The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted women—particularly poor women, women of color, and undocumented and immigrant women—in the United States, exacerbating existing disparities in health; education; the economy; and social, political, and family life. Women perform the bulk of both paid and unpaid health care, care work, and domestic work on a global scale, the burden of which only increases for women during public health crises. Yet women have also suffered immense job losses over the past year, accounting for 100% of U.S. jobs lost in December 2020. Essential labor forces in the United States, comprised largely of poor and immigrant workers and workers of color, have endured greater job and housing insecurity, financial vulnerability, and health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. State and federal responses in the United States thus far have failed to adequately address these exacerbated inequalities along the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship status.
Long before the pandemic, women have engaged in critical social justice and advocacy work addressing these same inequalities as members and leaders of faith communities. Black womanist theologians like Emilie Townes and other women scholars and activists of diverse faith traditions continue to address intersecting issues of race, gender, class, and religion, including health care inequities which have become even more critical today due to the disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long before the pandemic, women have engaged in critical social justice and advocacy work addressing these same inequalities as members and leaders of faith communities.
Native American women and activists of faith across the continent have organized for decades in resisting colonialism, land theft, violence, and discrimination and in advocating for health, social, and economic justice for their communities. Native-led organizations like the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center engage in critical advocacy work to end violence against Native women. They have provided essential guidance for survivors of domestic and other violence, which has worsened during the pandemic, and for Native tribal communities generally, as they suffer from disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality.
On the ground, women faith leaders also provide spiritual and ethical guidance, information, and other critical resources which have been integral in responding to the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and the nation at large over the past year. As Kathryn Kraft of World Vision International spoke to in the Berkley Center’s “Faith and COVID Vaccination Challenges: Global Initiatives” event this month, women of faith serve as trusted leaders in their local communities—roles which are particularly important in counteracting misinformation and managing public health responses. Further, Kraft discussed how women faith leaders uniquely demonstrate compassion in serving their community members’ spiritual and social needs during times of crisis.
Women of faith have long engaged in traditions of activism that can provide important theological and ethical frameworks for COVID-19 responses.
Women faith leaders’ efforts and knowledge gained through care and community work, social justice activism, and lived experience can serve as critical resources in reimagining a more just future beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Though largely invisiblized within mainstream movements and discourse, women of faith have long engaged in traditions of activism that can provide important theological and ethical frameworks for COVID-19 responses. In drawing upon these valuable resources, however, we must be cognizant of how multiple oppressions at the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, ability, and citizenship status may further marginalize and silence the voices of poor women, Black women and women of color, disabled women, and undocumented and immigrant women of faith, among others.
Without deliberately intersectional and historicized approaches, U.S. responses to the pandemic risk further exacerbating existing inequalities and the pandemic’s detrimental impact on women. If we are to “build back better,” our local, state, and national responses must be attentive to the intersectional nature of these issues, and would be well-served in drawing upon the valuable knowledge and experience of women faith leaders, scholars, and activists. While immediate action in response to the ongoing pandemic is imperative, the ultimate dismantling of structures of inequality and oppression and the rebuilding of U.S. health, education, political, legal, and economic institutions will be essential in striving towards justice.