AERA 2023 – A Tale of Two Working Mothers: The Intersection of COVID-19 and Feminism in the United States

Objectives. A narrative at the onset of COVID-19 in the United States asserted ‌the pandemic was “a disaster” for feminism (Lewis, 2020), centering an upper middle-class white experience (Zakaria, 2021). We complicate this notion of feminism by employing a critical frame feminist perspective to the experiences of two working mothers (one Latina and one white) with school-aged children enrolled in the same school district during the 2020-2021 academic year. We explore how their gendered, racialized, and class identities intersected to shape their experiences as their children’s school transitioned from remote learning to in-person learning.

Theoretical Framework. We draw on critical race feminism (Wing, 1997), which “focuses on the lives of whose of those who face multiple discrimination on the basis of race, gender and class, revealing how all these factors interact within a system of white male patriarchy and racist oppression” (p. 3). The intersection of race and gender is vital, as racism is “not something outside of the women’s movement but [is] intrinsic to the best principles of feminism” (Bourne, 1983, p. 3).

Methods. To better understand this phenomena, we employed a year-long comparative case study (Goodrick, 2014) as an approach for “analysis and synthesis of the similarities, differences and patterns across two or more cases” (p. 1). A comparative case study allowed for us to capture the depth of how the racialized, gendered, and classed experiences influenced the lives of the two working mothers. To document our findings, we used portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1983) to “capture the richness, complexity and dimensionality of human experience in social and cultural context, conveying the perspectives of the people who are negotiating those experiences” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 3).

Data. Data stems from a semi-structured interview series (3) (Siedman, 2019) with both working mothers conducted during the 2020-2021 academic year. Each interview averaged 60 minutes and was conducted by both researchers. All data was collected and analyzed through grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014) and thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Multiple rounds of open, closed, and axial coding were employed to identify and analyze recurring themes across the data set (Saldaña, 2021).

Results. Findings speak to how race, gender, and class‌ intersected and differentiated the experiences of both women. First, while both women were employed by the same school district, their roles and positioning within the district influenced interactions with a site administrator–leading to greatly varied interactions. Second, findings speak to the unique ways their marital status influenced how they navigated the demands of being a working mother. Last, there was a great difference in how both mothers navigated the different configurations of schooling as the district shifted toward in person learning.

Significance. The results from this study demonstrate that while segments of the population experienced a return to traditional gender roles, some women of color navigated a pandemic existence while continuing to carry all the responsibilities that existed prior to COVID-19’s onset. This study joins others (Beck, 2021; Zakaria, 2021) in reassessing the degree to which “feminism” is working and who it is failing.

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