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Daring to Differ

Rhodes House is home to the Rhodes Trust, which provides the fame Rhodes Scholarships, a training platform for leaders from all over the world since 1903.

Rhodes House is home to the Rhodes Trust, which provides the fame Rhodes Scholarships, a training platform for leaders from all over the world since 1903.

I am speaking today at Rhodes House for the 2014 Global Scholars Symposium, an annual multidisciplinary conference that gathers students studying on prestigious UK scholarships: Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright, Chevening, Clarendon, Weidenfeld, Commonwealth, and Gates scholarships. I am to be on a panel called “Reconceptualizing Profit.”

The conference theme, “Dare to Differ,” is meant to challenge students to rethink existing paradigms and is “a reflection on the fact that many of the world’s most influential people are individuals who were willing to challenge the status quo and act in the face of opposition and discouragement.”

Being asked to exemplify someone who challenges the status quo in the face of opposition and discouragement stopped me in my tracks.

To be honest, I do not experience my life as a lesson in leadership for others to follow, so it always brings me up short to find that I am seen by anyone as a model. My subjective experience is a somewhat improvised quest toward an idea that I feel clearly but cannot yet articulate as fully as is required. Those close to me are well aware that I never know where my keys are, show up to most meetings without a pen, lose my bankcard several times a year–and that I have taken the wrong bag from the airport luggage claim twice in the last six months. It is a challenge to see such a contingency-driven life in heroic terms.

But it is true that I am sitting squarely in the space of “daring to differ” from the conventional wisdom of the women’s movement, on one side, and the conventional understanding of the economy on the other. And heaven knows I face opposition and discouragement. So this invitation felt like a Karmic suggestion to consider the proposed schema.

As I have noted in the series on Market Feminism, my direction of thought pushes against the consensus over 50 years: that capitalism is causal to women’s subordination. (This heuristic results from the overriding influence of Marxism on the Second Wave.) Lately, I have realized that this ideological brick wall has caused feminist theorists to focus excessively on wage labor and to block out aspects of economic life–such as inheritance, philanthropy, investment, ownership, credit, and contracts—that are more clearly the domain of “Capital,” writ large. This tunnel vision has limited our understanding of how the organization of the economy limits women and truncated our view of the options for action. (The agenda for Power Shift 2014 alone illustrates multiple paths through which such an activist agenda could work.)

At the same time, I struggle almost daily with the presumption that the neoclassical way of imagining economics is objective and comprehensive. I find that people—especially in business schools—are not only flummoxed by the suggestion they should think about capital in gendered terms, but are often angered by it. Since a basic premise of economics is that money flows in the direction it is driven by self-interest, and since so much of everyday news is about the way nations, groups, and even individuals try to engineer the market in ways that benefit them, it is always amazing to me the way people push back at the suggestion that women should use the market to benefit their cause. Suddenly, your listener starts blathering about the necessary disinterestedness of the economy, as if it was a creation of Heaven, brought down and put in place by angels, and not something to be disturbed by a bunch of uppity women.

In those moments, I sense that I am staring in the face of the ideological imperative that says “women are not to care about money.” We need to realize that this axiom is as important as the one Gayle Rubin proposed that says “women are not care about sex.” Both these beliefs are necessary to keeping women’s subordination going, indeed to keeping our whole social structure in place, and both are basic to cultures around the world.

Given that reality, I might expect to find myself facing opposition from those who believe women should shun any engagement with the capitalist system and from those who believe that the capitalist system should not engage with the causes of women. My proposal to harness the economy on behalf of women’s empowerment attacks a primary axiom for both left and right. I imagine it may feel to each side like a knife to the heart.

So, yeah, I guess I am experiencing opposition for daring to differ and reconceptualizing profit. I suppose I am ready to give this talk. Now, if I can just find my keys. . .

The other speakers for the “Reconceptualizing Profit” panel are Professor Joel Bakan, writer, filmmaker and professor at the UBC, and author of ‘The Corporation.’ Also, Isaac Holeman, founding director of the award-winning social enterprise, Medic Mobile. Previous speakers at the Global Scholars Symposium include His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Baroness Helena Kennedy, and Professor Jeffery Sachs


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