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When I enter the front doors of the Rotary Lodge in Barrie, where I’m currently staying during my cancer treatment, there’s a desk with a sign that reads SOCIAL DISTANCING followed by instructions. Behind the desk is a woman in the now-familiar yellow hospital robe that all the staff guarding the doorways at the hospital wear. A mask covers her mouth and a clear plastic shield protects her eyes.
From two metres away, I say, “This probably isn’t your regular gig, eh?”
She’s tired—behind the plastic, her eyes regard me warily. I think she’s wondering if I’m going to complain, or disrespect the new rules. She decides I’m sincere and, with a sigh, shares with me that she’s a physical therapist who loves her job. She misses her clients, her regulars and the challenge of new ones. We both know she doesn’t want to be at the door, screening people with the same five questions indefinitely.
I ask her to have a great day and end with the wish that she’s back at her regular job soon. She says thanks, but we’re both aware that her new position has been deemed essential, and physical therapy just didn’t make the cut.
What does it mean to be essential?
It’s defined as ‘absolutely necessary.’
Necessary is described as ‘required.’
Well, I think you get it.
Lest you think this article is about the newly released and detrimentally long list of businesses that will stay open (or re-open after they did the right thing by shutting down) at Doug Ford’s command, let me redirect.
Women are essential.
Someone told me a few days ago that I’m “very good at hope.” With hope in my heart, I took this as a compliment, but I admit I’m guilty of brightsiding and silverlining-ing from time to time. As I sit, socially distanced, in my room at the Rotary Lodge, only leaving for a half hour for radiation and an hour for a walk, I have had a lot of time to think.
After I learned the steps that women’s shelters are taking province-wide to combat the spread of COVID-19 during this pandemic, including restricting intakes and limiting women’s movements, I needed some hope. There is a perfect storm of abuse brewing: women having fewer options to leave, a home where the abuser doesn’t work but can access alcohol, all stewing in an environment of isolation, frustration, and intolerance.
There’s no doubt in my mind that instances of so-called domestic abuse are rising right now and will continue to rise during this period of history. I’m alarmed and frightened by the fact that women and their children are trapped in abusive relationships with fewer tangible resources available than they had last year. When someone is abused, often the only reprieve, or chance to leave, is when the abuser is at work or out socially. Without those opportunities, women will die.
So it feels absurd to have hope.
I have voiced my fear that this virus environment will mean a return to the nuclear family. Slowly, we’ve been moving away from that paradigm, as women becoming the primary recipients of university degrees and also statistically rising as the ‘breadwinner’ of the family.
Historically, even after women were deemed persons (a mere 91 years ago), women had to cohabitate with men in order to survive. Even if they could work, they couldn’t open a bank account or get credit or inherit property. They certainly couldn’t get a mortgage or own a deed to a house. Considered property, women got the last name of the man who owned her at any given time, between her father and her husband.
For a time, households could thrive with one person earning a wage. Women have always worked, but until recently all that labour was unpaid, and of course much of it still is, like childcare and home management. As the economy grew mid-late century, and those in charge embraced money as god and gleefully celebrated cronyism and nepotism (both drastically favouring men) and corporatism, it became necessary for women to work in order to support the household.
The rest of her jobs didn’t disappear. Hence the term ‘the second shift.’
But women’s imperative role in the workplace during the Second World War caused a sea change that could not be undone, regardless of the attempts of a patriarchal society to erase these efforts and get women back into the home. Women began to earn money and to keep it. Suddenly, women need not rely on men for survival.
Can you imagine a more seismic societal shift? The creators of human beings were finally free.
Free to choose, of course. And many women choose to partner with men and raise families in a nuclear fashion. In fact, it’s near impossible on minimum wage, especially in Muskoka, to afford to have a home and raise children as a single parent. Were this achievable, we would see even fewer instances of women remaining in dangerous or unhappy relationships.
And now one or both parents might be laid off or deemed inessential. Unexpectedly, it is primarily women who are essential during a pandemic, all factors presently colliding. But it causes an unfortunate spiral. The reason domestic abuse shelters mostly serve women who experience poverty is not because poor women are more commonly abused. It’s because poor women have fewer options. They can’t just get a hotel room until they find their own apartment. When women have fewer options, abusive relationships last longer, escalate in severity, and have more elements of control and isolation.
Two things, though.
First, you cannot put women back in the box. There are young women to whom it is inconceivable that women were ever kept from working or kept from getting an education. Equality is a given and anyone who implies that women are less is mercilessly shut down. Even if, in a crisis, many families do have only one parent working, it will just as often be the woman now as the man, unlike when men returned from war and demanded their jobs back and since women weren’t paid nearly as much as men, it made financial sense for husbands to be the wage-earners. But now women are more educated and earn almost as much, are less likely to marry, and tend to work in fields that have been deemed essential like healthcare and retail.
Second, and this had to be pointed out to me when I was scrambling for hope, with so many women working, men will shift into more of a child-rearing and home-management role by necessity. This is also something that can’t be undone. In countries where men take paternity leave and parent their children, equality rises. Archaic gender roles dissolve. People do the things they love and are good at, not the things they’ve been told are appropriate for their gender.
I can’t help but regard this crisis with my feminist x-ray vision. Hierarchical power dynamics inform what we learn, what we care about, how we behave, and whether we grow as a society. It’s the air we breathe, and it’s like when you learn air isn’t empty but full of molecules—you never look at it the same way once you know.
So this is an opportunity. Do we revert, or do we invent? Do we scramble, or do we stride? What do we envision for the next generation and how can we create it?
COVID-19 will run its devastating course. We will be forever changed. But this isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that our communities have come up against such a beast. As always, we decide what we do with the chances we get to make the world a lovelier place.
For me, I would like to walk forward, with you all, in hope, toward women’s continued liberation.
Six feet apart, of course.
Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.
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