Feminist economics is often associated with strictly work and money related concerns, such as the gender wage gap, paid family leave, or welfare policy. But the field also holds the potential to make key interventions in central areas of feminist social and cultural concern. Notably, socialist feminists, among others, have long maintained there is a key connection between the transformation of economic relations and cultural life. For me, the dream of feminist economics lies in its ability to bring about a fundamental reorientation of what we value, how we relate to one another, and thus what we can imagine. By creating spaces of personal and collective autonomy, freedom from work, and egalitarian social relations, feminist economics interventions feed not only our bodies, but our dreams. The first in a series, this piece addresses the critical insight feminist economics can bring to bear on what (and who) we value in our economy.
Work≠Liberation: New Values
In an era when Sheryl Sandberg’s neoliberal “kind of feminist manifesto” Lean In has come to dominate the discourse on women and work, it’s easy to forget that feminist economists have long challenged us not only to rethink what kinds of work we value in the economy, but to examine why we value work at all. Indeed, a feminist critique of capitalism would suggest that women in the formal labor market are not necessarily more liberated, progressive, or empowered than women who at at home as unpaid caregivers; they each just face different forms of exploitation. Moreover, hours dedicated to wage labor for the working class or individual careers for professionals is time that cannot be used to engage in feminist politics, or anything else for that matter. Work qua work, then, is hardly a feminist political goal.
But if not jobs and dollar amounts, how else might we envision economic well-being? Feminist economic foremother Marilyn Power has suggested shifting away from economic models that center on production, work, and growth, asserting that “human well-being should be a central measure of economic success.” In her 2004 article “Social Provisioning as a Starting Point for Feminist Economics,” Power offers what she calls “social provisioning.” Critical of the methodological individualism, devaluation of care labor, and assumption of “rational self-interest” at the core of mainstream economic thought, social provisioning asserts that no human is an island; that gender, race, sexuality, disability, and age matter; and that “at its root, economic activity involves the ways people organize themselves collectively to get a living.” With this framework, economic transformation is linked directly to social justice. Identity, power, ethics, and vulnerability all (re-)enter the frame of analysis. Ironically, the key intervention of feminist economics may lie precisely in how it decenters the narrowly economic, imploring us to question what (and who) an economy is for.
While the liberal feminist goals of equal opportunity and equal pay in the labor market remain unfulfilled and essential, they tend to displace more radical feminist visions of a society organized around care and community. Silvia Federici, a marxist-autonomist feminist best known for her work with the “Wages for Housework” campaigns of the 1970s, has critiqued the limits of such a model. In her 1984 article “Putting Feminism Back on its Feet,” she writes :
“We believed that the women’s movement should not set models to which women would have to conform, but rather devise strategies to expand our possibilities. Once getting a job is considered necessary to our liberation, the woman who refuses to exchange her work in a kitchen for work in a factory is inevitably branded as backward and, beside being ignored, her problems are turned into her own fault.”
Beyond the foregoing critique that paid employment is no guarantee of human flourishing, Federici gets at the insidious logic that is at the heart of patriarchal capitalism, which functions precisely by erasing the actual labor that millions of women are already doing. Whether harassed, silenced, and underpaid in wage labor, or terrorized, overworked, and unpaid at home, neither woman is free, nor truly could be under the current economic system. As Federici continues:
“As we so often repeated, what we need is more time, more money, not more work. And we need daycare centers, not just to be liberated for more work, but to be able to take a walk, talk to our friends, or go to a women’s meeting.”
Federici’s critique of the logic of “work as liberation” continues to resonate today in the Lean In-era. She has argued that demanding “[w]ages for housework mean[s] opening a struggle directly on the question of reproduction, and establishing that raising children and taking care of people is a social responsibility. In a future society free from exploitation we will decide how this social responsibility is best absolved and shared among us.” In sympathy with Power’s social provisioning model, Federici’s work suggests that caregiving should be at the center of feminist economic transformation.
Picking up on this line of thought, critical theorist Nancy Fraser has proposed a “Universal Caregiver” model of social provision, one which would “induce men to become more like most women are now— viz., people who do primary carework.” In her article “After the Family Wage: A Postindustrial Thought Experiment,” Fraser expands upon the radical implications of this economic vision:
“A Universal Caregiver welfare state would promote gender justice by effectively dismantling the gendered opposition between breadwinning and caregiving…The construction of breadwinning and caregiving as separate roles, coded masculine and feminine respectively, is a principleal undergirding of the current gender order. To dismantle those roles and their cultural coding is in effect to overturn that order. It means subverting the existing gender division of labor and reducing the salience of gender as a structural principle of social organization. At the limit, it suggests deconstructing gender.”
In this way, it would seem that the gender and sexuality revolution foretold in Ingrid Michaelson’s music videos is inextricable from the project of liberatory social provisioning championed by Fraser, Power, Federici, and others. Thus, the project of feminist economics necessarily entails significant shifts in what we value, and, crucially, how we interact with each other. If work is not liberation, then it follows that feminist economics will have to radically rethink definitions of social and political equality. Indeed, it already has. In my next post, I will take up the question of how struggles for economic justice are key in bringing about egalitarian social relations, establishing plurality in equality.