Women, Covid and the family

Women participating in the Indian farmer protests - International Women's Day 2021

By Angela Craig

International Women’s Day this year happens a full two years into the Covid-19 pandemic. Far from being able to mark progress for women on this day, the way in which the pandemic has been responded to and utilised by capitalist states to intensify women’s oppression is evident. There are many aspects to the crisis affecting women – not least the deaths and avoidable long term illness of millions of women as a result of approaches that have failed to do all possible to protect the population from a new deadly virus. Globally, according to a report by Oxfam women lost more jobs than men – 64 million – in 2020, are over-represented in health and social care jobs so have been particularly exposed to Covid, and have absorbed a huge increase in demand for unpaid care. This article considers just one angle on this crisis, which is the way in which changes in women’s socio-economic position bears out the analysis of women’s oppression as set out by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (first published (1884).

The family and women’s oppression

Engels argues that the family, far from being incidental or neutral in character, is an institution whose shape and function is consistent with and part of the class relations of a society. As the determining factors in history are the production and reproduction of human life, so the social institutions of an epoch are conditioned by both kinds of production. That is: ‘by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other’. His analysis – much critiqued and no doubt in some respects with an analysis which can be built upon by developments in historical knowledge and feminist thought since Engels was writing – traces the development of kinship and family systems from pre-history to the capitalist period and insists on the relationship between class relations and the family system: in class societies ‘the family system is entirely dominated by the property system’. The monogamous, pairing, family, for example, ‘makes its appearance in history…as the subjection of one sex by another’. Its function, to ensure paternity and a line of inheritance, is definitive of an emergent patriarchal family system, and its necessity occasioned by the clash between patterns of growing wealth, relationships to property and the norms of kinship systems.

Engels explains how a fundamental characteristic of this family system is its rendering of ‘administration of the household’ from labour that takes place publicly and is socially recognised into labour provided as a ‘private service’: transformed into domestic labour, undertaken by women, in the personal sphere. This labour becomes derecognised as socially necessary production, becoming individualised, unseen, unremunerated, and apparently naturally located in family units, but ‘based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the women’. Sounds familiar?

It is the transition to and subsequent development of capitalism which create demands which objectively undermine the family system and the oppression of women within it: capitalist development’s hunger for labour pulls women in increasing numbers into the paid labour force, thereby also creating opportunities for financial independence for women, however compromised and limited that may be. The growth of women’s mass political presence rests on this dynamic. But the contradiction between the demand (and opportunities) for public, paid, employment and for the socially essential tasks provided, privately, in individual families (and all the reproduction of gender roles, ideology, repression that goes along with that system) cannot be resolved by capitalism – as experience demonstrates.

As long as alternative social provision is not made for all that is provided in the form of ‘domestic’ labour (or to the extent that that some provision is made but then reduced – as has been the case in the post war period in Europe, for example) the entry of women into paid employment, historically, has meant that care work continues to be mainly undertaken by women in the family. Hence, a ‘double burden’ of labour. Engels expresses it thus (in rather antiquated language): that when a woman undertakes work ‘in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and cannot earn anything; and when she wishes to take part in public industry and earn her living independently, she is not in a position to fulfil her family duties’.

This is not just about domestic labour in the sense of dependent children and routine daily tasks, but about the family unit as the default place for care for people when they are unwell, older relatives, parents, partners and spouses, dependent adult children and more.

In practice, as the last two years of Covid and the policies used in response to it have highlighted, individual women are forced to try to accommodate the conflict between the need to earn money to survive and providing for the care needs that fall upon individual families and households. The International Labour Organisation (ILO)said that Covid has laid bare ‘just how dependent people’s working lives are on the provision of care services’. As health and care services (and schools and other services) faced huge demand or closed their doors, as the virus was able to rip through western societies, it was women’s unpaid labour which more than anything substituted for that socially unmet dependence.

Covid and the particularities of the exploitation of women

Research on the global impact of Covid by the ILO (published in October 2021) found that unprecedented job losses due to Covid had hit women hardest, increasing a gender gap in employment that was likely to be enduring. Young women were ‘shouldering the worst of the employment crisis’ with roughly twice as many losing their jobs as young men. Loss of employment, they found, has ‘mostly resulted in economic inactivity, for young women in particular’.

It also found that ‘new care responsibilities constrained women’s labour force participation’. In detail: ‘the closure of schools and other care services, restrictions to mobility and, in many cases, the caring for those infected by the virus but suffering only mild symptoms, created an unprecedented demand for care within the home. Available evidence shows that most of this demand fell to women to fulfil, who even prior to what became termed the “lockdown” were already doing most of the unpaid care work’.

There is a pattern here. The gender segregation of labour – with women and men still continuing to predominate in different sectors (a division reflecting roles and expectations shaped by the family) – left women particularly exposed. This resulted not simply in unemployment but in ‘economic inactivity’ – that is, being pushed out of the labour market – and being obliged to absorb ‘new care responsibilities’ (unpaid).

The complications of flexible work

An alternative pattern affecting some women is identified in research for England. This shows an increase in women with children in work or increasing working hours during the pandemic because of ‘flexible working’ or options to work from home. Remember – this increase comes at a point in time when, as the Oxfam study put it, ‘For women in every country on every continent…unpaid care work has exploded’ and ‘As care needs have spiked during the pandemic, women – the shock absorbers of our societies – have stepped in to fill the gap, an expectation so often imposed by sexist social norms.’ Other research showed that, in two parent families, with a male and female parent, during periods of tight lockdown and/or school closures, women spent twice as much time as men caring for children and doing home-schooling.

