As summer comes to an end and professors plan their fall schedules, this week we are featuring a roundup of posts from this blog on Covid-19 and families that can be shared in the classroom. These pieces cover research on a range of issues, and are written to be accessible to students and the general public.

Covid-19 and Romantic Relationships

Covid-19 and the Gendered Division of Paid and Unpaid Work

Covid-19 and Children

Covid-19 and Family Ties

Arielle Kuperberg is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and is the editor of this blog. Follow her on twitter to get updates about new blog posts @ATKuperberg or contact her directly at

In mid-March 2020, schools across the United States shuttered their doors. Kids were sent home and parents were expected to figure out how to work, supervise learning, and take on added caregiving and housework simultaneously. It’s no wonder parents are exhausted.

Initial hopes that schools would return to normal following summer break are now very much in question as rates of COVID-19 reached all-time highs just weeks before the anticipated start of public schools. Many school districts, including some of the largest in the country, have already made decisions to go fully remote in the fall. For working families in these districts, parents will once again juggle the competing demands of homeschooling and job responsibilities—all this as childcare centers are closed or operating on limited capacity and extended family care is limited to reduce the risk of exposure. We know that mothers already took on a larger share of childcare than fathers before the pandemic. Under these new conditions, it’s not surprising then that mothers’ employment has taken a serious hit.

A Work Crisis For Mothers

In a recently published study in Socius, we used data from the Current Population Survey to estimate just how much recent pandemic-related changes to family life have affected women’s and men’s employment outcomes. We compared a number of labor force estimates between February and April 2020, examining the period of time prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. to the height of the first wave when stay-at-home orders were issued across the country. We show that since February, labor force participation has dropped among mothers of younger children, while unemployment has risen dramatically. Mothers are also scaling back work hours among those with more flexibility to do so.

Data: Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) Current Population Survey February and April 2020
Source: Liana Christin Landivar, Leah Ruppanner, William J. Scarborough, and Caitlyn Collins. 2020. “Early Signs Indicate COVID-19 is Exacerbating Gender Inequality in the Labor Force.” Socius 6:1-3. DOI:

Among married women employed in February, the labor force participation rate dropped by 4.3 percentage points by April, falling from 75.7% to 71.4%, for those with children ages 6 to 12. These children likely require more caregiving and remote learning supervision than teenagers. Labor force participation also fell among mothers of the youngest children (ages 1-5), declining by 3.2 percentage points. In all, nearly 250,000 more mothers than fathers with children under 13 left the labor force between February and April. Unemployment, up across the board, increased the most among childless women (11.6 percentage points) and mothers of young school-agers (11.0 percentage points), resulting in an April unemployment rate of 13.6% and 13.1%, respectively.

In another new study in Gender, Work & Organization, we show that mothers scaled back on work hours four to five times more than fathers over the same time period. Married mothers’ work hours declined by nearly two hours per week. Declines in hours worked were slightly larger among mothers of children ages 1-5 where both parents worked in occupations that allowed for teleworking. Most fathers’ reductions in hours worked were statistically insignificant. As a result, the gender gap in hours worked increased by 25% among all married, heterosexual couples and up to 50% among couples in occupations that allow telecommuting. This is a staggering reduction in work hours for mothers, leading to a dramatic increase in the gender gap in work hours over a short period of time.

Policy Suggestions to Support Mothers’ Employment

The uncertainty of how long remote learning will continue and the lack of federal provisions to facilitate employment or help parents retain job attachment (e.g., though paid caregiving leave) may result in serious long-term effects for mothers’ employment who will be more likely to leave the labor force. Research shows that stepping out of the labor force for family reasons is stigmatized by many employers. As a result, mothers who leave work now may face barriers to re-entry later on. Reductions in employment as a result of the pandemic are likely to be steeper among Black and Latina mothers who are more likely to have to work onsite making simultaneous caregiving impossible in most instances, work in industries facing more significant disruptions, and are less likely to have flexible work options or paid leave.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) provided limited caregiving leave of up to 12 weeks for families who experienced school or childcare closures. However, the FFCRA exemptions by employer size and sector left millions of working parents without coverage. Removing the exclusions and expanding the amount of caregiving leave offered, as parents must now cover a new school year at home, would help parents retain attachment to an employer while taking leave to provide care or remote learning assistance to their children. Shoring up the childcare infrastructure—already weak in the United States—will be critical as childcare centers operate on slim margins and capacity restrictions may push many out of business. We have shown that subsidized childcare was critical to states’ economic recovery following the previous recession. Given the extreme pressure on families, we believe these resources are even more critical during this recession. Prioritizing the reopening of elementary schools would help families as children of this age have more intense childcare needs and are least able to learn effectively remotely. Finally, employers will need to continue to provide maximum flexibility to avoid significant turnover and loss of workers with caregiving responsibilities. Without proper supports, mothers’ employment may continue to drop, with lasting harmful effects to families’ economic security, gender and racial inequality, and national economic prosperity.

