In many states, covid-19 has sent children home for the rest of the school year, forcing parents to bear the double burden of a full-time job and full-time child care — something evidence suggests has affected women’s productivity significantly more than men’s. In this pandemic then, the face of care inside and outside hospitals is overwhelmingly female.
History tells us why that is. Today’s female care force is a product of persistent gender stereotypes that declare women to be more caring than men. These stereotypes have helped to funnel women into essential but undervalued jobs in fields such as health care and education and they have helped to sustain women’s disproportionate burden of care in heterosexual couples, even when partners have verbally agreed to a “50/50” split. Such inequities have replicated across generations. In many ways, our 2020 gendered world of care is little different from that of 1920 or even 1820.
In the 19th century, almost all care work occurred inside the home. Indeed, “to nurse” is defined as to nurture, to care and to raise, actions and qualities that Western societies have long assigned to mothers. When people got sick, their mothers, sisters, daughters, neighbors, hired domestics and enslaved women and girls hauled vomit-filled pots to and from sickrooms, soothed fevered brows, prepared soups and stews and sat for long hours by bedsides watching labored breathing for signs of impending death.
In the mid-19th century, hospitals were for charity cases, like the hypothetical patient described in an 1886 speech dedicating Cambridge hospital in Massachusetts: a domestic servant girl whose mistress didn’t have time to nurse her. Middle-class Americans, by contrast, avoided the institutions at all costs. While today we primarily discuss end-of-life care in terms of access to modern sanitized hospitals and cutting-edge technologies, dying antebellum Americans yearned not for the touch of a stranger but for their female loved ones, for the cooling sensation of a beloved palm held long, the familiar contours of a face long gazed on and the unique cadence of a voice that sparked memories of events long passed.
Yet, hired and enslaved girls and women nursed the sick and dying because it was so much work. Even after denouncing the middle class’s increasing reliance on hired help to perform domestic labor as “rotten to the core,” reformer William Andrus Alcott exempted the hiring of nurses, writing, “If people are sick, it alters the case. Then we often need help.”
But the magnitude of this work also offered opportunities for rethinking care work during times of crisis. In 1849, a pandemic not dissimilar to our own temporarily regendered nursing care for a significant subset of Americans. That year, Asiatic cholera spread through the United States like wildfire, moving between North, South and West in the guts of infected travelers.
The pandemic witnessed men temporarily stepping into women’s traditional role of providing care because 1849 also marked the first year of the California Gold Rush, which drew tens of thousands of young men to the Sierra Nevada foothills. These Argonauts hoped for riches, and they feared dying of cholera. Both happened, but for many hopeful miners the cholera destroyed them before they ever reached California.
Miners spread the disease as they traveled overland, dispensing the comma-shaped bacteria when they emptied their bowels or rinsed feces-tinged rags into rivers and streams. By June 2, 1849, the Boston Cultivator reported victims of cholera were “lying along the road, in heaps.”
While this description suggested these dead had had no one to care for them, Argonauts had prepared for the likelihood some of them would need nursing. Members of Gold Rush companies drafted and signed constitutions pledging their lives to one another. Other miners who fell sick sought help from fellow Masons or Odd Fellows, two of the most popular fraternal organizations at the time.
Some observers criticized the nursing standards of miners, but evidence suggests men successfully rose to the task. Samuel Nichols, for instance, told his wife that when their son George fell ill with cholera, “three gentlemen from St. Louis” assisted him in making George comfortable. The men helped him rub George’s limbs to ease the cramping, acting “as Fathers & brothers to my Dear son George.”
When J.E. Clayton took sick, his friend William Taylor nursed him back to health. Afterward, Clayton gave Taylor high praise, declaring, “No mother could be more kind and attentive to her children than he was to me.”
Such changes showed men were capable of nursing, but it was only temporary. Nichols, Taylor and the other men who assumed care responsibilities during the cholera crisis handed them back as soon as they were able. At the behest of his wife, Sarah, Nichols returned George’s body home to New York so she could care for his grave.
So too did society largely abandon the insight voiced by Clayton: that, when called upon, we can all care like a mother.
The cholera crisis of the Gold Rush forced men to be flexible, but when it was over female caregiving responsibilities snapped back into place. Cultural commentators of the time described California as a man’s world waiting for white women, rather than a new gender order where men took over tasks that had once been the exclusive domain of women.
Other times of historic crisis, such as World War II, have created similarly fleeting periods of gendered flexibility only to resume traditional roles at the end. During that war the federal government subsidized child-care centers so women could fill essential jobs. Despite intense lobbying from political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, military victory abroad ended the funding, and mothers returned to the home and fathers returned to the workforce.
This crisis can be different. In today’s pandemic, acknowledging and promoting humanity’s universal capacity and responsibility for care has the potential to give life to any number of reforms including paid family leave, free or subsidized early-childhood education and a more equitable distribution of household labor. The question remains whether we are actually willing to place gender equity above traditional norms.