Brisa Renteria left her corporate job in June 2020, the same month she had her first baby. Not only had the pandemic closed the daycare she’d lined up for her infant, but her husband’s employer was in the thick of mass layoffs. Renteria knew that if her husband couldn’t put in as much work as he typically did, he could be targeted for the next round.
A few months prior, Kristin Wise, the executive director at an inpatient substance abuse center, returned from maternity leave to learn that the facility was closing. “When they told me, I started crying, but I wasn’t sure if it was sadness or relief,” Wise says. “I loved my job, but our childcare option had just shut down, so it would have been a really stressful situation either way.”
Crystal-Mae Waugh Barrios was on maternity leave when COVID-19 forced her colleagues to teach their children from home. When her maternity leave ended in fall 2020, Waugh Barrios began remote work as a language development coach while caring for her 9-year-old, two toddlers, and her ailing father, who had just moved in with her family. In February 2021, when teachers were expected to return to the classrooms, Waugh Barrios quit her job to stay home. “I knew I had to put my family’s health first,” she says.
Renteria, Wise, and Waugh Barrios are just three of the more than 2.3 million women who left the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a phenomenon that economists are describing as a “she-session,” women are exiting the workforce in droves. Women’s unemployment has reached double digits for the first time since 1948. In September 2020, when many children again started remote learning, 800,000 Americans dropped out of the workforce at a 4:1 female-to-male ratio.
Our gut reaction may be to pin all of these problems to the intensity of the pandemic, but if we zoom out, we’ll see more to the story. The real question that arises is: Did the pandemic create a crisis when it comes to women and work? Or did it reveal a fracture in the American marketplace that has long affected female workers?
Historical Custom or Recent Trend?
It’s easy to project a sense of normalcy onto many of the gender roles we tend to ascribe in Western culture. Even the language we use — “traditional family structure,” for example — frames the idea of a father going to work and mother staying home to care for their children as the default setting.
“We have this idea that gender roles are natural, but the dad working and mom staying home are pretty recent cultural artifacts,” says Sarah Jane Glynn, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
In the American pioneer days, no woman was thinking about whether she should be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, observes Missy Wallace, managing director of Global Strategic Services at Redeemer City to City and a frequent contributor to Common Good. Wallace explains that the mothering and working roles couldn’t be extracted from one another in such a way during that time and that human survival depended upon their interweaving.
The pioneer woman’s work, in fact, may have more easily resonated with the depiction of the Proverbs 31 woman than it does the image of the mid-20th-century stay-at-home mom.
She selects wool and flax
and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships,
bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night;
she provides food for her family
and portions for her female servants.
She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable,
and her lamp does not go out at night.
From the mother in the Ancient Near East to the pioneer woman — whether sowing and harvesting seeds, growing and preparing food to store for winter months, sewing clothes or tanning leather — all work was for the family, and the whole family participated in work.
While the pioneer woman may be a relic of the American past, her lot is not. Many women in lower classes have no choice but to work outside of the home in order to ensure their family’s survival. Wallace warns that the stay-at-home mom versus working mom conversation can quickly become dishonoring to such women. This can play out in practical ways such as churches only offering women’s Bible studies during the workday, leaving women out of faith and work conversations, otherwise marginalizing working women in the very setting where they would hope to be most accepted.
Such conversations call upon so many intellectual strains of thought — the theological, historical, and sociological — and prick at the heart of many a woman who wants to honor God, support her family, and perform the work she senses she was made to perform. This can all become remarkably confusing, leading women to wonder if it’s even possible to do all of this at once, and, if not, what’s supposed to be eliminated.
This consideration, of course, is a modern conception in and of itself, and does not apply to every woman. The women left to maintain the homefront during World War II, for example, did not have a choice when it came to whether or not to take that gig at the factory. Their children’s bellies depended on it, and their country’s hope for an economic future depended on it.
Similarly, Axios reported that the pandemic did not just reverse progress for American women workers. It eradicated three decades of it.
A senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Program, Nicole Goldin, told Axios that we are again facing a time of economic risk due to women’s relationship to the marketplace. “When women are not maximized in the labor force, they are earning less,” said Goldin. “They are spending less, there’s less tax revenue. And there’s less economic growth.”
How long will it take to rebuild?
Throughout American history, and for many women today, the question of whether or not to work when true survival doesn’t depend on it, remains a question. When the Industrial Revolution upended the norms of husbands and wives working together to run a farm or a trade, explains Joanna Meyer, director of public engagement at the Denver Institute of Faith and Work, the stark demarcation in parenting and working roles that we see today began to concretize. It was “the golden age of domesticity,” Meyer says. As men left to work in factories and accrued enough wealth to require only one income, the notion of building a culture upon women staying at home became a sign of prosperity, the ideal life representing the achievement of a cultural good both in terms of wealth and morality.
After World War II, corporations traded their Rosie the Riveter advertising campaigns for the likes of Betty Crocker, who beckoned women out of the workplace and back into the home so that men could return to the factories. Being a stay at home mom, Wallace suggests, was glamorized in the post-war marketing pushes. Women were told that they had worked in the factories as an act of nobility in the absence of men, but now that the men had returned, it was time to return home as an act of nobility.
Many American Evangelical churches supported this cultural wave as well, espousing a complementarian view of gender roles that positioned men as leaders in the workplace, church, and home, and women as primarily focused on the home. Men were to provide for their families and lead in all spheres of influence, while women tended to the needs of their husbands and children first and foremost. The egalitarian understanding of biblical gender roles would gain more social presence in the 1960s, resurrecting an alternate perspective that levels the roles of men and women within the home and church. These interpretations of Scripture had, and continue to have, profound implications for Christian women in the workforce.
The notion of women staying home as a moral act also had major racial implications. When the next stay-at-home mom wave hit in the 1950s and 60s, according to Glynn, women of color never faced the same expectation: “We have systematically through public policies really stigmatized non-white families, with the expectation that Black women should work outside the home, often caring for white women in their households,” Glynn says.
Meyer explains that this cultural type has persisted and continues to shape how we think about women and work today. Sometimes, she explains, we don’t even realize that we’re assuming a cultural norm, and rather assume it to be inherently biblical. When ideas like at-home mothers and at-work fathers are presented as part and parcel of a Christian family values package, we may neglect to examine it up to the light of Scripture and ask if our cultural biases align with the Word of God.
“The Bible has to be universal,” says Meyer. “This vision of the ‘ideal mother’ is very American. It’s very white and very white middle class. It’s not accessible to a woman who doesn’t fit a certain place, culture, or time. That [discrepancy] would imply [that the standard is] not biblical; it’s a cultural assumption.”