Last fall, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published a report that was both shocking and somehow expected: out of the 1 million American workers who had dropped out of the job market in September, at least 850,000 of them were women. In all, more than 2 million women exited the workforce in 2020, more than double the dropout rate for men.

The dual disasters of the pandemic and the economic slowdown have laid bare the tenuous position of women — particularly working mothers — in the U.S. labor force. As schools and daycare centers shut down in the spring, one in four women said they had left their jobs primarily due to lack of alternative childcare. Women are also more likely to hold jobs in the service sector; many of those jobs simply vanished as businesses shut down or went under.

And what’s to blame for this catastrophe? According to one writer, the culprit is… feminism.

“It makes you wonder,” says author Kim Brooks in a December 27 op-ed in the New York Times. “How meaningful was the progress made in the last three decades if it can be undone so quickly and so ferociously?”

Brooks’ essay bounces from recaps of the 1980s movies ‘Aliens’ and ‘Baby Boom,’ to the wonders of “un-schooling” children, to a friend wanting to start an all-female commune for her twilight years (which all sounds pretty damn feminist) to the argument that feminists don’t focus on making life easier for mothers (which isn’t really the case). In the end, she seems to misunderstand the fundamental nature of feminism: feminists advocate for increased rights and protections and benefits for women, but can’t wave some sort of magic wand and make it all better. (Seriously, how awesome would it be if we could?)

Still,  her central question — how meaningful has our progress been if it can be so easily undone — is actually quite intriguing.

As a historian, I often find myself taking the long view. Women have been viewed, and have functioned, as family caretakers for centuries. That isn’t going to  be erased in the space of one or two generations. (Arguably, we shouldn’t even try to erase that role; for a whole lot of women, taking care of family is one of life’s great pleasures.) Progress towards a future when women can be both caretakers and full, vibrant participants in both economic and civic life is going to be incremental.    

We can look back at the last fifty and see measurable progress when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce and the economy at large. The pay gap, while certainly not erased, has been cut in half since the 1970s. There are more protections for women from harassment and discrimination then in previous generations. Women now outnumber men in earning college degrees, giving them more opportunity for higher paying jobs.

At the same time, we remain the only country in the developed world without adequate paid maternity leave. Our maternal mortality rate is abysmal, especially for women of color. Many policymakers are more than willing to sing the praises of American mothers, but less than willing to put any money into childcare, elder care, minimum wage increases, or other policy initiatives that would allow women to participate more fully in the economy during the most productive parts of our working lives.

So, yes, women have made measurable progress over the last half-century, and most of that will not be undone by one crisis. At the same time…there’s plenty of work left to be done. As the pandemic eases and the economy presumably rebounds, it’s a good time to push our policymakers to patch the social safety net and make sure women come away from this era with increased protections before the next unforeseen crisis comes our way.

At the end of the day, however frustrating it may be, incremental progress is better than no progress at all.   


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