Liana Christin Landivar is a sociologist and a faculty affiliate at the Maryland Population Research Center, and is the author of Mothers at Work: Who Opts Out?. Follow her on twitter at @lclandivar. Leah Ruppanner is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of The Policy Lab at the University of Melbourne and author of Motherlands: How U.S. States Push Mothers Out of Employment. Follow her on twitter @LeahRuppanner. William Scarborough is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Texas. Follow him on twitter @BuddyScarboro. Caitlyn Collins is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving. Follow her on twitter @CaitlynMCollins

Although children appear to be less vulnerable than adults to serious COVID-19 medical complications, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that they are disproportionately endangered by the pandemic’s economic toll. Households with children have seen significant increases in housing insecurity and food insufficiency.  When experienced in childhood, these forms of economic adversity have cumulative negative consequences that endure throughout the life course. With experts predicting another “two long years” until recovery, this is a serious social problem.

Key provisions of the CARES Act, including expanded unemployment benefits and  protections against eviction and foreclosure, are set to expire on July 31, 2020, increasing Americans’ vulnerability to poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Without additional economic relief, millions of children face risks to health and well-being that may persist long after COVID-19 is under control.

Food insufficiency in households with children during COVID-19

In the first week of July, almost 15% of American households with children reported not having enough to eat over the past 7 days, compared to just 9% of households without children.  This represents a substantial increase since the pandemic: 35% of these households reported they did have sufficient food prior to March 13, 2020.

A vast body of research documents the association of food insufficiency (not having sufficient food) and food insecurity (limited or uncertain access to adequate food) with a range of negative outcomes for children. Children raised in food insecure households are at higher risk of depression, suicide ideation, behavioral problems, deficits in educational and social skills, and poor health as much as 10 years later. Schools play an important role in protecting children from the effects of household food insufficiency by providing free or reduced-price meals to those in need. But it is not clear that all schools will be back in session fulltime this fall. Furthermore, pre-school aged children, who do not normally get school meals, may be particularly vulnerable to the long-range impact of food insecurity, given the rapid cognitive development that occurs between age 0-5.

Housing insecurity in households with children during COVID-19

Housing insecurity—which includes lack of access to affordable housing, homelessness, crowding, and poor housing quality—has also increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of American children.  As of early July, 15% of mortgaged households with children had a late or deferred mortgage payment the previous month, compared to 6% of mortgaged households without children. The numbers are even more striking for renters. Approximately 26% of households living with children in rental units reported a late or deferred payment in the past month. As the pandemic continues, these families are at risk of risk foreclosure or eviction.

The residential instability faced by those who can’t afford adequate housing undermines children’s school performance, limits access to preventive services including immunizations, and increases risk of a wide range of developmental and health problems, including drug use and teen pregnancyOne study found that children who experienced multiple residential moves prior to age 7 were almost three times more likely to be diagnosed with depression by age 14. In addition, children in households that lack affordable housing or who experience housing instability (evictions, frequent moves, homelessness) are at higher risk of parental maltreatment, neglect, and abuse.

Housing and food insecurity undermine child and adolescent well-being in part by increasing maternal depression, parenting stress, and harsh parenting. And even parents who have not yet experienced food or housing insufficiency but anticipate doing so as the crisis continues are now feeling the kind of stress that can erode smooth family functioning. In A May study by the American Psychological Association, 70% of parents reported that being able to provide basic needs such as access to food and housing during the pandemic was a significant source of stress. Two-thirds also reported being stressed by worry about access to health care services.

Increased isolation during the pandemic exacerbates the vulnerability of families with children to the negative effects of housing and food insecurity

Many low-income families rely on support from family and friends in order to make ends meet, but social isolation, uncertainty, and widespread economic strain have made these resources more difficult to access during COVID-19. At the same time, school closures and restrictions on contact have isolated many children from professionals who work with children and serve as mandated reporters for suspected abuse or neglect.

But duration of exposure matters, suggesting that it is not too late to head off many of the negative long-term consequences of the economic toll of the pandemic for American children if we strengthen and expand existing relief measures. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which replaced the Food Stamp Program) provides funds directly to families to help pay for food but current benefits may be insufficient to meet growing needs.  Provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020 that allowed states to provide free or reduced-price meals to eligible students affected by pandemic-related school closures may need to be extended beyond the 2019-2020 school year. And temporary expansions of employment benefits and eviction protections provided by the CAREs Act are set to expire at the end of July. Investing in America’s children by expanding and extending these important government programs can help to mitigate the long-term social, economic, and health toll of the pandemic on the next generation.

Kristi Williams, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ohio State University, and President of the Board of Directors of the Council on Contemporary Families. She can be reached at

Reprinted from:

Reprinted with permission from Econofact

The Issue:

There are large disparities in COVID-related unemployment, with the largest proportional losses among Latinx and less-educated workers. The effects have been particularly felt among children.  In our original research based on very recent data, we find that one-in-five children in the United States experienced the job loss of an adult in their household between February and April of 2020 and one-in-twelve experienced the job loss of all adult earners in their household, including one-in-seven children living with single parents. Our analysis also points to striking disparities by race, ethnicity, and income, with higher shares of Latinx, Black, and lower-income children losing all adult earners in their households. While there was some job recovery between April and May, the pattern of job losses appears to be exacerbating inequality.

