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Gender and Liberty in Social Care during Covid-19

21 November 2022

5 mins

by Hermione Spencer

My undergraduate degree at Loughborough was somewhat overshadowed by the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus during the spring of my first year. The subsequent restrictions on social gatherings and, then, working from home produced a unique situation which lent itself to a part of my International Relations degree which I was particularly interested in; liberty.  So, for my dissertation, I used the ongoing pandemic responses to think about liberty.

I felt the ideas of positive liberty – freedom to, and negative liberty – freedom from, were too rarely used to understand real life government policies. Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” had captured my attention even before the outbreak of Covid-19. The restrictions put in place by governments around the world provided contemporary case studies of how liberty could be understood and practiced differently. I was also interested in reactions to the imposed restrictions.

I used the presence of traditional gender roles to then explore how the understanding of liberty used by governments, either positive or negative, could impact the reproduction of certain social norms. My research was focused on social care in the United Kingdom as social care is a particularly gendered field and working with policies made in English allowed me to carry out a discourse analysis more accurately than when working with translations.

As part of my undergraduate degree, I had studied positive and negative understandings of liberty. I also had some knowledge of how gender is reproduced in society. However, to build on my existing knowledge and understanding, I relied on the extensive pools of literature available for both gender studies and liberty. Particularly influential were John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty and the Subjection of Women” [1879] and, of course, Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” [1969]. Building this background knowledge on gender reproduction and liberty meant, when it came to my discourse analysis of Covid-19 policies, I was well placed to use a poststructuralist feminist approach to answer my research questions: how has gender impacted social care responsibilities during Covid-19?; how have restrictions been applied to arguments around liberty?; how has social care been used to affect the liberty of genders differently?

I used the International Labour Organization’s care work research and studies of lockdowns in the UK as social context for my analysis. This showed the gendered distribution of care work during the pandemic, how this was affected by liberty, and how in turn this affected future liberties by reproducing norms. The key issues I wanted to address were the reproduction of traditional gender roles and how a government’s understanding of liberty could be used to shape social norms. To do this I looked at the average number of hours men and women spent doing domestic labour, and government policies put in place during Covid-19.

Although in my own family housework is shared pretty evenly, spending time back at home and working online during the pandemic made me more conscious of the division of domestic labour and the everyday implications of traditional gender roles. Women were largely left to navigate the consequences of children being home from school. Whether that was assisting with learning from home, or just increased hours of childcare, women were left with fewer hours for their own work and hobbies. Entire families being at home also increased other domestic work such as cleaning, tidying, and cooking, often leading to something called the ‘double day’ where women complete their productive work and then also have to complete the majority of reproductive work as well.

Social norms such as these are hugely impacted by a government’s understanding of liberty. Hence: although the British government adopted a positive understanding of liberty during the pandemic, restricting social gathering and movement to later allow greater health and survival, what this meant, however, is that the freedom of one social group had to be sacrificed to ensure freedom of society as a whole later.

In the end I found that working from home reversed years of progression towards equal domestic labour. The United Kingdom like many other countries easily slipped back into traditional divisions of labour allowing these norms to be further reproduced. I also found that traditional gender norms not only meant women’s liberty was more restricted that men’s, but the repercussions of women leaving work during the pandemic had the potential to create lasting financial inequality. Finally, the British government’s use of positive liberty indicates a willingness to sacrifice one social group, often a minority, for the ‘greater good’ of society. This is a worrying implication for vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT+ community.


I completed my Bachelor’s degree in International Relations in July 2022 and really enjoyed my time at Loughborough as an undergraduate. The wide range of modules allowed me to explore parts of IR I had very little knowledge of before starting my degree, such as Anarchism. Also being able to take modules from other subjects meant I could broaden my general knowledge by studying topics like Geography of Identity and Slavery in a Global Context. I decided to continue my studies at Loughborough and am now working towards an MA in International Security.

Here are some of the readings I found helpful:

  • Berlin, I. (1969). ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. In: Four Essays On Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p118-172.
  • Chatzidakis, A. Hakim, J.Littler, J. Rottenberg, C. Segal, L (2020). The Care Manifesto: the politics of interdependence. London: Verso.
  • Hirschmann, N.. (2012). Feminist Thoughts on Freedom and Rights. Politics & Gender. 8 (2), p216-222.
  • Mainardi, P. (1993). ‘The Politics of Housework’. In: Jagger, A. Rothenberg, P. Feminist frameworks : alternative theoretical accounts of the relations between women and men. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Mill, J.S. (1879). On Liberty and The Subjection of Women. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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