IT HAS followed, as the night the day, that a feminist writer has concluded that the coronavirus will be a disaster for feminism and for women.
In recent days, by way of motivating us, people have cheerfully noted that when England was previously ravaged by plagues, Shakespeare composed some of his greatest plays and Isaac Newton discovered calculus. But in her recent article for the Atlantic, Helen Lewis dourly points out that ‘neither of them had child-care responsibilities’. Thank goodness.
Lewis writes that ‘school closures and household isolation are moving the work of caring for children from the paid economy – nurseries, schools, babysitters – to the unpaid one’. She says: ‘The coronavirus smashes up the bargain that so many dual-earner couples have made in the developed world: We can both work because someone else is looking after our children. Instead, couples will have to decide which one of them takes the hit.’ Looking after your own children is ‘taking a hit’?
Lewis admits that it is not real women who will suffer disproportionately, but rather statistics that will have a miserable time: ‘At an individual level, the choices of many couples over the next few months will make perfect economic sense.’ Hang on: if these choices make perfect sense for the people who make them, what is Lewis’s gripe? This is a serious question. She seems to want people to behave differently, not to make decisions which ‘make perfect economic sense’ for them; in order for . . . what exactly? The statistics, of course!
Lewis asks: ‘What do pandemic patients need? Looking after. What do self-isolating older people need? Looking after. What do children kept home from school need? Looking after. All this looking after – this unpaid caring labour – will fall more heavily on women because of the existing structure of the workforce.’ You have to admit that the honesty here is stark. I don’t want to be looking after people! I want to be back in the office! As Sartre said, ‘There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!’ Particularly if they are your own family and in need of care.
Lewis would rather be in the office. That is entirely legitimate. But where she, and other feminists, go wrong is in assuming that other women want that too. If women tend to be the ones who stay at home more, tend to be the ones that take on more unpaid and care-focused work, that is because they choose to. That is unless you believe that women are, and always will be, victims. Are, and always will be, engaged in an existential power struggle with men. Lewis seems to think of men and women as two separate and competing tribes. There is an absence of the sense that we are actually in this together. That men and women tend to love each other, want to look out for each other, care for each other, live with each other, bear the load for each other.
Like many feminists, Lewis seems to assume that the stuff that men have traditionally done is the best stuff. Who said so? It is worth pointing out that feminism did not have to take this turn. It could have embraced the traditionally feminine. Like many people who have a heart as well as a head, I was a young Left-winger and a feminist once. The form of feminism and general ‘counter-culturalism’ that I encountered turned its back on the corporate world. We wanted to hunker around the hearth and home. Men and women alike learned how to cook and garden. We yearned to be ‘self-sufficient’. We scorned ‘wage-slaves’. Oh, the privilege of being young, your existence paid for by the hard work of others. But when this was so, we turned our attention to gentle things, traditionally feminine things. When did feminism choose a different path?
I sometimes think that feminists act as self-appointed ‘trade union’ spokespeople for women. I am sure they would agree with that statement. But should they not then more closely consult women over what they actually want? I expect for many it is a little more home and hearth, not less.
Lewis says: ‘Dual-income couples might suddenly find themselves living like their grandparents, one homemaker and one breadwinner.’ That is supposed to be terrible. But aren’t those rather lovely words? ‘Homemaker’. ‘Breadwinner’. We live in a free world, and when we come out on the other side of all this, men and women who live together, and love each other, will continue to navigate life’s difficulties and choices. I hope they will value ‘caring for’ as much as ‘commuting to’ – I expect there might be a shift towards the former. Is that a bad thing? If it happens, it will be because we are free. We are not slaves to ‘equality’, the machine, or to statistics.
Finally, Lewis says some things I do agree with. That, as in any stressful circumstances, those who are least well-off will be hit the hardest. For example, women in difficult and violent relationships. We should focus on helping those most in need; putting identity politics and its tribes aside. Also, that those in poorer countries, and women in those countries, are likely to fare the worst, and bear the longest recovery. Again I agree. But let us not embarrass ourselves by implying that their distress implies our own. Doing so slightly absolves us from a duty of looking outward to help others. It implies that we, the high-income dual-earning couples of the West, should be getting a little bit more of the cared-for, when we, of all people, could be looking outward, and caring more for others.