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Is Money Too Dirty for Feminism to Touch?

In pre-industrial America, women worked on farms they did not own for no payment. Today, this is the typical pattern in the developing world. These Bangladeshi women are processing rice with their feet.

Several years ago, our team was interviewing women who were earning a living in a system devised by CARE Bangladesh.  In one very telling moment, a respondent confessed to us that she had touched money for the first time as a consequence of having this job.  She alluded to a cultural belief that money is too dirty to be in the hands of “good” women.

It seemed pretty obvious that this woman was the victim of a local ideology designed specifically to keep money out of her hands—and therefore to keep her poor and dependent on men.  But this belief appears in many forms, places, and times—with the same result.

In SubSaharan Africa, you see women selling produce along roadsides everywhere. This is the kind of work that feminists opposed to working with the modern economy would prefer because it is agricultural. But there is high risk in seasonal commodities, the inventory perishes rapidly, there is vulnerability to sexual violence, and, perhaps most important, these women often have to turn over their money to their husbands or fathers, who own the land the produce came from.

My students and I have been trying to develop an understanding of the apparently worldwide pattern of excluding women from the money system.  It seems to have ancient roots, going back as far as the very invention of coinage.  Financial exclusion is strongly related to the sexual control inherent in the marriage versus prostitution dichotomy. Anyway, the upshot is that women, as a society or economy of their own, have been mostly unmonetized.

Here, however, I am going to confine my discussion to the interaction with the rise of feminism, especially in the US, because I am concerned that there is a core problem in our own political beliefs about the nature of emancipation. That’s because the tendency of feminist thought in the second half of the 20th century—the Second Wave—was to discredit engagement with the capitalist economy as immoral (that is, the money was too dirty). In the past week, I have heard several comments that bend in that direction from people at the Oxford Analytica conference and the Clinton Global Initiative. I am now on my way to the 14th annual Convergence confab, which focuses on gender lens investing, so it seemed a good time to scribble a response to the argument that, somehow, feminism is too pure to engage with capitalism.

In Fresh Lipstick, I wrote an extensive history of the personal and institutional competition around economic ideology within the American women’s movement.  So, please let me just summarize here and anyone who wants to see my evidence can pick up the book.  It goes like this:

–As with any other history, what we know about the past of women comes to us mostly from those who were literate in a given time. Consequently, historical evidence has a profound aristocratic bias because these were the people who left written records—and whose records were thought important enough to preserve. This aristocratic bias is even more pronounced in women’s history because females were less often literate.

–What distinguishes traditional aristocracies is their freedom from work (that is why they are called “the leisure class”), which is often manifest in a self-conscious refusal to acknowledge money by talking about it, touching it, attending to it, and so on. This, added to the thread where “nice” women are not meant to know or care about money, has affected feminist history and thought.

–The women whose records came to us as the founders of the feminist movement in America were puritans and agrarian aristocrats whose family power was severely threatened by the rise of modern capitalism.  They were also strongly affected by Enlightenment thinking, in which democratic citizenship, founded on education and reason, was primary.  Thus, they tended to focus on suffrage, access to education, and inheritance laws.

In America, the first gender-shifting change the modern economy brought came through textile factories that hired teenage girls. Conditions were horrid, but paying young women cash gave them unprecedented autonomy, setting off a social disruption that continues to this day. In Bangladesh, 82% of garment workers are women, many runaways from forced marriage.

–Alongside these aristocrats, there have always been feminist activists who were less aristocratic, less ascetic, and more engaged in the modern economy, but Second Wave historians—who represented, in their time, the first real effort to write the story of women—did not approve of them and so those women have been lost to us until recently.  (To be fair, it is harder to reconstruct “common” women’s stories because of the written record issue).

–The movement evolved in a class-stratified manner, with upper class, middle class, and working class contingents, leaders, and issues.  The middle and working class movements have been relatively more concerned with paid work and reproduction, but the upper class movement dominated the universities for decades (they were often called “scholastic suffragists”) and so continued to dominate what we know of the First Wave.

