The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women have been hit hardest by the pandemic economically. Will that bring them closer together politically?

Here’s what our research found.

A person walks past a business storefront with store-closing signs in Boston on Sept. 2. (Steven Senne/AP)

The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for women, economically. Of women ages 25 to 44, 32 percent have dropped out of the labor force to care for children — while only about 12 percent of men the same age have done so. This has left millions fewer women in the workforce than there were pre-pandemic, setting many women’s economic security back years.

Black women and Latinas have been particularly hard-hit, with unemployment rates at 8.9 percent and 8.5 percent respectively. That’s in part because women disproportionately work in the jobs hardest-hit by pandemic-related closures, like restaurants, hotels and retail stores, which left few jobs available. And because women bear disproportionate responsibility for child and home care, the fact that many schools and child-care facilities have closed has left many women unable to work because they have no caregivers. Many academic and political voices have advocated for a better safety net for women.

Despite sharing many burdens — like lower average wages or the famous “second shift” — women have generally not acted like a politically cohesive group, pushing a shared policy agenda. Our research has previously explored the ways race and marital status divide women’s political outlooks. Married White women are significantly less likely than other women to see their individual well-being as linked with that of other women — what political scientists call “gender-linked fate.” When White married women score lower on “gender-linked fate,” they’re significantly more likely to hold conservative political views. Rather than feeling united with other women, they see themselves as united with their husbands, and by extension, their racial group — and vote accordingly.

In contrast, Black women, married or unmarried, consistently report that their chances in life are aligned with the chances of other women and with Black men.

We did that research using data gathered years before the covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that has ravaged Black communities and knocked women across racial groups out of jobs. We wondered whether this chaotic year led White women to reassess how gendered economic and social structures worked against them — leading to an increasing sense that their own fate is shared with other women’s.

In short: Yes. We found both Black and White women who left their jobs to care for their families reported dramatically increased feelings that their fate is connected to that of other women.

How we did our research

In January, we conducted a nationally representative survey through Lucid Academia of 2,000 men and women in largely equal numbers. Among other questions, we asked women:

  1. If they had left their jobs or reduced hours because of family responsibilities, and
  2. to what degree they believed that what happens generally to women in this country will affect what happens in their own lives.

This second question reflects the standard wording for measuring feelings of gender-linked fate, and it replicates the question used in our earlier research.

Respondents could answer on a four-point scale: not at all (1), a little (2), some (3), and a lot (4).

Both Black and White women who left the workforce to care for children feel their futures are more tied to those of other women

Among women who reported no job disruptions to care for their families, we found that Black women have a higher baseline of gender-linked fate than White women. This was not surprising, as our previous research documented a similar gap.

For White women who left their jobs or had their work hours reduced, their sense of linked fate increased 16 percent, moving from 2.75 to 3.19 on the four-point scale. Black women who were pulled out of the paid employment force reported a slightly larger 16.5 percent increase in gender-linked fate, moving from 3.03 to 3.63. Even starting from a higher base level, Black women’s sense of gender-linked fate strengthened under the gendered economic stress of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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What does this mean for U.S. politics? In our earlier research, we found that women with a stronger sense of gender-linked fate are more likely to be liberal and to identify as Democrats. It is possible that the sudden disappearance of schools and child care, combined with women’s disproportionate job losses, may lead White women to advocate for greater subsidies for child care, schools and paid family leave, all of which are more consistent with the Democratic Party platform.

Or it may not. There are some important caveats to our findings. When women report higher levels of gender-linked fate, for example, we don’t know if they are thinking only of other women of the same race, or if they feel united across color lines. We also have good reason to be skeptical that they are. White women have been significantly involved in white nationalism and the right-wing QAnon movement, an extremist ideology. And while White women have been inching more toward the Democratic Party, roughly half of White women voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election; 90 percent of Black women and 70 percent of Latinas voted for Joe Biden.

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If some White women feel more solidarity with women of color because of the pandemic, the evidence of changing political alliances remains mixed, at best. Even if the pandemic does push women to feel more politically linked, racial and ethnic cleavages are likely to remain.

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Kelsy Kretschmer (@kelsykretschmer) is an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University and the author of “Fighting for NOW: Diversity and Discord in the National Organization for Women” (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)

Leah Ruppanner (@leahruppanner) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne and author of “Motherlands: How States Push Mothers out of Employment” (Temple University Press, 2020).