The Facts:

  • There was pervasive experience among children with one or more adults in their households losing jobs following the March 2020 COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, but there are also significant differences across racial, ethnic and income groups. The statistic that 21 percent of children experienced the job loss of at least one adult in their household is calculated over all race and ethnic groups, household incomes, and family structures. (This statistic, and all others in this memo, are based on our analysis using the Current Population Survey (CPS) interviews of the same households in February and April of 2020, and following a subset interviewed in May 2020). Latinx and lower-income children were harder hit; 27 percent of Latinx children and 24 percent of children in households earning less than the country’s median income ($75,000) prior to the pandemic experienced at least one household member losing a job between February and April of 2020. About one-third of children living in households that included parents and other adults, like grown children, or extended family members, experienced one of the adults in that household losing a job.
  • Disparities were particularly stark among children experiencing job loss of all working adults in their household. The share of children living in households in which no one earned an income doubled from 7 percent in February to 15 percent in April. The overall share of children in households that lost all adult earners between February and April, 8.3 percent, masks differences across groups (see the chart). The share of White children whose households lost all adult earners was 5.8 percent while these shares for Black children and Latinx children were 12.4 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively. There was a higher share of children in households with income below $75,000, where all adult earners lost their job (12.1 percent) as compared to the share of children in households that made between $75,000 and $150,000 (4.9 percent) or those that made more than $150,000 (2.5 percent). There were also marked differences across family structure; 14.2 percent of children living with single parents saw their parent lose their job while less than half that share of children living with two parents (6.4 percent) saw all earners in their households lose their jobs.
  • Latinx children were more likely to be in households that experienced any job loss, but they were relatively protected from job losses among all adult earners because they more often lived in households with multiple adults. Latinx children are more likely to live households that include grandparents and extended kin. The average number of adults in a Latinx household with children was 2.3, as compared to 2.1 for Whites and 1.9 for Blacks. Twenty percent of Latinx children lived in two-parent households with other adults – the comparable statistics were 10.4 percent for White children and 8 percent for Black children. Among Latinx children, 11.1 percent lived in single-parent households with other adults, while 5.6 percent of White children and 17.2 percent of Black children lived in households of this type.
  • There were mixed findings when we looked at the same group of children in May 2020. Children’s experience of job loss in their household between February and April captured the immediate impact of March stay-at-home orders. Following this group of children for an additional month using linked samples from the May CPS showed that all groups were doing marginally better, with fewer children in households with no earners. This appears to be especially true among children in higher-income households earning above $150,000. But other children, particularly Black and Latinx children, seem to be lagging behind. Data suggest that to the extent there has been a recovery, it has been unequal across groups, exacerbating disparities and indicating widening gaps in the longer-run. (Our estimates are based on a subset of children whose households responded to the May CPS; this subset tended to draw proportionally more observations from richer households, potentially understating disparities in recovery.) And, of course, the situation remains fluid, with forecasts warning that economic conditions may worsen.
  • There were also large geographic differences in the share of children who experienced job loss in their household. Stay-at-home orders varied across states, although there is evidence that the labor market collapsed at the same time across the U.S. irrespective of where the virus first spread or, the timing of state-level lock-down policies. State-level safety net policies, including unemployment insurance, vary widely. These factors suggest inequality in children’s experiences across states. We found that, at the state level, the loss of all household earners from February to April ranged from less than 2 percent of children in Minnesota and Connecticut to over 15 percent in New York and Nevada. Differences in child vulnerability do not map neatly onto the generosity of state safety nets. For example, Minnesota’s per capita spending on social welfare is relatively high and Connecticut’s is relatively low. Similarly, New York’s spending is high and Nevada’s is low. Regional disparities in child vulnerability to household job loss likely reflect state-by-state differences in the occupational mix, including the share of essential workers and jobs that more easily transitioned to remote work. These differences will likely shift, and may very well widen, as the pandemic moves to new areas of the country.

What this Means:

The number of children who lived in households that experienced job loss in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic was staggering. It was also consistent with the precipitous rise in unemployment during this period. The most recent data available from the May CPS interviews points to modest and unequal recovery and, of course, some suggest a worsening of conditions as the pandemic spreads to new areas of the country. The job losses followed longstanding patterns of unequal vulnerability and exacerbated inequalities by race and ethnicity, income, and family structure. Furthermore, issues of child well-being extend beyond economic security to broader indicators of development, including stress-related health outcomes, cognitive development, and social development. Children—particularly those at greatest risk of economic vulnerability—need support at this unprecedented time. Many children at greatest risk are in states with weak track records of social support, and they need better access to income security, childcare, education, and nutrition. Delaying this support will exacerbate the long-term implications of the pandemic on a generation of children.

Anna Bokun is a Sociology Ph.D. student and a trainee in Population Studies at the University of Minnesota. Follow her at @AnnaMBokun.  Jessie Himmelstern is a Sociology Ph.D. student and a trainee in Population Studies at the University of Minnesota. Follow her at @Jesshimmel. Wonjeong Jeong is a Sociology Ph.D. student at Cornell University. Ann Meier is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Population Studies Training Program at the University of Minnesota. Kelly Musick is Professor and Department Chair of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. Rob Warren is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota where he also directs the Population Health Training Program. 

Eighteen million people in the U.S. are cohabiting, and half are under age 35. Cohabiting couples are more egalitarian; but they are younger, poorer, and more vulnerable at work and at home. These families’ needs are neglected in many plans for how to help in a time of pandemic. 

