Feminist economics is often narrowly associated with work and money related concerns (like most of the general field of economics). Some common examples include the gender wage gap, the effect of policies such as paid family leave, and welfare policy. But the field also holds the potential to make 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 second in a series, this piece addresses the ethical revolution that feminist economics promises for our personal and communal relationships.
Social Equality Through Economic Justice
The expanded welfare state imagined by Fraser in the previous post reflects only some of the possibilities dreamt up by feminist economic thinkers. Other theorists have noted the ways in which state-provided benefits can reinforce hierarchies and devalue marginalized workers, maintaining social and political inequalities. For example, Johnnie Tillmon, as Executive Director of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), forwarded a damning indictment of the racism and sexism she and other recipients faced at the hands of the welfare office:
“Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you.The man runs everything. In ordinary marriage, sex is supposed to be for your husband. On [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], you’re not supposed to have any sex at all. You give up control of your own body. It’s a condition of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can never have more children just to avoid being cut off welfare…The man, the welfare system, controls your money. He tells you what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy it, and how much things cost. If things-rent, for instance-really cost more than he says they do, it’s just too bad for you. He’s always right.”
The Black women who made up the majority of NWRO’s membership base organized to have their work as mothers recognized and valued. They developed a collective political identity and group consciousness, one rooted in Black feminism, which challenged the (ongoing) stigmatization and pathologization of Black women’s mothering. What at first seemed to many to be a fairly moderate, tame demand for increased monthly benefits grew into a powerful vision for a universal basic income, an end to racism and sexism, and a recognition of the human rights and dignity of Black women and their children.
This inspiring vision is reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1968 speech to the Memphis sanitation workers, who were on strike for better wages and working conditions. In announcing his solidarity with the primarily Black sanitation workers, King declared that “all labor has dignity.” King’s speech draws attention to an important aspect of his political thinking, namely the key link between economic and racial justice. Although King emerged out of a vibrant Black radical tradition, with its own complex relationship to gender and feminism, his analysis holds powerful insights for feminist economic thinking. After all, King’s radical anti-capitalist vision sought to revalue the labor already being performed by Black people, recognizing that the oppression of Black workers and the devaluation of their jobs were inseparable. This basic truth has implications that reverberate throughout the economic sphere.
Even today, struggles continue to be waged which recognize the inextricable relationship between the devaluation of certain kinds of work and the social and political oppression of the kinds of people who are slotted into those jobs. One of the most exciting of these movements is the deeply feminist activism of sex workers on their own behalf—from the various sex worker organizing projects across the United States (of which the Red Umbrella Project is just one example) to regional and (trans)national networks such as the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers and India’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). Embracing well-established feminist economics principles such as solidarity, mutual aid, worker’s autonomy, and the recognition of feminized care labor as socially important, sex workers around the world are standing up for their rights. In doing so, they are challenging sexism, racism, classism, and transmisogyny, as well as objectification, rape culture, sexual harassment, and capitalism itself.
Two examples of this cultural work being done by sex workers workers helps to illustrate this point. DMSC, which is comprised of 65,000 sex worker-activists in West Bengal, India, has worked to provide health care, education, childcare, and HIV/AIDS prevention skills to sex workers across the region. Fighting legal and social discrimination faced by sex workers and their children, DMSC is a case study in how organizing around economic concerns helps to further cultural transformation.
Likewise, the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC) is currently fighting for the rights of exotic dancers, filling a gap left by the lack of support from local mainstream feminist organizations. ELSC is challenging the classification of dancers as independent contractors (which allows club managers to get away with paying them less and offering no benefits), fighting sexual harassment on the job, and working to address the stigma attached to those who perform this labor. Stacey Clare and her ELSC comrades are seeking to open “a cooperative strip club, co-owned and managed by the dancers who work in it.” This new model of sex work, like similar worker’s co-operatives in other industries, would allow workers to collectively determine their own wages, hours, and working conditions. This democratic model is in line with feminist economic principles. Moreover, the work that ELSC is doing is equally about a radical change in gender relations and power structures. As Clare states in a recent interview:
“Our manifesto outlines some pretty clear objectives, such as disturbing the patriarchal conventions on which the industry has been built, promoting gender equality, encouraging and supporting the prospect of male dancers, female viewers, mixed audiences and transsexual/other participants…Stripping culture needs to keep up with progressive ideals, and while society is becoming more accepting of sexual diversity, strip clubs should reflect that. We’d like to see a club that caters to a wider and more diverse audience, and represents a much broader image of female sexuality than the limited one currently available at your average strip-club.”
As both the work of DMSC and ELSC demonstrate, the struggles of marginalized workers are as much about transforming unjust social relations as they are about leveling exploitative socioeconomic hierarchies. Sex workers rights movements such as these broaden our understanding of what work is and how we should value it, much as King drew our attention to the value of marginalized sanitation work before them. Traditional “welfare state” approaches to economic justice have too often reinforced racist and sexist oppression. Feminist economics recognizes that humans, far from being individual, “rational actors,” are deeply socially embedded, vulnerable beings, who crave connection and community. Movements for economic justice must take the full complexity of social relationships and power structures into account. It is this insight that promises some of the most radical possibilities that feminist economics has to offer.