I first learned about the work of Women’s Fund of Rhode Island last spring while reading an article about their work advocating in favor of Senate bill S2183, which would have required many public schools to provide free feminine hygiene products in bathrooms. As a public health major with a strong interest in women’s health and public policy, I was drawn immediately to WFRI’s mission of working towards gender equity through systemic change. During my internship over the past seven months, I have learned so much about the importance of intersectionality when advocating for gender equity, especially within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A significant theme highlighted during my time working for WFRI is that the fight for gender equity does not exist within a bubble. Working towards gender justice means that one must also be seeking other types of justice, such as racial justice and economic justice. It is critical to consider how different aspects of a person’s identity intersect with their gender identity and how each element of a person’s identity may carry varying levels of privilege.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted disparities in pay equity and healthcare for women compared to men, particularly for BIPOC women. These disparities have existed for years but have come to the forefront of discussion since the beginning of this crisis. BIPOC women are more likely to be working in direct care jobs, which puts them at higher risk for contracting Covid-19 and generally don’t pay living wages. At the same time, BIPOC women have been more affected by “she-cession” job loss and face drastic economic repercussions for themselves and their families. Beyond economic issues, BIPOC women are dying. Due to health disparities, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans have had a mortality rate from Covid-19 that is 2.7 times higher than that of white Americans.
I recently read the story of Dr. Susan Moore, a Black physician who recently died from Covid-19. Her story is an example of medical bias, where her white male physician didn’t believe her when she explained her symptoms, ultimately resulting in her death. This issue did not only begin with the emergence of Covid-19. We can look at Black mothers’ maternal mortality rate as another indicator of how race and gender bias intersect to create dangerous and often fatal situations for women of color. In Rhode Island in 2019, “there were 63.8 pregnancy-related deaths (PRDs) per 100,000 live births of Black women compared to 26.1 PRDs of white women.” Racism is a public health crisis and should be treated as such. Legislation like the proposed Doula Bill in Rhode Island includes aspects of racial and gender justice and can lead to more positive outcomes for moms and their babies.
During the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, we must advocate for intersectional policy change in Rhode Island and across the country. I’m grateful to have seen firsthand the role WFRI plays in making RI a more gender-equitable state for all women and girls. I look forward to seeing WFRI’s research, advocacy, and grantmaking work during their upcoming 20th anniversary year!