 Newspapers and websites are full of advice for married couples who are working from home while trying to manage child care. But most of that advice is aimed at married couples, whose challenges are often very different than those facing the millions of cohabiting couples in America. In a briefing report, The Challenges Facing Cohabiting Couples in this Crisis, to the Council on Contemporary Families, Amanda Miller (University of Indianapolis) and Sharon Sassler (Cornell  University) show how crucial it is to understand cohabiting families and respond to their—until now—neglected needs and concerns. Consider:

  • Cohabitors have less money. Fifty-three percent earn less than $30,000 per year.
  • An estimated 5.8 million American children were living in cohabiting households in 2018. Almost twice as many cohabiting parents as married ones (46 percent vs. 26 percent) are low-income, earning 150 percent or less of the supplemental poverty measure.
  • Cohabitors are concentrated in low-wage jobs, making them more likely to have been impacted by the 30 million job losses we experienced in the past month, but also more likely to be labeled essential workers, required to report to high-stress front-line jobs with inadequate protections in place.
  • As some states relax shelter-in-place orders, cohabitors who have jobs to go back to are less likely to have paid sick leave, increasing the likelihood of exposure on the job.

Egalitarianism helps, but…. Heterosexual cohabitors have one advantage in this crisis compared to their married counterparts, Miller and Sassler report. On average, they are less locked in to traditional gender roles and less likely to assume that women should do more care work at home. Such equality is now one of the strongest predictors of relationship satisfaction, suggesting that heterosexual married couples have some things to learn from cohabitors, as well as from same-sex married couples. However, many cohabitors do not intend to marry, and the report outlines the different risks that can arise when relationships are intensified by shelter-in-place orders.

The bottom line: Shelter-in-place and the attendant global economic crisis compound the hardships and risks facing cohabitors. Miller and Sassler argue for specific social policies tailored to address their unique financial and demographic characteristics.

Virginia Rutter is a Framingham State University Professor of Sociology, Council on Contemporary Families Senior Scholar, and co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

For many couples, family work at home has increased, but for most of those couples, even when women are still doing more than their partners, women’s relative share of the burden is less lopsided than before the pandemic. On the whole, men have increased the percentage of the housework and childcare that they do since the pandemic. Two big exceptions: Women are doing 70 percent of homeschooling. And among couples where the division of labor was most unequal before the pandemic, women’s absolute AND relative share of family work has increased.

No survey or snapshot captures the diversity of experiences families are having managing the pandemic at home. An unprecedented number of families in the U.S. and other rich countries around the world are at home right now. The rest are caring for family while working away from home, and many are serving on the frontlines as essential workers.

Still, sociologists have detected important patterns that tell us where we could be heading beyond the pandemic—and remind us of where we were before it started. In a briefing report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, “Men and Women Agree: During the COVID-19 Pandemic Men Are Doing More at Home,” Daniel Carlson (University of Utah), Richard Petts (Ball State University), and Joanna Pepin (University of Texas-Austin) share results from a survey of 1,060 parents in different-sex couples. In response to fears that the pandemic has dealt a major blow to hopes for gender equality, they conclude: “Our results suggest a more hopeful scenario than those implied by some of the headlines: According to both men and women, men are doing more housework and childcare during the pandemic than before it began, leading to more equal sharing of domestic labor.

Glass half full? Some results yielded a glass half-full perspective:

  • While for many families the burdens have grown, about 60 percent of respondents reported that their “time in domestic labor has not changed since the beginning of the pandemic, even accounting for helping children with homework.” This may be due to reductions in things like chauffeuring children, scheduling their activities, and attending their events – a reminder of how much time parents normally spend on domestic labor outside the household.
  • “Among most couples where the division of tasks did change, it did so in an egalitarian direction.”
  • “A little more than a month after the start of the pandemic, 41 percent of parents reported sharing housework with their partners”—a 15-percentage-point rise over pre-pandemic levels.
  • Shared childcare grew by 11 percentage points, from around 45 percent to around 56 percent, with small variations depending on the ages of the children.
  • “In no situation — and in no type of family, whether dual-earner where both are working full-time, dual-earner where someone is working part-time, single earner, or both unemployed — did we find that the division of tasks became less likely to be shared.”

…or is the glass half empty? Men who already participated in housework and childcare before the pandemic tended to increase their share of these tasks after. But little progress occurred among couples where men started out less involved. And even the more egalitarian couples did not make the same progress when it came to dividing the novel tasks of homeschooling that the pandemic added to many families’ daily schedules.

  • “We find that most women (70 percent) report being primarily responsible for homeschooling during the pandemic.”
  • Most of the increased sharing of housework and childcare occurred among couples who had made strides towards dividing these tasks in a less traditional manner before the pandemic. Among couples who had not made such strides, both the absolute amount of women’s work and their relative share of family labor increased substantially. “Of the mothers who continued to be primarily responsible for domestic work during the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly one-third increased their time spent in housework and care of children during the pandemic.”

The bottom line: This new research gives us some hope for greater realization of the promise of shared parenting and housework, while it reminds us of the legacy of inequality that domestic work carries with it. CCF Research Director Stephanie Coontz sums it up: “The bad news is that dads still expect moms to figure out what the kids need, so when a new responsibility comes up, like having to take over home schooling, women end up doing the heavy lifting.” She continues, “The good news, when you combine these findings with other studies on the long-term effect of paternity leave, split shifts, and work from home, is that once men begin to see and participate in the invisible labor they used to be able to ignore, most of them step up their game.”