A House of Commons report in February showed that (in England) while economic inactivity rose during two key periods of the pandemic studied (driven particularly by people staying on in higher education and a big rise in the numbers of people categorised as long-term sick), the main group to buck this trend and see a fall in economic inactivity were those designated as ‘looking after family/home’. That is, part of the population (mainly women) grouped under ‘looking after family/home’ saw a rise in economic activity (from what it had been previously). As the report put it ‘This has been mostly driven by women being more likely to enter or stay in the workforce because of increased flexibility or to make up for a partner losing income.’ It concludes that ‘women with caring commitments have increased their economic activity over the pandemic, because of more flexibility and options to work from home.’ The report cited findings of the Resolution Foundation (a think-tank headed by former Conservative minister David Willetts) which found a rise in mothers of young children in the workforce in 2021: ‘partly due to homeworking allowing some carers to work, partly due to second earners working more to offset labour market disruption experienced by partners…’.

In other words, at a time of an explosion of unpaid care work (including school closures and the introduction of home education, children at home with Covid, other household members sick with Covid, long Covid or otherwise ill, disruptions and difficulties in shopping and obtaining food, massive waiting lists for routine and acute NHS services, huge strains on care services etc.) homeworking (or ‘flexible’ working) ‘allowed’ more women with significant enough caring commitments (children or others) to be called ‘carers’ to increase their hours of paid work.

Research by the ILO found that Covid ‘has particularly affected women in terms of managing their paid work and household responsibilities’. Leaving aside the assumption embedded in this wording, it is a massive understatement. The above patterns show two ways in which women have ‘managed’ this exploitation equation. One, being forced out of paid work under the combination of sectoral closures and/or care demands, while another has been to utilise being in the home setting or having some form of flexible working, to manage an increase in the hours needed for unpaid domestic labour alongside increased hours spent in other, paid, labour.

The right to flexible working is an established demand by trade unions and women’s organisations. Flexible working can mean many things: rights to work part-time, variations in patterns of hours worked, working around school holidays, working from home, hybrid working, and other things. Delivered well (without loss of rates of pay or conditions, prospects for promotion, etc.) these can be part of improving conditions at work and supporting women in work. But Covid has also highlighted the exploitation that can lie behind ‘flexibility’. At its worst, it can look like the kind of ‘flexibility’ offered by zero hours contracts. Flexibility can mask the double burden of labour that women are increasingly bearing – intensely during the pandemic, but more chronically as health and care services are starved of funding, as schools and support services are cut, young adults too impoverished to leave home and so on.

As one voice on Fawcett’s website put it: ‘Flexible working policies that simply make it a little easier for women to shoulder the dual-burden of care and paid work do not constitute equality.’ However, this writer concluded that there ‘also need to be parallel shifts in the domestic division of labour if women are to achieve genuine choice in the work they do, how they do it and the success they achieve.’

This idea of aiming at a more even division of care work within the home is a well established one. It is laudable and who wouldn’t support policies like better parental leave for fathers and other ways to encourage sharing care work or more equitable arrangements between parents? Groups like the World Economic Forum are happy to get behind it. But as a strategy it’s hopeless. Hence no such appeals have so far changed overall patterns of domestic labour. Better rights to parental leave and similar policies, where they have been introduced, are obviously progressive. But at best such policies influence marginal change. Policies aimed at nudging an alteration in the balance of domestic labour within families won’t do anything for those in the least protected employment (and 70 per cent of those in jobs which are not even eligible for Statutory Sick Pay are women), who are working in informal sectors, who are self-employed or where work is so poorly paid people are having to work excessive hours or multiple jobs. What about where there is violence or abuse in the home? What about single parent families – which at nearly 15 per cent of families are a large group?

The reproduction of labour is a social responsibility

The conflict between the family as the default provider of unpaid care, and of all that is encompassed in the ‘reproduction of labour’, and women as paid workers cannot be resolved at an individual level. It is a fundamental contradiction. Engels’ puts it most graphically:

‘The peculiar character of man’s domination over woman in the modern family and the necessity, as well as the manner, of establishing real social equality between the two, will be brought out into full relief only when both are completely equal before the law. It will then become evident that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.’

We are a long way from such a scenario. Yet the experience of Covid illustrates Engels’ point. It has vividly demonstrated the role of the family as an economic unit (which is different from assuming everyone has access to an actual ‘family’ – of course they do not), to provide, unremunerated, unrecognised and with significant personal loss, services that should be socially provided. It is an impossible demand.

The reproduction of labour is a task for the whole of a society. The provision of funded, public health services, education, adult care services, welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, state pensions, school meals, childcare and youth services, and so on, are in essence some recognition of this. The restriction of all of these in the last four decades, and most savagely since 2010, has removed resources and placed huge demand onto the family, as an ‘economic unit’, deepening inequality, causing massive suffering and intensifying women’s oppression. It is no coincidence that research, published before the impact of Covid policies are factored in, shows that life expectancy for the poorest 10 per cent of women has declined. Covid has taken the pressure on the ‘family’ to crisis point.