How bad was 2020? So awful that Match.com made a commercial in which a woman named 2020 falls in love with the Devil and they live happily ever after. As annoying as it is that 2020 is portrayed as a woman, the ad sums up the year pretty well.
The year began promisingly, at least at the United Nations, with many events planned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a progressive foundation to promote women’s rights in every country around the world. The events, including the annual Commission on the Status of Women, were some of the first to fall in the domino chain of cancellations unleashed by Covid-19, in early March. By June, it was clear that 2020 had turned from a year of highlighting progress for women and pushing for more success into one that could set women back generations. So it’s fitting that the year ends up as the Devil’s handmaid.
Here are some of the biggest harms unleashed on women this year, followed by some good things that happened, too, and a shout-out for the most outstanding woman of the year: each and every one of us.
The First-Ever ‘She-Cession’
For the first time during a global recession, women have been more directly affected than men. After major gains in employment as a result of the 2008 recession recovery, millions of women left the global workforce in 2020 as pandemic-induced slowdowns and stops interrupted economic productivity. Driving this exodus were many forces, including a disproportionate loss of jobs, lack of child-care help, continuing wage gaps and, according to the Rand Corporation, “a lack of public policy to support working women.”
The Hidden Pandemic
By April — the first full month of the global lockdown — research conducted by UN Women found that calls to hot lines dealing with violence against women and girls had more than doubled in many countries, leading to a “shadow pandemic.”
Major progress in women’s equality has been made in the 25 years since the Beijing conference elevated the need to ensure women’s empowerment, especially female representation in politics. Experts fear that the pandemic has disrupted forward momentum in the political arena, stagnating and even potentially lowering the number of women political leaders in all levels of governments.
Repeat Her Name, Then Say It Again
The police killing of an innocent Black woman in her home, in Louisville, Ky., helped to spark a global movement protesting racial and social injustices, including a viral hashtag on Twitter, #SayHerName. Today, investigations continue to probe how the police raid on her home left her dead by their gunshots, while some reforms have been instituted.
Yet 2020 offered glimmers of hope, compassion, empathy and even progress for women, despite the Match.com ad.
The Real Heroines
Covid turned the public’s attention to jobs consistently held by women. Doctors, nurses, grocery-store clerks, cleaning staff and social workers — all “essential workers” in the Covid-era lexicon — became champs overnight in the deadly global upheaval. According to The New York Times, more than half the jobs deemed essential are held by women, and among health care professionals and social workers, they account for more than 75 percent of the workforce. Many of the essential workers are not receiving the most basic health and safety measures to combat exposure to the coronavirus and are dying as a result.
Global appreciation for teachers, a job again most likely to be filled by women almost anywhere in the world, spiked as their professional model changed suddenly from teaching physically in the classroom to online formats.
Hail the Covid Conquerors
By August, it was clear that countries led by women had fewer cases of the coronavirus and fewer deaths. The government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand deserves an extra call-out for taking a symbolic salary cut and squashing the pandemic to the point where people can attend concerts.
Kamala Harris: First Female US Veep
Representation matters. A woman of color, the child of immigrants, Harris will fill the second-highest executive office position in the United States on Jan. 20, 2021.
As an example of women rebelling against the established order, take Belarus, a former Soviet republic where a strongman, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been in power for 26 years straight. Lukashenko refuses to recognize the results of the August election, in which the majority of votes have claimed to be won by the main opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. In response, women-led protests continue, despite repression, jailing and death threats. Tikhanovskaya, now exiled to Lithuania, and the organization she established to carry out the transfer of power, the Coordination Council, were recently hailed as “an initiative of brave women, as well as prominent political and civil society figures” in being given the Sakharov prize, the European Union’s top human-rights award.
This year, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a US Supreme Court Justice and champion of women’s rights globally, died; and in 2021, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany retires. But as Harris, Ardern and Tikhanovskaya have shown in a pretty horrible year for women’s rights, these notables are followed by a legion of other women ready to push for, and protect, what is their legal, social and economic due.
The women to watch, though, are the millions around the world exercising their rights and wielding their power — voting in increasing numbers, protesting in the streets and demanding that whatever new normal emerges in 2021, women will be in the lead.
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Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.