Daniel L. Carlson / Associate Professor / Department of Family and Consumer Studies / University of Utah /

Richard J. Petts / Professor / Department of Sociology / Ball State University /

Joanna Pepin / Postdoctoral Fellow / Population Research Center / University of Texas – Austin /

Virginia Rutter is a Framingham State University Professor of Sociology, Council on Contemporary Families Senior Scholar, and co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.

Image by Nikolett Afra from Pixabay

Reposted with permission from Psychology Today 

What happens if the economy re-opens and schools do not? Is it possible that much of the feminist progress of the last fifty years could be washed away by COVID-19If Rosie the Riveter and her sisters who “manned” the heavy industries during WWII could be sent home after the war, could the same happen to women after the pandemic? When America needed workers in mid Twentieth Century during war time, women were recruited and day-care centers funded. But when the war ended, and the veterans returned home, those women were pushed out of the labor force. They were sent home to become domestic wives, leaving the jobs for the men. The government-funded propaganda to promote woman’s place at home. Even more effective, they stopped funding the day care centers. The best way to ensure women cannot compete for jobs is to deprive them of child care.

Could this happen again? We can’t ask Rosie the Riveter, but we can learn from her experience. What will happen if the economy opens slowly but day care centers and schools do not? This scenario gives me nightmares because women’s gains may be stolen from us. When work opens but schools do not, we have a crisis on our hands.

Children have two parents so why is this just a crises for women? Why don’t all parents matter, and not just mothers? It is indeed clear that young father’s today, or at least some of the married ones, do actually contribute equally to the care of their children. But while it is great that marriages are more diverse and some are actually egalitarian, such couples are still in the minority. Most fathers today do more caregiving than their fathers but less than their wives. In addition, gender norms within heterosexual couples often remain strong. When meeting new challenges, people often fall back on habits and tradition. Some colleagues and I analyzed data collected by The New York Times and found that women during the COVID-19 pandemic, most parents did more child-care and housework, but women did far more, and more importantly, women were most likely to take on the new task of home schooling. More troubling,  very recent research by Collins, Landivar, Ruppanner and Scarborough  shows that women were far more likely to cut back their paid hours during the first few months of the pandemic. This research finds that among married couples where both parents worked in professions where telecommuting was common during the pandemic, women cut back their work for pay hours, at home, nearly 5 times more than did men. When parents go “home to work” it is women’s work that suffers. One of my colleagues, Dr. Smitha Radhakrishnan, a Professor at Wellesley College with two young children, told me it seems as if “everyone has forgotten about kids needing care.”

What would happen if mother and father have to go back to the office, unemployment insurance ends, and schools and day-care centers remain closed? Which parent do you think will decide that the kids are simply more important than anything else? In some households, it will simply be about following the money, if the husband earns more. But in other families, it may simply be that fathers see their primary contribution to the family as economic even if they don’t earn more, and so feel driven to succeed in their jobs, leaving mothers with little choice but to prioritize their kids. Sociologists have a terrible track record for predictions, but I will make a safe one here: if the economy opens and day care centers stay shut, women will be pushed out of the labor force. Women married to men whose paycheck can cover the bills will become economic dependents of their husbands and their families will have to forego their monetary contributions. The longer those women remain outside the labor force, the further behind they fall, and the less likely they can regain their footing and protect their life time earning capacity. Single mothers will fall into poverty, and if lucky, find a temporary safety net in some government services.

Families will scramble to survive. The gap between those who can afford private nannies and tutors and the rest will grow into a chasm. Black, Indigenous, and other women of color who are economically under-privileged will suffer the most.

Gender equality in America will also suffer. A world where women depend on the men with whom they are currently sleeping for food and clothing is a world where women (and often their children) are one argument away from economic insecurity. A world where women without husbands have to decide between leaving children alone or earning a living, is a world dangerous to children. It maybe that a world without schools is also a danger to children, especially children from under-privileged areas. The equality of men and women depends on having an infrastructure of care. We cannot drive cars without roads. We cannot have economic activity without people who care for the children. The infra-structure of care was inadequate pre-COVID. The United States have never funded public child-care as do European countries. But we have always had public schools that left parents free to work for pay during most of the day.

If the economy opens and schools do not, parents will have face dire circumstances and many women will be pushed out of the labor force. How is it that politicians in this country think that bars, gyms and restaurants are essential to open but not schools? Are children, and their mothers, of so little value? Where are our family values? If the economy opens and schools do not, children will be left alone, or their mothers will be forced out of their jobs. Once again, American women will follow in the footsteps of Rosie the Riveter, pushed out of the labor force because they have nowhere safe to leave their children. Child-care centers and schools are a prerequisite for a functional economy, or at least one that includes women. If women are considered full citizens with the right to work for pay, then days and schools must open before workplaces. Are women really equal citizens or not? Unfortunately, in this political moment, I am terrified to learn the answer.

Barbara J. Risman, Ph.D., is a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Where The Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure.   

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

CCF’s Online Symposium, Defining Consent, takes an unflinching look at the thorny question, what should count as consent to sexual activity – and what should not? In the process, scholars document how to hard it is to define consent or even sexual activity in a college setting. Symposium editors, historian Stephanie Coontz and sociologist Paula England, counter cartoonish media portrayals of both victims and offenders with a wake-up call: We have to deal with the complicated realities of sex on campus. There are no easy answers. But new research explores new strategies for reducing harm on college campuses, including options such as restorative justice, bystander interventions, and public health campaigns.

