Socialist Feminism Pt. II: … But What’s a “Feminist Economist”?

“As a term and as a means of excluding other women, [socialist feminism] is dead. The ideas that we were trying to put across, however, have become very much a part of every aspect of the women’s movement” (Philipson 1985) – so declared Judy MacLean in an interview with Ilene Philipson in 1985. MacLean pretty much sums up the joys and sorrows of the socialist feminist movement: they had created an indissoluble tie between economics and feminism, but had failed themselves and their fellow activists by keeping their vision too narrow. Most importantly, socialist feminism highlighted the problem that a segmented economy presented to women. It pointed out that the dominant neoclassicism refused to recognize the fact that society is divided into categories, and therefore, it was impossible to discuss women’s issues in the economy without breaking out of neoclassical and capitalistic mind-frames. Socialist feminists also helped call attention to the problem of unequal pay, and started to develop alternative theories to neoclassicists as to why wage discrepancies exist, as well as actions that would help regulate wages. Thankfully, just as socialist feminism lost its solid form as an academic discipline, women around the world started to pick up the idea of “feminist economics.” Some started to call themselves “feminist economists” as early as 1980, and they seem to have picked up the mantle (so to speak) of the Old Guard.

But what “is” feminist economics? People seem to like to throw that term around, and basically any study that blends the problems of gender inequality and economics can kind of fall under this umbrella term. But for the past twenty years or so, certain researchers and writers have started to study this “feminist economist” phenomenon, and are working to define it. 

Personally, I think that Marilyn Power’s article “Social Provisioning as a Starting Point for Feminist Economics” provides an excellent description of this new discipline. She lists five crucial elements of a “feminist economist” theory, and argues that together, these five points create a feminist economist methodology which can be used to understand anything from wage differentials to sexual division of labor in developing countries. She calls this methodology “social provisioning,” and it is comprised of these components:

  1. “Incorporation of caring and unpaid labor as a fundamental economic activities”
  2. “Use of well-being as a measure of economic success”
  3. “Analysis of economic, political, and social processes and power relations”
  4. “Inclusion of ethical goals and values as an intrinsic part of the analysis”
  5. “Interrogation of differences by class, race-ethnicity, and other factors” (Power 2004)

Essentially, “feminist economics” is a study of different dimensions of power, how these different dimensions intersect, and (importantly), how to create societies that support an equal distribution of this power.

I can already hear the neoclassicists’ cries of indignation: “surely capitalism supports feminism! Capitalism is all about utility and proficiency! There is no space for sexism or racism or classism in capitalism… except for maybe when it goes wrong…” And to that I say: please take your tautological theory of the way the economy works, and leave it at the door. Feminist economics is based in the reality that we live in; and in reality there is inequality in the economy and in society, and this sexist, racist, and classist inequality is something that we must, and that we can deal with. Recognizing and combating inequality between men and women is what “feminism” is all about – and therefore, feminist economics is all about recognizing and combating sexist disparities that are found in various economic situations.

Are we good? Good.

So, what exactly, do feminist economists concern themselves with? The way I see it, feminist economists deal in two complementary spheres. The first is the “root” of the “sexist disease” – many societies around the world are embedded with sexist institutions, which create social, political and economic hardships for women. To combat this, we must challenge some of the very principles that govern these societies; for example, the concept that “economic growth” can only be measured quantitatively, by GDP and whatnot, is actually just masculinity hiding under the guise neutrality (for more on this idea, see Julie Nelson’s “Gender and Economic Ideologies”). To fix this, feminist economists study points 2, 3 and 4 of Power’s social provisioning methodology. We need to update and redefine the goals of economic health; Power cites Sen’s capabilities approach, which defines well-being as “the freedom and ability of people ‘to lead the kind of lives they value’” (Power 2004).

On the other hand, some feminist economists are more concerned with alleviating the “symptoms” that gender inequalities create. Specifically, feminist economists are concerned with 1) recognizing the value of reproductive labor 2) equality in the workplace and labor market of productive labor, and 3) wage differentials. The discrepancy between wages for white men and white women in the United States is still overwhelmingly unequal; and the difference between wages for white men and women of color is even worse. Feminist economists who study wages and the productive labor force often try to redefine the concept of wage policy, like in Deborah Figart, Ellen Mutari and Power’s book Living Wages, Equal Wages, in which the authors propose that “the wage” is really comprised of the “wage as a price,” “wage as a living,” and “wage as a social practice,” all of which have to be considered to get a serious understanding of the way wages are set. It’s actually genius. 

Obviously, it’s pretty hard to keep the discussion of the “roots” and the “symptoms” separate. For example, if you want to talk about the United States government paying solo mothers a stipend for raising their children (a symptom) you kind of also have to talk about the individualistic ideal of American culture, and the conservative values that still reign, the fact that solo mothers of color and white solo mothers have different challenges, and the idea that welfare is a “success” when people exit the system, rather than a more qualitative assessment of how well those who leave welfare actually are. But feminist economics does not shy away from these complications – better to get the full, honest, factual picture with hard, interdisciplinary work than to compromise the analysis. 

Clearly, feminist economists have quite the reformative agenda; but not a revolutionary one, like the socialist feminists. It often appears that feminist economists are proposing “edits” to capitalism, and hope that social democratic institutions and capitalistm will fight on the same plane, battling for their separate agendas, or creating policy that’s good for society and good for business. 

So, in order to see if this “feminist economist” thing actually works, I’ll be looking at some policy revisions in the EU in the face of austerity measures – and see if the reform of institutions actually works. Stay tuned!



Categories: Alternative Models, Crisis and Austerity, International Ladies, The Dismal Discipline, These United States

1 reply


  1. The Academic Feminist: Lady Economists in Conversation

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