Women on the Frontlines of COVID-19 and the Church
DR. GINA A. ZURLO
CO-DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY
I’ve been devouring world news like many people living in social isolation right now. I scroll through article after article on the impact of coronavirus on economics, healthcare, education, and mental health, both at home and abroad. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the media attention on women and COVID-19. Here’s a sampling:
- Millions of women are now the most essential workers in America. 1-in-3 jobs currently held by women in the USA deemed essential and 52% of all essential workers are female, particularly in social work, healthcare, and critical retail.
- Women have been described as a “secret weapon” against coronavirus, like those who developed code words to help people escape domestic violence, which is a particular problem for women living with abusers and can’t leave due to lockdowns.
- There’s been some commentary that countries led by women have fared better against coronavirus, such as Germany (with Angela Merkel organizing the largest-scale testing in Europe), New Zealand (under Jacinda Ardern, a leader known for her empathy, running a country that’s seen only 17 deaths related to the pandemic), and Taiwan (with Tsai Ing-Wen swiftly defending against the virus despite proximity to China).
- The socio-demographic reality that women generally didn’t live alone during the last global pandemic (1918). They lived with parents and then husbands after marrying in their late teens/early twenties. Now, well over 20 million American women live alone, more than ever before.
Despite the importance of women, the work they do has consistently been underpaid and undervalued. Women in the United States, for example, still make on average $0.82 to a man’s $1.00. It’s even worse for women of color.
All of this reminds me of similar gender dynamics that exist within churches all around the world. Women are the invisible front lines running our churches. They are underpaid and undervalued. They care for and educate our children. Provide food and clean sanctuaries. Order flowers and keep the books. Plan vacation Bible school and outreach activities. They are prayer warriors. In the United States, 60% of regular adult church participators are female (between 6%–8% of American congregations have a female head pastor).
Churches are actively engaging with coronavirus all around the world, and women are on those frontlines, too. For example, Catholic women religious (female members of religious orders) outnumber Catholic diocesan priests, religious priests, and professed religious men on every continent. As of 2015, a total of 670,000 women religious were working in nearly every country of the world providing spiritual support as well as healthcare, education, and other critical social services, especially in places where governments are unable to provide essential services.
Some journalists have also picked up on the long-term repercussions this pandemic is likely to have on women. When state-wide lockdowns first started, many people pondered the incredible contributions that Great Men of History made under similar circumstances, such as William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton working during plagues. The most insulting reality of these comparisons is that neither had to take care of small children. As it turns out, tiny demanding humans don’t make the best “coworkers.” The Atlantic picked up on this with a widely-shared article by Helen Lewis, “The Coronavirus is a Disaster for Feminism.” Regardless of your opinion of the term “feminism,” she makes the point that, despite having entered the workforce, women still do most of the housework, childcare, and have less leisure time compared to men. Women deal with long-term career-related ramifications for having and caring for children; men generally do not. Even though COVID-19 has hospitalized and killed more men than women, women need to be involved in the fight against coronavirus so that attention is given to areas that uniquely impact women, such as gender-based violence, domestic violence, maternal health risks, unequal pay, and caregiving burdens.
Just like there is no gender-neutral approach to pandemics, there is no gender-neutral approach to the church’s engagement with the world. Women need to be involved in all aspects of church life and ministry, from the top to the bottom, to ensure that churches are also giving attention to areas that uniquely impact women, who make up the majority of church members worldwide.
Further reading: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, especially chapter 5 that that mentions how PPE (personal protective equipment) just wasn’t designed with women in mind.