Scholars focus on campus sexual assault in Defining Consent, an online symposium released from the Council on Contemporary Families.

The “college experience,” glorified by homecoming and other campus celebrations, is revered for its promise to improve people’s lives. This series centers on ways that the college experience is at risk of harming people’s lives—both men’s and women’s. Rape, sexual assault, unwanted sex, and even sexual misunderstandings are addressed in seven related papers in Defining Consent, edited by historian and CCF research director Stephanie Coontz and New York University sociologist Paula England.

Range of scenarios. A symposium paper from University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and her colleagues examines policies from 381 American universities that relate to sexual conduct and consent, finding that at best the definitions are vague, and at worst, consent is not even mentioned. Another study from Columbia University researcher Jessie Ford coins the  term “consensualish” to describe the surprisingly common circumstance of women (and sometimes men) “going along” with sex they do not want for fear of offending or being accused of being a tease. Another issue is that students often drink to reduce their inhibitions about having sex, not anticipating that this may sometimes make them incapable of saying – or perhaps even understanding – no. The wide range of perspectives and clashing motivations for sex is part of what worries Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode, who discusses the problem of constructing fair ways to respond such a wide range of consensual—and non-consensual practices.

Symposium co-editor Coontz notes that, “All contributors agree there are sexual predators, on and off campus, who should be punished. But this series reminds us that are so many different situations that we can’t solve the problem just by sending everyone who causes harm to jail or expelling them from campus. We need to develop a better toolkit to reduce the different kinds of sexual harm on campus”

Uncertainty about baseline rates. You may ask, how often are students raped or assaulted on campuses? Estimates range from one in five to one in three women, and one in six men. (A detailed survey of sexual assault and misconduct on 33 campuses was released last week from the American Association of Universities.) You may wonder, how often are these cases prosecuted by university panels or other systems? One study cited in the series shows this happens two percent of the time. Along with those cases, Defining Consent centers on the matter of unwanted sex.

Another way to help. “We wanted to focus on what is really going on with sex on campuses–not on cartoons about nervous parents talking about ‘kids today’,” explains symposium co-editor England, whose Online College Social Life Survey has been used in many studies of the college “hookup” scene. She continues: “Defining consent has been central to debates of how to help, so we asked experts to tell us how students think about consent, and how universities have defined it in their policies.”

More highlights. Rape isn’t a new problem, it is an old one. Coontz and England caution against using the term epidemic, which “implies an intensifying and growing problem. Sexual coercion may be endemic in America, but most evidence suggests it was far more common — and generally far more tolerated — in the past than it is today.” In What’s New About Consent, historian Rebecca Davis (University of Delaware) points out that in the mid-20th century, men were encouraged NOT to take no for an answer – and women were often blamed for provoking sex attacks. Yet more recent cultural norms, Davis suggests, may be less progressive than is sometimes claimed:

“From horror films that portray the brutal murders of unmarried young women who had enthusiastic sex a few scenes before, to dating guides like The Rules that implore women to see sexual refusal as seductive, to popular songs about ‘blurred lines’ of consent, American youth continue to receive mixed messages about the differences between desire, consent, and predation,” she writes.

But, due process…. Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode reviews the past two decades of sexual assault activism on campuses, noting the special complications associated with the drinking and party culture, and suggesting that there is no one-size-fits all solution. She concludes, “If we have learned anything from the last two decades of campus assault initiatives, it is this: When it comes to sex, talk is cheap but cultural change is not.” She sees promise, though, in bystander intervention programs.

Restorative justice (RJ) is one of the latest tactics for making the cultural change Rhode calls for. Explains University of San Diego Leadership Professor David Karp, “As an alternative to punishment in some cases, many survivors are now asking for a process that provides accountability through acknowledgment of harm and pathways to prevention.” The restorative justice stance is a response to some hard questions: “Is it possible to create conditions where a student who has caused sexual harm can admit fault and take responsibility for it?” How “can someone be held accountable for crossing an unacceptable line without paying a permanent price in social exclusion?” Karp discusses how a voluntary pilot program of RJ intervention works.

A public health approach focuses less on predators or procedures after the problem occurred, and more one the environmental changes we need to make to produce responsible Sexual Citizens, as profiled in research and forthcoming book from Columbia’s Jennifer Hirsch (Public Health) and Shamus Khan (Sociology). “A phenomenon that happens as frequently as campus sexual assault cannot just be the product of individual bad actors or poor choices,” they observe. With this frame, they conducted an 18-month multi-method study, the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), to discover “what makes assaults a predictable regularity of campus life.” Among other things, they discovered a huge gap between the formal requirements of consent rules and the way that students actually go about engaging in sex. They also recommended changing some of the physical spaces in campus to provide more places where students can socialize without being thrust into ambiguous setting such as a small dorm room with only a bed to sit on. They also note that even before students arrive on campus, they must have access to comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education. Such education, they say, “must be grounded in respect for young people’s right to sexual self-determination. Part of teaching young people to listen when someone else says no, or to feel confident about saying no, or even to know internally whether they want to have sex at all, is acknowledging their right to say yes.”