–Second Wave feminist theorists and historians, on the other hand, were infatuated with Marxism.  In my opinion, the only way to explain the Second Wave’s love affair with Marx is the historical setting of the 1960s New Left and the attitude toward the modern economy inherited from early aristocratic feminists.  We didn’t have much evidence to work with in the 1970s, so it seemed plausible to some that capitalism had caused women’s oppression, by way of an analogy to class oppression.  That stance became the received wisdom of the Second Wave. The comparison is now utterly discredited, even from a purely theoretical perspective.

–Because of the political bias in Second Wave writing, there was almost no work done to recover the history of women whose activities distinguished them in the economy, rather than in the labor movement or the arts or the political domain.  Women who made their mark in business were seen as sellouts to capitalism and could not be afforded a kind word, never mind a biography.

–Most Second Wave academic feminists believed that socialism was the answer.  Because of the “Iron Curtain,” we didn’t know much about what was going on in the Soviet Union or China, so you could spin fantasies about a communist utopia for women without being bothered by counterfactual evidence. Since the Marxist feminist argument depended on the notion that a relatively late historical innovation—industrial capitalism—had caused the subordination of women, there were many ill-advised efforts to romanticize the past as being more egalitarian from a gender standpoint, as well as to put a soft glow around traditional societies.

–Now we have evidence, loads of it, that overwhelmingly points in the opposite direction.  We now have extensive histories that show women’s subordination in every known society.  There is simply no way to make the argument that women’s subordination occurs only under capitalism.  Indeed, once the Soviet Union fell, we were overrun with bad news about women under communism. We also have the enormous databases constructed at the nation level by institutions like the United Nations and the World Economic Forum that show, quite clearly, that conditions for women are better in the countries where modern capitalism showed up and took hold early.  It is no longer possible to argue that capitalism causes women’s oppression:  in stark geographic terms, it is evident that capitalism does not map onto patriarchy.

This map represents gender equality geographically, with the orange countries having the best all around conditions (employment, education, health, political rights) and the green ones the worst, So now the challenge is to figure out why this particular pattern occurred. Note that the best conditions are in the market democracies of the West, followed by the industrialized nations that were once communist, and, lastly, the countries that are still industrializing today. This pattern, which can be discerned statistically across a number of measures and databases, runs exactly opposite to the conventional wisdom in feminist thought these past 50 years .

So what do we do now?  Well, in the academy, the work is just beginning:  we must explain why women did better in the market democracies so as to suggest interventions that might be replicated.  Our study on Avon was exactly such an attempt:  companies like Avon made a big difference for women in America by providing flexible work, so we went off to Africa to see if the positive effect could be seen today (the answer is yes).  All around the developing world, Avon-like systems are now being started by NGOs to deliver a variety of goods (toiletries, but also medicines and other essentials) while giving women a chance to earn a living.  The Bangladeshi lady in my first paragraph was employed by such a system.  (Avon as a feminist intervention? Who knew?)

But it takes years for the academy to make its mind up about stuff and the world won’t wait.  So, the activists should go ahead and change our actions, in accordance with what we know now.  It seems to me that what we need is to find ways to make the market work for women.  As I see it, we have spent the past few decades acting as if paid labor were the only arena of the economy that matters.  We need to open up to other areas where we can have an impact.  There are at least four arenas that seem to me to offer particular promise:  entrepreneurship, consumption, philanthropy, and investment.

Entrepreneurship.  Among governments, the current emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship is occurring largely out of the desire to stimulate economic growth generally.  To some degree, the call for “entrepreneurship for women” is a cheat by those who will not pay them fairly, promote them, or address care demands in the formal workplace.  Still, “owning our own” is a significant path toward empowerment—and a relatively recent possibility.  I have documented in Fresh Lipstick how entrepreneurial women contributed to freedoms for women, especially in the beauty and fashion industry (despite the way Second Wave feminism maligned it, the beauty/fashion industry is mostly where we built our economic strength).