Women’s History Month Blog Series Introduction

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day – a day that began in 1908 to honor women’s rights, highlight our achievements, and advocate for gender equity. Overtime, International Women’s Day has been celebrated through demonstrations, fundraising efforts, and awareness campaigns. But this year’s International Women’s Day seems particularly significant as it coincides with the one-year anniversary of a pandemic lockdown that has highlighted and deepened longstanding inequities of all types.

To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, as well as March’s Women’s History Month which grew from this holiday, we at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions are collaborating with local scholars to draw attention to the myriad of gender equity issues women (specifically in the United States) face that have been further exacerbated by the pandemic through a series of blog posts that will appear in the upcoming weeks. These issues range from wage gaps in internships to birth control access to the experiences of women of color on college campuses. While policy recommendations to improve gender equity in education and the labor market often revolve around wage parity and childcare access, such reforms cannot be done in a vacuum and must attend to the larger systems of oppression working against women every day. Women’s lives are complex and multivarious – we wear many hats – and when one piece of our lives is hurting, it affects the other pieces too. One of the goals of this series is to demonstrate how these issues are deeply interconnected as they all affect women’s lives and cannot be examined or reformed without consideration of the other.

Before the pandemic unfolded, women were already struggling to support themselves and their families while making less than their male counterparts, shouldering the majority of family caretaking responsibilities, and experiencing intimate partner violence at a rate of 1 in 4. In fact, women in the United States make an average of about $10,000 less per year than men, hold 65% of the country’s student loan debt, and typically attend to about 60% of household chores and tasks. Only 17% of women in the United States have access to paid maternity leave while almost 25% of women are forced to return to work only two weeks after giving birth. Women have been overwhelmed and undervalued for a long time. Many of these numbers are even more extreme for women of color as they experience higher rates of poverty, childcare disruptions, and health disparities.

Since the pandemic began, millions of women have been driven out of the workforce. In addition to higher unemployment rates, thousands of women have left the labor market each month due to additional caretaking responsibilities. Dubbed a “she-cession” by some, the coronavirus has wiped out nearly all of women’s gains in the workforce over the last decade. By the end of 2020, women lost a net of 5.4 million jobs over the course of the pandemic (almost 1 million more than men), with Black and Latina women experiencing disproportionately more. In addition to the economic toll and increased caretaking responsibilities, the pandemic has also put additional strain on maternal healthcare further exacerbating already existing racial and ethnic disparities in maternal mortality and morbidity. Furthermore, while the imposed “safer at home” orders were meant to keep people out of harms ways, growing evidence indicates that the pandemic has made intimate partner violence more common and severe by unintentionally trapping women with their abusers and limiting their opportunities at contacting support. Finally, in 2020 we also saw what some have referred to as “pandemic within a pandemic” with surge of violence towards transgender people with a record setting 44 transgender and non-conforming people being killed, the majority of whom were Black trans women.

The disturbing issues the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified have given many of us considerable pause for concern and worry for the future of women in the United States and have forced us to grapple with how to move forward. Through this series, we will add to this discussion by exploring pressing issues affecting women’s everyday lives and furthering the conversation on gender equity by showing the deeply interwoven nature of these issues. In the following weeks, we will present pieces from a range of scholars here at UW-Madison. Elizabeth Scheer, of the UW-Madison English Department, will share with us what we can learn from the revision process in order to rewrite the narrative on gender equity. Samantha Herndon from the UW-Madison Collaborative for Reproductive Equity will share the work of her and her colleagues to examine women’s access to birth control throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Anita Gopal, an Associate Researcher at CCWT, will share findings regarding the wage gap from the College Internship Study and discuss how this potentially plays a significant role in women’s lives not only during their internships but beyond. Alexandra Pasqualone, a graduate student in the UW-Madison’s Education Policy Studies, will provide a discussion of the experiences of Muslim female students’ experiences on American college campuses and the potential implications of the pandemic on their lives. Choua Xiong, also of UW-Madison’s Education Policy Studies, will discuss HMoob women’s experiences with childcare and the workforce throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, the Our HMoob American College Paj Ntaub research team will provide a discussion of the need for a feminist lens within ethnic studies as we begin to think about ways to move forward in a post-COVID world.

With this series we hope to not only draw attention to significant issues facing women but also spur more conversations regarding how gender equity can be imagined. This series pushes beyond more commonly discussed reforms concerning fair pay and childcare affordability by envisioning gender equity as racial equity, reproductive justice, economic justice, and environmental sustainability that require more comprehensive policy debates and solutions to appropriately meet the needs of women during this time of crisis.