how fragile those rights are under capitalism.
Forced back into the home
Millions of working-class women have been forced back into the domestic household, accompanied by an increase in domestic abuse. The number of calls to the National Domestic Abuse helpline jumped 25% above average in the second week of lockdown, and by the third week was 49% higher than normal. Meanwhile, mothers were 47% more likely to have permanently lost their job or to have quit than other workers, and 14% more likely to have been furloughed. This isn’t going to be a temporary setback either, when we consider that the sectors which are expected to experience the hardest hit in a post-COVID-19 world are hospitality and retail, both of which employ a large number of female workers.
The gains women have made in reproductive health are also under attack. The collapse of healthcare systems everywhere has removed access to many of the services that women legally have the right to receive. In some countries, as a result of the pressure on healthcare systems, access to abortions have either been restricted or removed entirely. Many hospitals across Italy, for example, have been transformed into ‘COVID hospitals’, with other surgeries, including abortion services, being cancelled entirely.
Coupled with the fact that many doctors can and do conscientiously object to providing women with these services, the crisis has made it increasingly difficult for thousands of Italian women to access this basic right. Right-wing, pro-life groups meanwhile have even started an online petition to block women’s abortion rights nationwide, declaring: “During the pandemic, abortion is not an essential service”.
In the US, eight Republican-led states have deemed abortions non-essential. In the state of Texas there are usually 50,000 abortions a year. These procedures have only restarted again as of May, with the easing of restrictions on ‘elective’ procedures. This simply comes too late for many women.