Coronavirus magnifies silence around sexism and gender inequality
A woman adjusts the face mask of a child along the streets in the East Village neighborhood of New York, March 19, 2020. | Wong Maye-E / AP

One can find in the media many important analyses and accounts of the way the coronavirus pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the myriad inequities plaguing U.S. society.

The most opulent among us can shelter in place and not have to worry about their next paycheck, about being evicted, about having enough food. They don’t have to choose between staying safe and risking their lives by going to work.

And we have heard much about the disproportionate percentage of African Americans succumbing to the coronavirus, revealing in stark relief, once again, the severity of racial inequality in the U.S.

But while sexism and gender inequality are alive and well in the U.S. and globally, the inequities women experience are being talked about in ways that, while quite important, are significantly different.

Women’s inequality, during the coronavirus, hasn’t been talked about as inequality at all. It’s been talked about in terms of women’s vulnerability and experience of violence.

An NPR report, for example, features the headline: “Global Lockdowns Resulting in ‘Horrifying Surge’ in Domestic Violence, U.N. Warns.” The report featured U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling on governments around the globe to address domestic violence as a key element of their response efforts to the pandemic.

He noted that reports of domestic violence around the globe have surged during the pandemic, citing the particular threat lockdowns pose to women: “For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest—in their own homes.” And he appealed “for peace at home—and in homes—around the world.”

Such an appeal is an important one. I don’t mean to downplay it.

And yet it seems important to note that nowhere do we see a call for equal rights for women. That is not seen as a solution to women’s mistreatment. Instead, there is a call for peace.

U.S. society, too, still remains relatively silent on the issue of women’s equal and human rights.

In last November’s election, Democrats in Virginia flipped the state Senate and House of Delegates to gain full control of the state government for the first time since 1993. These election results inspired hope that the state government would become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which passed the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 1972 and was quickly ratified by 22 states. Any constitutional amendment requires ratification by 38 states. The crawl toward reaching this number has been a slow one, with Nevada becoming the 36th state to ratify in 2017, followed shortly by Illinois. Last February, efforts in Virginia fell short by one vote in the House of Delegates. This year the hope was fulfilled in Virginia, yet the process to achieve the constitutional amendment is still a long shot.

Let’s step back and get a little perspective. Here we are in 2020 still asking whether or not women—some half of our population (actually 50.52%)—should enjoy equal rights or continue to be relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

Isn’t it strange, for a nation pretending to value equality, that we still ask this question, deferring equal rights to women?

Here’s the statement in the ERA this nation trembles to validate:

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”

The question as to why this nation can’t and won’t ratify the ERA is even more puzzling when we recall the language of the 14th amendment, which includes the clause:

“nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The only way women don’t already have what the ERA is asking for, according to this language, has to be because they aren’t considered persons. One might add that according to some judicial rulings on the definition of “sex,” the ERA—not to mention the 14th amendment—might equally apply to LGBTQ persons.

Antonin Scalia, former Supreme Court Justice, clearly didn’t see women as people, asserting the Constitution did not afford women equal rights.

Anti-abortion forces have fought long and hard to deny women equal rights under the law. One of the longstanding points of resistance to granting women full personhood has been the fear that constitutionally affirming women’s equality would effectively affirm and eternalize in the Constitution women’s right to an abortion, making it more difficult, if not impossible, to limit or overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

Of course, without control over their own bodies, women can’t enjoy full equality.

Last year Florida House Speaker José Oliva repeatedly referred to pregnant women as “host bodies.” This kind of language, and the political attitudes embodied in it, should make clear that living up to our nation’s ideal of equality requires granting women the right to control their own bodies and to have access to an abortion. Women simply do not have equality if they are effectively viewed as “host bodies.”

That women aren’t seen as possessing or having control of their own bodies is what enables and, frankly, legitimates the terrorism and violence women endure, in the U.S. and around the globe.

Put another way, they are subject to violence and terrorism because they are seen as unequal and denied equality in U.S. society and culture, de jure and de facto.

We need to use this language. If we frame the problem solely in terms of terrorism and violence, we miss the underlying problem that needs redress: the denial of women’s equal rights and personhood.

Instead of just calling on men to act peacefully toward women, the higher call needs to be to empower women by granting them full equal and human rights under the law.

Otherwise, they remain “host bodies.”

So, while analysts catalog all the inequities magnified during this pandemic, what the coronavirus also has magnified is our culture’s inability still to name women’s inequality, so normalized is it in our society.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.