Can War Language Rhetoric During COVID-19 Help Elevate Women?

2020 is (finally) in our rearview mirror. As we prepare resolutions for the New Year, we might be reflecting on the “unprecedented times” of the year past. Dominating the landscape of 2020 chaos was, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus devastated economies at all levels, impacting individual family decisions as well as national policy, but these consequences were particularly catastrophic for women, who bear the brunt of job loss and caregiving. For example, in December, the USA experienced a loss of 150,000 jobs, and women accounted for all the losses.[1] The extra childcare burden that popped up with schools out of session fell on women and purportedly will “‘take our women 10 years back’ in the workplace.”[2] However, even in times of crisis, there are opportunities to advance the cause of equality for women. 

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary parts of this past year is the rhetoric wielded by global leaders to frame the COVID-19 pandemic and to rally the public around its response. Fighting it has been likened to a war by prominent individuals around the world.

  • “A number of people have said it, but — and I feel it, actually: I’m a wartime president. This is a war. This is a war. A different kind of war than we’ve ever had.” —President Donald Trump[3]
  • “We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart.” —World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus[4]
  • A United Nations blog described health care workers as “the frontline soldiers” against COVID-19.[5]
  • “Testing is just the beginning in the battle against Covid-19.”—New York Times[6]
  • Bolsonaro’s cabinet, one-third of which are military officials, openly stated in a COVID-19 press release that Brazil is at ‘war’ and must ‘combat’ an ‘invisible enemy.’[7]
  • Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo…likened health care workers to “troops…”[8]

Why were so many leaders quick to use war rhetoric? Well, 2020 was an election year for some, and crises present opportunities for politicians to increase their public support. However, “When we use the language of war to symbolise something good and noble for the purposes of crisis messaging, we ignore the disproportionate impact of conflict on women and girls and their marginalisation from decision-making in both war making and peace building. Papering over the very real and painful experiences of women in war is a poor way to reassure a community…War framing suggests an urgency in which ‘now’ is never the time for critique—in wartime, we band together, we do not criticise. This is sadly familiar for those working in WPS, where too often we are too busy with conflict or too anxious for a quick peace deal to hear from women or give them decision-making power.”[9]

But as “the end of war can bring institutional changes and a better social contract”[10] for women and marginalized populations, we cannot ignore the possibility that the end of the pandemic could bring similar changes to our societies. In the past, this included greater employment and education opportunities for women, expanded health services, expanded social security, stronger and more widespread unions, and more.[11]

Instead of wishing things could “just go back to normal,” how can we use this crisis, this almost-wartime energy, to advocate for the equality of women? And as we’re right at the beginning of 2021, what resolutions can we make to translate those dreams into real change? How can we borrow the lens of supporting war veterans to lift the women who are our “frontline soldiers”?

Dream 1: Equal Employment

Headlines like “Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace” and “Women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 jobs shed by the U.S. economy in December” aren’t great news for gender parity in employment, and job losses and inequities in unemployment have led to a so-called “shesession.”[12] On the other hand, “working from home encourages an essential cultural shift in workplaces to view women as both caregivers and workers,” even though this is often accompanied by an unequal caregiving and housekeeping burdens for women.[13]

Currently, the U.S. federal government offers special privileges in employment to individuals who have sacrificed in service of their country during military conflicts. “Veterans who are disabled, who served on active duty in the Armed Forces during certain specified time periods or in military campaigns are entitled to preference over others in hiring for virtually all federal government jobs.”[14] Policies that give priority to women and mothers who bear increased burdens on their time to keep us safe and healthy could help to mitigate the huge economic losses sustained by women during this pandemic.

Dream 2: Public Health Revolution

I have been able to receive three separate tests for COVID-19 in the last 5 months on campus at Texas A&M University without copays or fees in the name of combatting this “invisible enemy.” With ICUs overflowing and funeral homes unable to cope with the body count, this pandemic is obviously a threat that merits the full force of our health system to defeat. We have seen college campuses, companies, breweries, and even amusement parks convert manpower, square footage, expertise, and operations for the intent to defeat one virus.

After WWII, “U.S. factories that had proven so essential to the war effort quickly mobilized for peacetime, rising to meet the needs of consumers.”[15] In the face of the persistent public health issues that women face, perhaps the procedures and capacities and partnerships we have developed to defend ourselves from the COVID-19 virus could later transition to address other public health issues, like access to healthcare, maternal mortality rates, or domestic violence.

Dream 3: Property Ownership

A study by Caner and Wolff found that “for all races, female headed households, of whom 58 percent are considered asset poor, have the highest rates of asset poverty of all household types.” While “married couple householders have an average $223,194 net wealth, male householders have an average of $111,951 net wealth, and female householders have an average $85,319.”[16] Obviously there’s a major disparity in home ownership, especially between men and women, and the reasons for this are varied and complex. So, let’s view this through the lens of war rhetoric.

GI Bills after WWII and the Korean War supported veterans in purchasing their own homes. In fact, “the largest 20th-century increase in U.S. home ownership occurred between 1940 and 1960” because of these bills. As women are the “frontline soldiers,” or COVID GI’s, sacrificing their time and health to provide caregiving, perhaps it would be possible to support an early 2020s housing boom by offering housing benefits for women like we did for GIs after WWII or the Korean War.[17]

Ultimately, words have power. If our leaders choose to employ intense war language to achieve their political and production ends, there should be no hesitation to employ the same language with as much fervor to compensate those who are most harmed by the conflict we have endured.

-E.P.B.


[1] https://fortune.com/2021/01/08/covid-job-losses-women-december-us-unemployment-rate/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/world/covid-women-childcare-equality.html

[3]https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-briefing-8/

[4]https://www.who.int/news/item/26-03-2020-who-s-director-general-calls-on-g20-to-fight-unite-and-ignite-against-covid-19

[5]https://www.un.org/africarenewal/web-features/coronavirus/health-workers-are-frontline-soldiers-against-covid-19-let%E2%80%99s-protect-them

[6] https://www.afsc.org/blogs/news-and-commentary/how-to-talk-about-covid-19-pandemic

[7] Brazil’s war on COVID-19: Crisis, not conflict—Doctors, not generals Matheus Hoffmann PfrimerDialogues in Human Geography 2020, Vol. 10(2) 137–140

[8] https://www.c-span.org/video/?470811-1/york-governor-cuomo-coronavirus-news-conference

[9] https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/metaphorical-militarisation-covid-19-and-the-language-of-war/

[10]mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/the-war-on-covid-19-what-real-wars-do-and-dont-teach-us-about-the-economic-impact-of-the-pandemic

[11]mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/the-war-on-covid-19-what-real-wars-do-and-dont-teach-us-about-the-economic-impact-of-the-pandemic

[12] https://www.ipr.northwestern.edu/news/2020/doepke-gender-wage-gap-during-the-pandemic.html

[13] https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/working-home-solution-gender-inequality

[14] https://www.dol.gov/agencies/vets/programs/vetspref

[15] https://www.history.com/news/post-world-war-ii-boom-economy

[16] Asena Caner and Edward Wolff (2003)

[17] https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w17166/w17166.pdf

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