FOR MOST OF US, pandemics were once the stuff of the distant past, relegated to dusty history books. Of course, today, we understand them so much better. We’ve seen first-hand the way they cause death and suffering, put huge numbers of people out of work, and tip societies all over the world into recessions and depressions. So it may be a surprise to find out that, in a number of instances, there has also been an unexpected side-effect of global disease outbreaks. Sometimes, they have helped women gain power in patriarchal societies.
Two pandemics that resulted in the dramatic elevation of women’s status in society were The Black Death of the 1300s, and the 1918 flu. In each of these events, the loss of life caused by disease provided a desperate need for labor. This need opened doors for women that had previously been closed, allowing them to enter the workforce and explore opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. Both outbreaks also gave women new leverage to advocate for their rights. The 1918 flu even played a role in garnering the support necessary for the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in America, and ignited a battle for equal pay that is still being fought today. The jury is still out on how COVID-19 will impact women’s lives, but knowing our history certainly puts us in a better position to shape our future.
The Black Death and Women’s Economic Advancement In Europe
The pandemic known as “The Black Death” was a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague that took place in Asia and Europe from 1346 to 1353. The disease originated in Asia but was carried to Europe by trade ships making trips between the continents. Spread by fleas, the bubonic plague caused terribly swollen lymph nodes and boils that became black, hence the name “Black Death.” And while bubonic plague is often given all the credit for the devastation wrought during this era, many believe that pneumonic plague—a much deadlier airborne version of the disease—was spreading simultaneously. It is estimated that 25 million people (approximately one-third of the entire population of Europe) died as a result of the pandemic. Due to the significant labor shortages this created, the workers who survived had increased bargaining power. They could demand higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. In a society where nobility had ruthlessly dominated working-class peasants for generations, this shift in power sped the decline of that system, known as “feudalism.”
For this same reason, the years following the Black Death are sometimes referred to as a “Golden Age” for women. Not only did women have the opportunity to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers during this time, but they also did so in an era that was now paying significantly higher wages than it had prior to the pandemic. It was during this period as well that apprenticeships, the traditional method of entering a trade, and, for the most part, available only to boys, were suddenly being taken on by large numbers of girls. In addition, women who were widowed as a result of the pandemic were allowed to take charge of their husbands’ businesses. With their newfound economic independence, many post-plague women began to postpone marriage until they were older, with some choosing not to marry at all. Additionally, women on average had less children. This shift has been viewed by historians as one of the reasons that the European population took so long to recover to pre-pandemic levels. But it can also be interpreted as proof that women’s options were undoubtedly expanded as a result of new workforce opportunities. With that expansion of choice and newfound ability to support themselves, women finally had more control over whether they wanted to marry, and how many children they wanted to have.
The 1918 Influenza and Women’s Rights in America
The origins of the 1918 flu are not known with certainty, but it is thought that the virus might have come from Haskell County, Kansas. Despite this ambiguity, what is known is that Haskell County experienced a severe influenza outbreak in January 1918. From there, several young men reported to Camp Funston, Kansas, to begin training for deployment in WWI. Within weeks, the flu had raged throughout the camp and was quickly carried by military troops around the U.S. and across the Atlantic.
One of the unique features of the 1918 influenza pandemic was its devastating effect on young, healthy people. And because the virus was spread through military training camps, on troop transport ships, and within the trenches of Europe, young men experienced greater death rates from the virus than did young women. Overall, the 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans—250,000 women and 450,000 men—and the war took over 100,000 more men’s lives. As WWI came to an end and men returned from Europe, war losses compounded by flu deaths made it clear that the American, male, working-age population had been decimated. And, as with the Plague some 400 years before, these deaths meant that there was a shortage of workers in all American labor markets across the country. Though born out of devastation, this shortage presented an opportunity for women to enter the workforce and gain economic independence for the first time, and, for white women in particular, to remain in the workforce in jobs they had been hired for while working-age men were fighting overseas.
As part of the war effort, women had both entered jobs previously held by men, and taken on new military-support posts that were created specifically for them long before the pandemic hit. For example, by 1918, munitions factories had become the single largest employer of women in America. For Black women, who prior to the war were mainly limited to domestic work, the increase in job opportunities was even more dramatic. “[Black] women worked as ammunition testers, switchboard operators, stock takers, wrappers, elevator operators, subway porters, ticket choppers, trained signallers, and railyard-walkers. They went into every kind of factory devoted to the production of war materials, from the most dangerous posts in munitions plants to the delicate sewing in aeroplane factories,” African-American journalist and poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote in 1918. “Colored girls and colored women drove motor trucks, unloaded freight cars, dug ditches, packed boxes. The colored woman running the elevator or speeding a railroad [train] on its way by signals was a common sight.”
In fact, the railroad became one of the biggest employers of Black women during this time, as former cooks and maids were hired to replace men, primarily as car cleaners. “All the colored women like this [railroad] work and want to keep it. We are making more money at this than any work we can get,” a woman named Helen Ross stated in a 1918 interview that was later quoted in Women, War, and Work by Maurine Weiner Greenwald.
The opportunities presented for women during WWI were great, but likely would have disappeared at the end of the war had it not been for the 1918 flu. Before the flu hit, it was the intention of most companies to give the jobs that women were currently working back to men as they returned from the front. And while there had initially been resistance to hiring women into these sorts of jobs, by the time the 1918 flu hit the States, the government was organizing campaigns to draw women into the workforce.
