“My husband has been helping me with the babies and the laundry. He’s been really considerate,” I heard one woman telling a friend of hers last week. “Really?” the other woman responded with a snarl. “My husband doesn’t do cleaning. It’s not in his nature.”
This casual conversation in line at a supermarket embodies more than 200 years of economic and gender inequality, a period during which men and women have been repeatedly taught that the words "household responsibilities" and "women" go hand-in-hand, as do "masculinity" and the "workplace."
Then the coronavirus came along. At first glance, it appears that the virus burst through an open door of gender inequality and exacerbated it. Women are generally more likely to be laid off from their jobs and bear greater responsibility for housework; they are also more likely to be victims of violence. But another look may reveal that the lockdown at home that most of Israel’s population has been subjected to has also offered a one-time chance to eliminate old gender patterns.
Feminists hadn’t even dreamed of demanding it, but for the first time in 200 years, men have returned to the domestic realm.
It’s sometimes difficult to remember, but until the early 19th century, the “natural” division of labor between men and women was entirely different. They worked together at home, and the housework women do now without pay was considered a type of "labor" performed within one's household.
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However, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, men began leaving home to work in factories and a division was created between the male public sphere and the female domestic one. Work in the former became a right; in the latter, an obligation.
The turning point that helped to inject women gradually into the public economic realm was World War II, which sent men into battle and brought women out of their homes and into the workplace. But women’s place in the labor market came with conditions: considerably lower wages and the requirement that they continue doing the housework (for free, at the expense of the hours they could spend earning a livelihood). Those who rubber-stamped this "natural" division of labor also knew the best way to affix a broom to women's hands – by leading them to believe that otherwise they would lose their identities as women.
In the process, housework became so invisible that many women today believe that they are living in an – almost – egalitarian society. They would be surprised to learn that, according to the United Nation's International Labor Organization, on an average day 16.4 billion hours of housework are carried out, worth $11 trillion, about 75 percent of which women perform, of course.
That was the situation before the Chinese city of Wuhan rose to prominence, even if for all the wrong reasons. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic that began there, men have returned home in droves into lockdown. Perhaps the virus understood before we did that equality requires not only women in pants, but also men in skirts.
Granted, it's the exigencies of this period that have prompted (or forced) men to return home, rather than any feminist awakening, but a glance back into history shows that intent doesn’t always matter. The person responsible for creating the famous 1943 “We Can Do It!” wartime poster with a woman laborer flexing her muscles apparently didn’t expect that the following day, only men would be in the factory.
There's a 2020 version of that poster showing a hipster male with a baby and a dustpan, with the slogan “He Can Do It!” – which means that maybe we can dare imagine a world, post-pandemic, in which housework doesn’t revert to being solely the woman’s domain. At present, even the husband who used to work from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. and return to a clean home cannot help but see the piles of laundry and a sink full of dishes.
The coronavirus crisis has made previously invisible women’s housework look more essential than ever. And also now more than ever, if women refuse to continue to work at home for free, without an equal division of the burden they bear – entire households would collapse.
But even if we don’t immediately change our economic-gender perspective, sheltering at home might in another nine months lead to unanticipated equality of another kind. Many fathers who never saw their children during the day are now getting used to active parenting for the first time. Men who in the past “wanted” to give their children baths in the evening but “had” to stay at the office, might find more flexible work arrangements post-coronavirus that will allow that. Some might even remove the quotation marks around “wanted.”
If we are able to seize this opportunity, if we demand an equal distribution of the load from men, history books may mention the coronavirus pandemic as a 21st-century event that led women and men to create gender equality.