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What Women Need in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

A woman wearing a face mask walks through a nearly empty Union Station during morning rush hour on April 3, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

See our updated interactive: “What Women Need: An Agenda to Move Women and Families Forward” by Shilpa Phadke, Robin Bleiweis, and Nora Ellmann

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Policy solutions in response to the pandemic’s devastating impacts on health and economic security must account for the unique needs of women and families, especially women of color. Women are more likely to be on the front lines of coronavirus response and exposure: 52 percent of essential workers are women, and women are the majority of the workers in jobs that the federal government has designated as essential, including the vast majority of hospital workers, home health aides, and grocery store cashiers. Women also bear the brunt of unpaid caregiving responsibilities for children and family members at home. Furthermore, the health care system has historically underserved women—a fact that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated: Women are less likely than men to be able to withstand unexpected costs, health coverage has frequently not been comprehensive enough to meet women’s needs, and the health care providers women rely upon are frequently underfunded.

The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately affecting women of color

Women of color are particularly vulnerable to the economic and health impacts of the pandemic. Women of color are disproportionately represented in many of the industries hardest hit by unemployment in the current recession. From February to May 2020, women overall lost nearly 11 million jobs; this represents an 8.6 percentage point drop in the share of adult women employed from February 2020 and essentially wipes out in a matter of months women’s job gains over the past 10 years. In particular, Latinas and Black women have faced some of the highest rates of unemployment of any group, and intersecting gender and racial wealth gaps mean that these women of color—as well as immigrant women, LGBTQ women, and other groups experiencing intersecting forms of oppression—are less likely to have the financial reserves to weather this crisis.

Women of color are also disproportionately likely to experience many of the chronic health conditions that heighten the risk of serious illness from COVID-19, such as diabetes and asthma, as a result of structural racism. They experience racism across the health care system, which results in a lack of access to quality care and culturally knowledgeable providers, as well as entrenched systemic practices that perpetuate racism and other forms of bias. Black and Native American women are especially at risk, as their communities have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus infections and deaths; the Navajo Nation has the highest per capita infection rate in the United States. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s delayed and insufficient response to the coronavirus has exacerbated the effects of administration policies that restrict access to health care and deny the economic supports that women and families need.

Responses to the coronavirus pandemic must include vital supports for women

Responses to the pandemic must include vital supports and services specifically designed to meet the immediate health and economic needs of women, and especially women of color. But this will not be enough. Equally important is laying the groundwork for bold progressive action that begins to combat the biases that hold women back. An update to CAP’s interactive “What Women Need: An Agenda to Move Women and Families Forwardoutlines key policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic that center the needs of women and families, as well as specific recommendations to address the unique needs of women of color.

Policies women need during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond

CAP’s “What Women Need” interactive offers more than 100 bold ideas to advance pro-women policies that will ensure that the United States does not return to a status quo of deep systemic inequities in women’s health and economic security. New recommendations in “What Women Need” include efforts to improve women’s health outcomes, such as expanding the availability of telehealth, prioritizing coverage and a range of options for maternal health care, and ensuring that women are included in clinical trials for coronavirus vaccines and treatment. Other recommendations would ensure women’s economic security, such as stabilizing the child care industry and closing paid leave loopholes and exemptions. In addition, the interactive presents new, broader policy proposals to protect women’s rights, such as safeguarding U.S. elections and ensuring that survivors of domestic violence and other gender-based violence have access to the federal and community resources they need.

For the full list of policy proposals, please visit the interactive.


The tolls of systemic racism and sexism that have left women of color vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will persist without significant structural changes. CAP’s “What Women Need” interactive offers a road map for the policies women need during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

View the updates to “What Women Need: An Agenda to Move Women and Families Forward.”

Nora Ellmann is a research associate for women’s health and rights for the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Robin Bleiweis is a research associate for women’s economic security for the Women’s Initiative at the Center. Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.