Academic publishers were some of the first to notice it happening. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 lockdowns, editors at certain journals spotted a decline in submissions from women. In the same period, submissions from men increased. From the start, quarantine has meant something different for men than it has for women—and the reason for that is as obvious as it is unfair.
Managing a household is a full-time job. Being in charge of a box full of frightened humans in the middle of a pandemic is a full-time job on nightmare mode. Almost nobody can physically do that job alongside full-time paid work, and in quarantine, the job is endless. The dishes need to be done and redone. The kids have to be prevented from engaging in domestic vandalism and autocannibalism. There are no babysitters, grandparents, or relatives to fall back on, the municipal childcare machine of the state school system has been shut down for months, and parents have doubled or tripled an already exhausting workload.
Men are no doubt trying, but early stats suggest that most of the burden is falling on women. The division of domestic labor is always hard to accurately assess because it relies on self-reported data, and women—haunted by guilt at not being good enough at “having it all”—tend to underestimate the hours they spend working in the home. Men, on the other hand, routinely overestimate their own contributions. A new survey of 1,060 US parents suggests as much: 45 percent of fathers say they’re doing more housework right now, but only 25 percent of mothers think that’s true. (There was no disagreement between partners on the uptick in mom’s contributions.) According to the New York Times, which surveyed 2,200 Americans, only 3 percent of women agree with the claim, made by nearly half of their husbands, that men are doing more of the homeschooling.
Here are the conclusions of a study by the Cambridge-INET Institute: During the Covid-19 lockdowns, mothers in both the US and the UK are providing about 50 percent more childcare than fathers, as well as more homeschooling—and many have had to give up cherished careers to do it. When the lockdowns end and the recession starts, how many women will be able to walk back into the jobs they left because there was nobody else to mind the children?
In periods of economic crisis, when the social fabric shreds, it is women who step up to patch it back together. In geopolitics and in private life, men get to make a mess, and women shuffle in to clean up after them, and they are supposed to do it without complaining, because “somebody has to.” Communities can function for a few weeks without chartered accountants; without childcare, cooking, and cleaning, communities collapse. Is this the time to be complaining about something as trivial as domestic work? Yes. It’s exactly the time. Because domestic labor is not trivial, and Covid-19 has proved that.
The most vital work, the work that is essential to the daily functioning of every community and household on the planet, is the basic work of taking care of one another—of nursing the sick, raising the young, keeping the kitchen clean. It’s work that is routinely underpaid, and women do most of it. Estimates of the true value of women’s unpaid labor range from 10 to 39 percent of the GDP of most developed nations—more than manufacturing, commerce, or transport. This is usually presented as a morally neutral statement of fact, rather than as damning evidence of a societal failure.
The hard truth is that men still want housewives. In the past several decades, as women’s employment has risen to match men’s, men have not proportionately increased their share of work on the home front. In fact, certain attitudes seem to be regressing. Even men who consider themselves progressive and are vocally comfortable with the idea of women’s equality in the paid workplace can be unwilling, when pressed, to give up the privilege of having a woman to take care of the boring, repetitive chores. The unequal division of domestic labor is the last unfought battle of women’s liberation. And it’s a battle that has, in the past, been almost impossible to fight—because it plays out in in private kitchens, behind bedroom doors, in individual relationships where women cannot organize collectively.
Hundreds of years ago, almost everyone worked from home. Before the industrial revolution, there was little distinction between the work that went into making the things a family could sell—meat, grain, cloth, artifacts—and the work required to keep that family functional. Cooking, cleaning, and raising kids were not separate activities. It is only in the past century and a half that the idea of “separate spheres” of work for men and women took hold. It is only in the past 50 years that the management of a home was left to one woman, without an extended network of help. And it is only in the past two generations that the definition of “liberation” for women became the dubious privilege of working full-time in the paid economy alongside full-time unpaid drudgery at home.
The home, for a great many women, and particularly for a great many mothers, is a hostile work environment. But with a global pandemic turning the lens of public attention to the domestic sphere in an unprecedented way, just as women around the world finally reach their breaking point, something is changing. On forums, on Twitter, on Facebook, in group threads, women and girls are being honest about how exhausted they are, and realizing that that they are not alone in that exhaustion—and that something can, and should, be done.
Continuing to insist that you’re too much of an adorable bumbler to clean your own bathroom doesn’t cut it in a pandemic. I have lost count of the Zoom meetings I have had with women who apologize for having to leave to take care of their children—as if there were something unprofessional about being a parent—or of conversations with friends who thought that the Covid lockdowns would be the moment when the men they love finally realized how much effort is involved in taking basic care of a family. It turns out that they already knew. They just didn’t want to do the work. And it is still culturally acceptable for men to leave that work to women. There are no social penalties for a man who lets his already exhausted partner wait on him—but plenty of bad words for women who hold men accountable. Nobody wants to be a bitch, or a nag, or a shrew, especially not in a time of global crisis.
Over the past decade, social media has shattered the illusion that what happens in private homes cannot be political. Suddenly, pretending to cope seems very last season. The million glossy-maned mothers of Instagram have permission to relax their rictus grins and be honest about how they’re barely holding it together. Women now have the means to compare notes and share experiences—just as they did with the #MeToo movement, where women began to speak with unprecedented unity about a private, intimate injustice: sexual violence.
The street, as William Gibson once observed, finds its own use for technology—and so does the home. It’s time for domestic work to have its #MeToo moment. It’s time for all those tense conversations being had in private to be had collectively, in public, and for women to demand better. It’s time for societies to acknowledge that you cannot claim to love a person while treating them like your unpaid drudge. That an adult man who cannot run a dishwasher without being asked has no business running anything more complex—like a company, or a country. That expecting your partner to shoulder the majority of the domestic work for free, without complaint, is not just disrespectful. It is morally unconscionable. As the world emerges stumbling from the psychodrama of the Covid lockdowns, as the species attempts to get its house in order, women cannot and should not continue to clean up the mess of men.
Photographs: Scott Barrow/Getty Images
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