CCF Defining Consent Online Symposium in a single .pdf:

Individual articles:

Executive Summary:

Coontz and England:



Armstrong et al.:



Hirsch and Khan:

Nell Frizzell is a journalist and author who writes about gender, culture, art, and politics. She has written for The Guardian, VICE, The Telegraph, Elle, Grazia, The Pool, The Observer, Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Red and Time Out. She is also a Vogue columnist, writing about motherhood under the title Bringing Up Baby. Here, I ask her about her forthcoming book The Panic Years: Dates, Doubts, and the Mother of All Decisions.  You can find out more about Nell at,

KM: Beyond the biological component, are there other ways that you feel like women uniquely feel the pressure from society to have a baby by a certain time and why do you think this is? What do you think society and public policy – and perhaps the men in women’s lives – can do to ease the burden of this pressure and support women both while they are deciding whether or not to have a baby and then once they actually do start child-rearing?

NF: I am amazed by how ubiquitous the expectation that girls will have babies still is today. My 16-year-old sister has a list of her favorite baby names saved onto her phone. I wonder how many boys her age are ever asked what they want to call their children? It’s there in the way we talk about female ambition (as something that will run alongside family life), the way we encourage girls to practice caring in a play setting (playing with dolls, cooking, putting toys to bed in mini cots, pushing prams, etc.), the way we ask the most fundamental and private questions as though they were breezy small talk “So, do you want a baby?” Of course all this could and should apply to people who identify as men, but I fear it is not. We still allow, even encourage, men to consider having children as something peripheral and potential, rather than a reality that they could plan for, hope for or prevent right now, in their life.

There is also the very strong cultural narrative of the ‘geriatric mother’ and the ‘cliff edge’ of fertility after 35. The truth is of course much more nuanced, much more specific to each individual’s biology and lifestyle and therefore, hopefully, less scary. We are very happy to warn women that their fertility is finite without really mentioning the correlated decrease in fertility and rise in congenital illness, quality of sperm, etc. in men.

With regards to policy, well here’s a question. Firstly, let’s actually enact the demands made at the first Women’s Liberation Conference in 1970 at Ruskin College (it’s the anniversary this year!)

  • Equal pay
  • Equal opportunity
  • Contraception and abortion on demand
  • Free 24 hour nurseries

That way, the decision to have a baby is a far less polarizing one: it will have a less damaging impact on your career, it will cost you less materially, financially, socially and personally, it will be easier to avoid getting pregnant if you’re not ready or not in the right circumstances to raise a child, it will not affect your opportunities to reenter the public world after you’ve given birth.

I would love to see free childcare for all children under 5. It doesn’t just make sense on a humanitarian level – literally making the population healthier, happier and more likely to contribute to a well-adjusted society – but it makes economic sense not to have half the workforce taken away from their job in order to look after children OR almost half the workforce’s entire income going directly to someone else looking after your children.

Better paid parental leave – for the same reasons as above. A father and mother who have the opportunity to bond with and nurture their child are far more likely to treat that job with the care and attention it deserves; their child is going to benefit from a caring environment, they will be better equipped to navigate interpersonal relationships, if their parent chooses to breastfeed their physical health will be better – the list goes on and on.

I would also like men to just think about having babies. Not to push it to one side while they concentrate on ‘the big things’ i.e. studying, work, sport, friendships, sex, money. But to have it as a question, something to prepare for, or make contingencies for from the moment they are sexually active. Let them take on the burden of contraception, particularly if they don’t want children. Side effect free, hormone-free male contraception and, until that is on the market, let’s talk again about vasectomies. If you are a man who is certain you never want a child or don’t want any more children than enact that decision in your body – have a vasectomy – don’t instead expect women to spend their lives adjusting their bodies to conform to your desire.

KM: You often leverage data and statistics in support of the topics in your articles – from a sociological point of view, in your experiences from thinking about becoming a mother to actually doing so, do you feel there are areas of research in this field that need further exploration to understand this process better?

NF: Yes. The cost of childcare should be much much more widely understood than it is now. I had no idea, until I had a child, that I couldn’t afford to have a child. Also, if more people understood that the average cost of childcare for one child, under 2 in the UK, for someone on the UK average wage, is 43% of their income, hopefully they would agitate to change that before they have a child and are already, well, trapped.

The decrease in male fertility over time. I think we need to start talking much more frankly and openly about male fertility – stop putting the blame, the decision and the burden all on women’s bodies.

Finally, please god could someone do some research – a LOT of research – into the effect of hormonal contraception (actually, hell, all contraception) on female mental health. We know that the pill is literally killing women – driving them into depression and suicide. We all know anecdotally the horrendous side effects of so much contraception. And yet there seems to be so little scientific and sociological research into it.

KM: What made you decide to write a book on this topic? What is the one lesson or advice or insight you want readers to take away?

NF: Partly, honestly, because I’d had a baby I simply couldn’t work in the way I used to as a freelance journalist. I couldn’t pitch three ideas a day while also surviving on 5 hours broken sleep and under 24-hour care of a baby. A book would give me the opportunity to work on one project over the course of months, rather than having to turn around copy every day within hours just to pay the bills.

