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Women, the family and the coronavirus crisis

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During this period where people’s lives are centred around the home, Sarah Bates looks at capitalism's reliance on the family and women’s domestic labour.
Issue 2699
The home can be a sanctuary but also a dangerous place
The home can be a sanctuary but also a dangerous place (Pic: Nico Dusing/flickr)

‘Stay at home to save lives”. The advice is clear—staying put is the central strategy to stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

For most people, outside of shopping and exercise, home is pretty much all we have left. 

The lockdown measures are often presented as a holiday from normal life—one where Zoom calls can be taken in pyjamas, or long-neglected DIY can be completed. 

For some people this idea will match their reality. 

For the rich, their lockdown will consist of organic veg boxes delivered to their doorstep, and paid carers checking in on their vulnerable relatives.

But for millions more, coronavirus shows how important it is for the day-to-day running of capitalist society that ordinary people take care of each other. 

It’s also meant that an army of working class women have had to step in and perform even more work than usual.

Joeli Brearly from the Pregnant Then Screwed campaign said, “Yet again it is women scooping up the unpaid labour to keep things ticking over during a crisis.

“We are seeing companies telling staff to work from home but denying women with kids that possibility, and we’re seeing pregnant women laid off without any sort of process while others are told they have to come into work.”

Pauline is a secondary school teacher in east London and said that the lockdown means, “my life has changed a lot.”

“I’ve ended up having to work a double shift. I homeschool my two children during the day and do my work between 8pm and 2am. 

“It does challenge a parent. All parents think they can homeschool children, but even though I’m an experienced teacher it’s not easy at all.”

Pauline said her husband, who works in IT, “is working from home, but his company refuses to consider any reduction in hours.

“It’s not right that a company completely decides that his wife does it. I don’t know how single parents are coping—I don’t know how they manage.”

It’s not just schools that are closed—libraries, nurseries, lunch clubs, mother and baby groups, after school groups and youth clubs have all shut up shop. 

And if a decade of austerity has chipped away at public services, coronavirus has put them under further strain. 

In times of crisis, parents are expected to pick up the pieces when public services shut down.


The stress on individuals is immense. And Covid-19 will only increase the pressure on parents to feel as if it is their sole responsibility to provide and care for their children. 

There’s almost no pushback to the idea that parents will be able to provide unlimited care and attention. 

That’s because this care takes place through the family unit—which plays an important role in the functioning of class society. 

A decade of austerity has chipped away at public services, coronavirus has put them under further strain.

In normal everyday life, most of the caring in society is performed, for free, by women.

Most obviously this involves looking after children. But it also involves caring for other members of their family, such as elderly relatives. 

This set-up isn’t a result of biological or innate differences between men and women, but rather a product of how our world is organised. For instance, women get more time off work under maternity legislation, so it makes sense for them to take on more childcare initially. 

And because early years care is so expensive it often also makes economic sense for women to stay at home and look after children, rather than return to work full time. 

Once children are in school—one of the only elements of childcare the state is involved in—a caregiver still needs to be there outside of term-time, at bed times, for school pick-up and so on. 

Sex, gender and women’s liberation
Sex, gender and women’s liberation
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So when women return to work—which most will do—their jobs are more likely to be part-time and poorly paid. 

For those that do work outside the home, many are now faced with the reality of homeschooling their children alongside paid work.

And because working class women are stuck in poorly paid, often insecure employment, policies such as self isolation affect them disproportionately. 

Some 1.4 million women workers earn less than £118 a week, say the TUC, which is the minimum amount to qualify for statutory sick pay. Around 70 percent of those who do not qualify for statutory sick pay are women.

Forty years of equal pay legislation hasn’t ironed out the difference between women’s pay and men’s pay for performing similar roles. 

The figures are stark—according to the Fawcett Society, the gender pay gap for full time work stands at 

18.4 percent while the gap for part time work has risen as high as 13.7 percent in 2019.

As recently as 2018 thousands of predominantly women council workers in Glasgow staged a victorious two day strike for equal pay. They had faced systematic discrimination for many years.

Part of the reason why these jobs are paid less is because it’s seen as a women’s “natural” role to spend her life cooking, caring or cleaning up after others. 

The idea that women are hardwired to be caring is an idea that comes from the ruling class but is at times echoed by some feminists. 

But women aren’t biologically predetermined to be caring, in the same way that men aren’t biologically predetermined to be violent or confident.

These stereotypes were created as the system came to rely on women taking on domestic labour in the home. 

But although women’s role as carers is intensified during the Covid-19 crisis, there is a contradiction because their work outside the home is also central. 

Some 77 percent of the NHS workforce are women. Around two thirds of retail workers are women. The large majority of cleaners are women.

These are among the jobs that are crucial in the Covid-19 crisis.

The government doesn’t want women to leave them—indeed it wants women in these areas to do more hours. So it is really saying stay at work and take on extra responsibilities  at home. 

Some 77 percent of the NHS workforce are women. Around two thirds of retail workers are women. The large majority of cleaners are women.

But this experience of additional family pressure isn’t uniform. Richer women can pay working class women to cook, clean and look after their children. 

This unevenness will be heightened during the pandemic. 

There’s a big difference between lockdown in a cramped one bedroom flat, or a luxurious detached house.  

It matters whether a child has access to a computer, or even a desk to write on. 

The experience of a zero hours supermarket worker will be wildly different to a company CEO who can see out the coronavirus crisis from the comfort of her home office. 


And as well as being the source of love and support, the family is also the scene of abuse and violence.

For domestic abuse victims—most of whom are women and children—the experience of lockdown will be one marked by fear. 

Domestic violence charity Refuge reported a 65 percent spike in calls to its helpline in the first week of lockdown.

During this time of crisis people will be living with a great amount of uncertainty and anxiety. 

Add to this the experience of living in isolation without the help of close family, friends and very little help from the state and for many the home can become not the place of sanctuary we’ve been told it should be. 

Rather than being a retreat from the stresses and strains of everyday life, the home can become the places where pressures are expressed.

If people feel like they have no control over their lives, they are more likely to lash out at those closest to them.

And domestic violence is treated as though it’s a private problem that should be solved inside the family.


But for the majority of the time, most people don’t see their homes as simply places of tension. They are often where we experience, love, support and solidarity in what is often a hostile world.

Even if that’s the case, the ideal of the perfect, happy family is one pushed down from the top of society. 

That’s because the family institution is key in providing the next generation of workers. 

It’s in the interest of the bosses and the government for children to be raised by their parents, at very little cost to the ruling class.

When the children become adults, they are hopefully educated, healthy and socialised 

enough to become productive workers.

It’s a myth that revolutionary socialists see the solution in ripping children from their mother’s arms.

The answer lies in transforming unpaid labour that’s performed inside the privatised sphere of the family into a collective, social problem. 

Childcare should be an issue for the whole society—men and women alike. Domestic labour such as cooking or laundry could be undertaken collectively. 

This means that women wouldn’t have to spend decades of their lives undertaking this work inside their homes for no appreciation and no money. 

And it would also mean that “women’s work”, instead of being seen as the least important, and the worst paid, would be viewed as the jobs that are necessary for society to function. 

A socialist society would have more options for people than the cookie-cutter idea of the nuclear family that capitalism presents us with. 

Winning it will mean taking on the capitalist institutions that rely on the care and attention of working class women to prop up their society, and building our own.

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