The flu didn’t only create a shortage of low-level workers, but also a shortage of men to fill leadership roles, which gave some women the chance to move into management positions and exercise their leadership skills. Regardless of the level of employment women obtained, they demonstrated that they could make a meaningful contribution to the American economy. “Women were seen as quick learners, and in some departments, they were more efficient than men, although those departments have been employing men exclusively for years,” a Seattle factory manager explained in a 1917 article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
As the confluence of war casualties and pandemic illnesses increased America’s need for skilled medical professionals, thousands of women answered the call as nurses. “With eager determination we entered the ranks,” volunteer nurse Mabel Chilson recalled in a 1921 edition of The Annual. “The greatest comfort we possessed was the knowledge that each girl was doing her best and making good as a nurse.” While at first only white nurses were admitted, by 1918 the shortage became so great that 18 Black women were selected to fill army nursing posts, and many more were recruited to serve on the home front.
Following the end of WWI, the number of women in the American workforce was 25 percent higher than it had been prior to the war, and by 1920, women made up 21 percent of the total workforce overall. As more women moved into the workforce, and particularly as they moved into leadership roles, they began to demand equal pay for the work they were doing. “If it shall become necessary to employ women on work ordinarily performed by men, they must be allowed equal pay for equal work,” the National War Labor Board declared in 1918. Clearly, the broadening of women’s career opportunities, the fight for equal pay, and the movement for women’s suffrage were all bolstered by the war effort. But without the deaths that resulted from the 1918 flu, it is possible that these advances would have been lost to history.
Advancements in women’s financial independence and women’s corresponding empowerment allowed women to have enough sustained economic participation for suffrage groups to make a real impact on politicians with the power to grant women the right to vote. It also resulted in a genuine change in the attitude of American men. In 1915, the U.S. House of Representatives had rejected a proposal that would have given women the right to vote. But by 1919, women had been given the opportunity to prove that they were smart, capable, and absolutely vital to the war effort. Men had witnessed the impact that women could have on the betterment and productivity of the country, so in the years following WWI, they were more willing to accept the demands for equal pay and voting rights, efforts led by Black civil-rights pioneer Ida B. Wells and white suffragist Alice Paul. “We have made partners of the women in this war.... Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” President Woodrow Wilson stated to Congress following the war.
The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. Four years later, the United States elected its first-ever woman governor. WWI, combined with the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed during the 1918 flu, paved the way for greater workforce participation for many women, as well as an elevated level of respect by men across the country.
How Might COVID-19 Change the Future for Women?
While past pandemics have had a positive impact on women, the effect of the COVID-19 crisis has two likely, yet vastly different potential outcomes. In one scenario, the clock could be turned back on women’s rights further than it has been in most people’s recent memories. In another, there will be a renewed opportunity for women to enter the workforce in greater numbers. Which one of these long-term outcomes will bear out is still a coin toss. But knowing the vastly different directions the pandemic could push women’s rights and economic independence could help cultivate a more positive outcome.
As the COVID-19 economy stands now, women’s employment losses could become permanent, and even increase. This means less women in the workforce and less women entering the workforce in the future. Additionally, some who have returned to work have experienced cuts in pay, hours, or both. In dual-earner households, women are still more likely to work part-time or bring home less money. If overall household incomes decrease and childcare costs move out of reach for dual-earner households, women are statistically more likely to leave their jobs to care for children. This could lead to additional women, who otherwise would have been employed, leaving the workforce because it makes more economic sense for their families. Inevitably, these conditions would translate to less economic independence for women. Women of color have already been displaced disproportionately from their jobs and will likely suffer from a greater lack of employment if the economy is slow to recover.
In addition to these job issues, there is also the possibility of long-term educational impacts on young women who had just begun to enjoy the fruits of educational parity. Students in the U.S. have already lost huge learning gains in the time that schools have been closed, with students of color and students from low-income backgrounds suffering the most. These educational deficits become more difficult to make up the longer schools remain closed, limiting opportunities that otherwise would have been available to highly skilled women. Beginning in 2000, women’s participation in the workforce began to wane, and “this decline in labor participation,” say Jialu L. Streeter and Martha Deevy in their Stanford Center on Longevity article “Financial Security and the Gender Gap,” “was most significant for women with lower educational attainment.” Thus, lost education threatens to further erode the financial security of women in the United States.
The second possible outcome for women’s rights in the post-COVID era is less dire. Some experts have suggested that the experience with working from home will lead a growing number of companies to implement more flexible workplaces. There may be more work-from-home options in the future and those jobs might offer greater flexibility in working hours. Since women still bear a disproportionate amount of childcare responsibilities—even if they are working full-time outside the home—these more flexible offices could greatly improve women’s ability to both work and parent. This new paradigm would allow women a better work/life balance and might even allow those who currently don’t work to enter the workforce in some capacity.
Over the last 800 years, the tragedy of large-scale death due to pandemics has often been accompanied by the silver lining of more opportunities for women. Our participation in the workforce has increased, our political power and economic independence has increased, and often, societal norms have changed for the better as men learned to view women as more equal partners. While the COVID-19 crisis may not open up the workforce to women through labor shortages like in the past, the lessons we’re learning now by working from home could create a future economy that includes more women than ever before.
By Christine Crudo Blackburn
header image PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS &PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, [LC-DIG-DS-01290]
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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