Honored Social Butterfly

How Society Shifts In a Pandemic - The Black Plague Can Teach Us

America's coronavirus response must center women. And the Black Plague helps show how.
As the changes in medieval Europe following the plague illustrate, when women are freed from burdens in the home, the future grows brighter for everyone.
Illustration of couple with bubonic plague
Miniature depicting a couple suffering from the blisters of the Black Death, from the Toggenburg Bible (1411).VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images
April 9, 2020, 5:16 PM CDT
By Lynn Stuart Parramore


When a major crisis threatens to destabilize the economy and society, there are two choices: We can respond by trying to keep old systems in place, or we can rethink them, innovate and create a better path to prosperity.


Attitudes and practices related to women are going to have a major impact on how we fare during the coronavirus pandemic, and full recovery seems unlikely until the challenges they face are placed front and center. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the weakness of outdated social norms and poor policy choices in the United States that have, among other things, placed painful burdens on women — ranging from unworkable family roles and a meager social safety net to insufficient labor protections and intrusions on autonomy.


The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the weakness of outdated social norms and poor policy choices in the United States that have, among other things, placed painful burdens on women.

Even in the best of times, these conditions are bad for the country’s social and economic well-being. In the worst of times, they can be devastating.


It is time to recognize that female status and empowerment are critical to the country’s resilience. America can push through this crisis and emerge in a position to lead the future, but only by securing women’s equality in the home and the nursery, expanding their opportunities in the workplace and the political sphere, and insisting on their fundamental right to make choices about their own bodies.


If such big shifts seem daunting in the middle of a pandemic, consider what happened in 14th century Europe. The plague outbreak known as the Black Death, which decimated the population, created a widespread shortage of male workers during a period when patriarchal restrictions enshrined by the Catholic Church and the social order prevented women from working outside the home. If those attitudes had not changed, Europe’s economy would have never recovered from the plague.

Trump's 'Chinese Virus' rhetoric part of a long U.S. tradition of scapegoatingAPRIL 2, 202004:52

As the feminist economist Victoria Bateman discusses in her recent book, with this wide-ranging social reconfiguration, women gained more choices about whether, when and who to marry, and could have fewer children by marrying later — which further increased their own and their families’ economic stability.

Not everyone was happy about the changes. But women’s heightened power eventually led to a more egalitarian structure in the home and the broader society, which was reflected in more democratic institutions and governments that benefitted everyone.

Americans can learn plenty from this historic example. Currently, the United States lags behind much of the world in women’s treatment and opportunities, ranking a dismal 53rd in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 global report on gender parity. We don’t even break the top third of 153 countries!

This plays out in plenty of destructive ways. Women are still perceived as having a greater duty than men to look after children. U.S. employers often reinforce this attitude, commonly labeling women “primary caregivers.” Fathers are seen as ancillary parents, while mothers are viewed as somehow lesser employees.

If our attitudes do not evolve, then we could sink back further into a 1950s female-caregiver/male-breadwinner model. Journalist Helen Lewis has warned that women impacted by the pandemic may feel pressured to cut back on work hours because they are expected to attend to children or sick family members, while fathers continue working.

We could instead acknowledge that in the 21st century, the talents of all Americans are required both in the workplace and the home, regardless of gender. We could insist that the United States finally adopt gender-blind parental leave, as other countries and forward-looking companies have, and support men in their role as nurturers. In the modern economy, government needs to play a more active role in providing affordable and accessible childcare, as it does in other parts of the world — allowing parents to balance their responsibilities.






Man learns from history that man learns nothing from history.
Trusted Social Butterfly

chasky, thanks for your great post! I have a DVD from the History Channel about the black plague from the 14th century that is excellent. If you can find it, get it or stream it. Here are some interesting facts abou the bubonic plague. 


First, it began during a period of increased trade between China and Europe. It wasn't long after Marco Polo travelled to China overland on the Silk Road and opened up Asia to Europeans. The plague is caused by a bacteria that is spread by fleas from rats. The plague is endmic in rodents in central Asia and came to Europe when Mongols were besieging Conatantinople. 


Constantinople had become a major center of trade and had supplanted Baghdad as the western terminous of the Silk Road. Before Marco Polo's trip to China, the western terminus of the Silk Road was in Baghdad. One thousand years ago Baghdad was the wealthiest city in the world as it was a major center for trade as well as education and arts. But as Conastantinope rose, Baghdad fell in importance. 


The Mongols began catapullting their dead bodies over the walls of Constantinople and the people of that city began dying of the plague which had killed those Mongols. As traders left Conatantinople for their ports in Europe, they brought the plague with them on board their ships. Upon docking in the major Mediterranean ports such as Genoa, Venice, Rome and Barcelona, the rats left the ships and brought their fleas to the rats in the cities where the plague first appeared. 


From the port cities on the Mediterranean, the plague spread inland along the trade routes until it finaly reached England, the last country where the plague was felf. One country that avoided the plague was Ireland. Apparently no one went to that island in the 14th century. 


The plague killed indisccrimantly. It killed the saints as well as the sinners, the royals and nobles as well as the peasants and the French as well as the English. It completely undid the old feudal system that had been the model for medieval society and helped usher in the rennaisance that began in Italy during the next century. 


Since the plague killed the pious as well as the profane and the saints as well as the sinners; it also led to less influence from the Roman Catholic church on the population. This gave more power to the stronger nobles who later consolidated other estates and eventually led to the creation of the modern nation state and stronger kings. 


There is also a resivoir of the plague in the western United States. Apparently rodents from Asia were imported into the United States during the latter 19th century and they were able to spread the bacteria to native North American rodents. So, even now an occasional case of the bubonic plague shows up in the United States. But the disease is no longer as deadly as it was 700 years ago. It can easily be treated with antibiotics and kept under control. However if society breaks down, there is that resivoir of plague in the west that can be just as deadly as it was in Europe 700 years ago. 

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