On a more creative level, I also wanted to write this book because, having lived through The Panic Years and going through my own Flux, I knew what a bewildering, devastating, disorienting and paralyzing time it could be. I wanted to give this thing a name so women everywhere could see their own experience as part of a social and biological phenomenon, rather than a personal crisis. I wanted friends, sisters, colleagues to have a short hand with each other to explain what they were going through “Oh, I think she’s hit her Flux, so maybe we should go over with a lasagna”.

I wanted us to see the ways our gender conditioning, work culture, sexual attitudes and social care were still oppressing us. I wanted to point out the underlying injustice that still exists around fertility, childrearing and contraception.

Also, more privately and personally, I wanted my partner, friends and family to understand what I’d gone through and how it had felt.

Kim McErlean is a Ph.D. student studying Sociology, with an interest in Family Demography, at the University of Texas at Austin.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Much has been written about the challenges couples face as they adjust to “shelter in place” policies triggered by the coronavirus. A headline in The Atlantic terms the pandemic “a disaster for feminism.” Once dual-earner couples can no longer outsource their childcare, the author fears, many wives will fall back into the roles of 1950s and never find their way back into the workforce. More upbeat articles offer useful advice for couples who suddenly find themselves working from home on opposite sides of the dining room table. But most of the authors ignore the fact that many young couples facing this challenge today are not married. Among couples ages 18-24, for example nine percent are living with an unmarried partner, compared to seven percent who are married. The ratio of married to cohabiting couples grows with age, but still, there are more than 18 million cohabiting couples in America, and half of them are under age 35.

Cohabitors are different. The challenges facing cohabiting couples are often quite different from those of their married counterparts. For one thing, cohabitors tend to be less educated and to earn lower incomes. Among cohabiting couples in 2017, for example, nearly 53 percent earned $30,000 per year or less. And many cohabitors are parents; an estimated 5.8 million American children were living in cohabiting households in 2018. Almost twice as many cohabiting parents as married ones (46 percent vs. 26 percent) are low-income, earning 150 percent or less of the supplemental poverty measure.

Cohabitors, then, have all of the hallmarks of those most likely to be impacted economically. It is these young, lower-income workers who are the most likely to have lost their jobs in the most recent spate of layoffs. Those who are not among the more than 30 million people who recently lost their jobs are especially likely to be working in the low-wage positions that government officials have deemed essential – but not, evidently, essential enough to provide a living wage or the benefits of health care and paid leaves. The stress of having no safety net or facing the prospect of catching the virus at work is a different order of severity than the need to figure out who will keep the children quiet if both partners need to teleconference at the same time.

Those differences lead to different available choices. In a surprisingly large number of cases, cohabitors may have to “shelter in place” with a partner they did not want to be living with even before disaster struck. Less-educated and low-income couples tend to move in together much more rapidly than their more-educated counterparts, often to save money on housing. This increases the chance that the relationship will not work out, but it also creates cost barriers to separating. Long before the stresses associated with this pandemic, about one-in-five cohabiting couples that we interviewed said their relationship had deteriorated since moving in together, with many preferring to live apart but not able to afford to. How will those cohabitors who, in the words of one man we interviewed, “hate the sound of [his partner’s] voice” or worse, those in high conflict unions, manage to weather the next few months with no real way to escape even as reports of domestic violence have surged, with calls to some hotlines increased up to 35 percent for March as compared to April?

The rush to marriage? At the other extreme, some cohabitors may intensify their relationships more quickly than they would have otherwise. The need for stability, health insurance, emotional support and income pooling may encourage cohabitors to marry even if they have not reached a point where one or both actually feels ready to do so. Marriages (as well as cohabitations) that are hurried along by such outside forces tend to have higher rates of conflict and are more likely to end in divorce.

Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger, and it turns out that cohabiting couples have one potential advantage here. The demands of sheltering in place with both or one working from home will require many couples to renegotiate their traditional tasks and roles in the household. This may be easier for cohabitors to accomplish because they already share housework more equally than do their married counterparts and because they are less “locked in” to conventional notions of gender. Other research we have conducted with our colleague Dan Carlson reveals that equality in housework is now an important source of solidarity and satisfaction for couples, while lack of such sharing is an increasingly powerful source of conflict.

Protect cohabiting couples. Still, we cannot expect even the most egalitarian couples to weather this crisis alone. To protect the most vulnerable couples in America, additional interventions are needed. Low-income and working-class cohabiting individuals need financial help now, not in the 20 weeks Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggests it may take. Since cohabitors are more likely to lack a bank account than their married counterparts, they are especially likely to experience a delay in receiving stimulus checks. Cohabitors also need access to quality, affordable health care so that they do not find themselves yoked to an unsuitable partner just to access the medical care they need in the midst of a pandemic. President Trump’s decision not to reopen the Affordable Healthcare Act marketplace for a special enrollment period will be especially disadvantageous to cohabitors. Finally, for those who find themselves in the most dangerous positions, additional immediate funding for domestic violence organizations so that safe additional shelters can be set up is required.

Crises can encourage people to unite and pull together. But individuals and couples need backup. Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research at the Council on Contemporary Families, points out that “for the sake of their fellow Americans, we are asking millions of couples to forego the interactions with friends and family members that are a critical source of well-being. The least we can do is make sure we don’t stint on the social and economic supports that government can provide.”

Amanda J. Miller is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, and Director of Faculty Development, University of Indianapolis and can be reached at  Sharon Sassler is Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Policy Analysis & Management, Cornell University, and can be reached at

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