The Invisible She

Let’s begin with a hypothetical proposition. What if Aristotle had a sister, who equally matched him in will and intellect? Would she have gotten the same opportunities, recognition and fame as her brother?… Maybe not! The patriarchal cultural and social norms prevalent during the Greek civilization would have proved to be major hindrances to her individual growth. 

The challenges to a woman’s development have been present from the early times of human civilization. One of the most prominent causes for this is the interpretation that men and women evolve in separate social spheres. This separate sphere theory divides human activities in the realm of two exclusive spheres namely the ‘public sphere’ which is dominated by socio-political and economic affairs and the ‘private sphere’ characterized by household work and domesticity. Conventionally, the former was always considered in the dominion of the males and the latter fell in the ambit of  female activities. Such an outlook has over the years masked itself in the varied aspects of human society and notions surrounding economic behaviour aren’t an exception. 

But the elevation of women’s status, with the rise of the feminist movement from the 19th century, dramatically altered this cogitation. Today, women and men are measured on an equal pedestal. The nuances of the patriarchal system are in the process of being debunked and humans are moving in the direction of an egalitarian social structure. 

Economics has traditionally been in the male firmament and despite the changing dynamic has still a long way to go with regards to inclusivity. Alfred Marshall, one of the pioneers of neo-classical economic thought, had delineated the subject as, “the study of men as they live and think and move in the ordinary business of life”. What is worth pointing out is that Marshall very offhandedly attributed economic activities to only ‘men’ and has shown complete ignorance of the female contribution. Moreover, this kind of an exposition has cast a long shadow on the trajectory of economic thought over the years. A major misconception of economics has been the belief in generalization of the male and female experience. To tackle this narrow economic ideation, there was an emergence of feminist economic thought.

What is feminist economics?

The girl is invisible in economic statistics” – Katrine Marcal

Virginia Woolf was once asked to give lectures on the theme of ‘Women and Fiction’ which was later written as a book long essay titled ‘A Room Of One’s Own’. In this work, pondering on the relationship between fiction and portrayal of women, women writers and the gender paradigms in literature, she had a simple but strong response. She said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own”. Her primary view was that once women were economically stable, issues of gender inequality in different areas can be easily reduced. At the heart of this argument lay the fundamental principle of economic independence for women. 

Source : Economic and Political Weekly

Drawing from the conjoined thoughts of feminism and economic liberation, there has been a  rising novel interpretation of economics. ‘Feminist economics’ is a school of thought that focuses on what is needed to produce a gender equal society. It is a step away from the thought of traditional economic ideas which are majorly skewed, as the school argues, towards the male experience. This leads to economic theory and policy being ideologically weighted towards male perspective and subsequently ignorant of the feminine experience. Ergo, most economic models are based on a single perspective and cannot be fruitful to gauge gender discrimination and introduce policies to decrease it. Thus, feminist economics has an holistic approach in comparison to traditional economics. 

Feminist economics questions the stereotypes regarding women, false claims about their lack of ability to work, influences of religious and social norms and attacks the notion of male superiority. Some of the noteworthy contributors to this school are Barbara Bergmann, Nancy Folbre, Devaki Jain, Amartya Sen, Marilyn Waring, Bina Agarwal among others. 

Which areas does Feminist Economics cover?

Majority of economic theories are relooked at from the feminist lens. The main aim is to gauge the extant problems pertaining to women’s situation, study them and provide recommendations to build a diverse and inclusive economic outlook.

Source : Sarah Mazzetti/The Guardian

Primarily, women face discimination in the labour market due to persistent sexist attitudes still existent. Feminist economics challenges the assumptions made about female labour. Economists assume that if a particular occupation has very low female participation, it is due to lower productivity of females in that field or the fact that the given job isn’t compatible with their household responsibilities. Barbara Bergmann, a feminist economist points out that these premises create misconceptions about female labour and cause further discrimination in the labour market. The policies like equal pay for equal work, protection from harassment at the workplace, paid maternity leave and job security can be implemented to address these issues. 

Secondly, the most common exclusion of women’s representation is visible in calculation of national accounts. Unpaid household work or care giving isn’t considered by mainstream economics as economic activity. Whereas, these activities will be considered productive only if they were sourced from formal markets. The existing duality undermines women’s voluntary work. Marilyn Waring in her book ‘If Women Counted’, mentions that such a system of accounting is basically designed by males to keep women under check. These are some of the many facets which were redefined by feminist economics. 

Feminist economists vehemently belive that gender equality is invaluable. They also highlight the need for public policy to be structured around feminine issues as that is an important way to ensure that women’s economic growth is promoted. To conclude, the words of Gloria Steinem aptly capture the philosophy of feminist economics –

“Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”

It is time to change the lens, to let go of the one-sided male gaze and embrace the inclusive viewpoint instead.

Some readings to get an insight into feminist economics and feminist ideas

  • ‘The Economic Emergence Of Women’ by Barbara Bergmann
  • ‘If Women Counted’ by Marliyn Waring
  • ‘Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics’ by Katrine Marçal
  • ‘Close Encounters of Another Kind: Women and Development Economics’ by Devaki Jain
  • ‘Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India’ by Jayati Ghosh
  • ‘A Bad Feminist’ by Roxane Gay

– Jui Chawan (Writer, Econ Declassified)

References :

Bergmann, B. (1990b). Feminism and Economics. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 18(3/4), 68-74. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40003175

Bergmann, B. (2005). The Economic Emergence of Women. Second Edition. (Palgrave Macmillan)

Jain, D. (2005). Women, development, and the un : A sixty-year quest for equality and justice. Retrieved from : https://search-proquest-com.library.britishcouncil.org.in:4443/

Jain, D. (2007). To Be or Not to Be: Problems in Locating Women in Public Policy. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(8), 691-696. Retrieved from : http://www.jstor.org.library.britishcouncil.org.in:2048/stable/4419285

K.,S. (20 Oct 2015). The thinking behind feminist economics. The Economist. Retrieved from : https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2015/10/20/the-thinking-behind-feminist-economics

Marcal, K. Translated by Vogel, S. (2015). “Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story about Women and Economics.” Scribe Publications. ISBN: 1925106527, 9781925106527

May, A. (2002). The Feminist Challenge to Economics. Challenge, 45(6), 45-69. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40722173

Steinem, G. (n.d.). Quote on Feminism. Brainy Quote. Retrieved from : https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/gloria_steinem_690708?src=t_feminism

Woolf, V. (1929). A Room Of One’s Own. Fingerprint Classics. ISBN 978-81-7599-415-7

To subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter and updates related to Economics Declassified, click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s