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Market Feminism: From Evidence to Theory

My speech at Vermont was the first time I have argued explicitly for a theory of Market Feminism.

I gave a talk last week at the University of Vermont, the guest of former Governor and Ambassador to Switzerland, Madeleine Kunin.  Kunin is a strong proponent for putting new energy into feminist efforts to improve support for working mothers and to draw women into leadership positions in politics, having published two recent books on these topics, The New Feminist Agenda and Pearls, Politics, and Power.

So it seemed like a good opportunity to test out my arguments for a new feminist theory.  The speech was well received and I had many requests for the slides, as well as the link to a video that the university will post soon.

Market Feminism would be inclusive and evidence-driven, achieving prosperity by using intelligent intervention to close the gender gap.

I am calling my proposed approach “Market Feminism,”  after a call I made nearly 15 years ago for a new paradigm appropriate to the globalizing economy.  In that article, called “Market Feminism:  The Case for a Paradigm Shift,” I posed a question that was “unspeakable” in feminist circles of the time:  “Can the market economy be harnessed on behalf of the movement and, if so, how?”  I began by documenting how the market had been used successfully by both the First and Second Wave and then posited that the future would demand an even more focused market-based approach.

More than a decade later, I feel that the answer to the question whether the market can be harnessed on behalf of the movement is clearly “yes”–and we are already on the road to figuring out how.  Yet the surge of effort behind economically empowering women being undertaken by institutions from the World Bank to the U. S. State Department to major multinationals like Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil, remains, as they say, “untheorized.”

I am trying to make a start.  I contend, first and foremost, that we must begin by working from evidence.  In this regard, I am allying with a new school called “Pragmatist Feminism,” which emphasizes an experimental, evidence- and practice-based approach to empowering women, with theory being formulated in response to results.  (Our Avon paper, “Enterprise and Inequality,” discusses Pragmatist Feminism as a suitable theoretical basis for that study.) However, what I am proposing is distinguished by an explicit focus on using the market, in a 360 degree economic engagement that reaches far beyond issues of employment to include investment, philanthropy, consumption, and entrepreneurship.

Global gender datasets stand to redefine our understanding of the gender challenge.

Market Feminism has become a credible and practical approach in the light of new information provided by the massive nation level datasets, assembled and analyzed by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, and OECD.  These data demand we rethink the nature of women’s oppression, but they also point to a path where intelligent intervention and innovation could have historic effects.

These datasets show conclusively that gender inequality is a global problem, that no nation has solved it, but also that women’s subordination has a strong and rather predictable pattern of practices.  These data make it implausible to cast women’s subordination is a local cultural issue, as was so often done under postmodern feminism. Instead, women’s oppression has emerged as a sinister, but worldwide phenomenon that goes as far back in history as anyone can see.

Greater gender equality is unequivocally associated with positive social and economic outcomes. The causality seems to run in the direction of greater equality for women giving rise to benefits for all.

The nation-level data show quite clearly that high gender equality is associated with national wealth, health, and stability.  In contrast, nations where women are less equal along the dimensions of education, economic engagement, political participation, and health struggle with gender inequality’s massively negative effects.  A wide range of undesirable phenomena–from infant mortality to depressed economies to heavy disease burdens to levels of violence–track in an appalling way with negative gender relations.  Much effort has gone into testing and tweaking the components that constitute the gender indices, with teams like our sanitary care group working to see how you can, for instance, improve female reproductive freedom and reap higher prosperity and better health outcomes.

Typically, gender indices compile multiple measures into sub-scores in key arenas of health, education, economic participation, and political power. (Click to enlarge any of these slides.)

At first, people questioned whether poor nations simply could not afford the luxury of freeing their women–or whether the causality ran in the other direction, implying it was the very act of freeing women that made the developed nations rich.  It is obviously a complex matter, but the consensus now is that the causality runs in the direction where higher gender equality leads to better economic, social, health, and environmental outcomes. Thus, it is now really quite clear that everyone’s  best interest lies in the ridding the world of this inequality.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t gender bigots still out there. Obviously, there are! But it does mean there is a real basis for building consensus that has never been available before.

Market democracies are better places for women than former communist countries.

Importantly, the data substantially contradict the received wisdom of the Second Wave “critique of capitalism,” in which many feminist theorists blamed women’s subordination on the rise of the modern economy and placed their hopes in a revolution that would result in a socialist utopia.  In the box plot on the right, I have shown the 2010 gender scores for four groups of countries:  from the left, those we used to call the “free world” (essentially, the countries that embraced both democracy and the modern economy early–I call them the “market democracies”); those we used to call the “communist world” (China, Cuba, and the former Soviet nations); sub-Saharan Africa (which I have used here to stand for countries as yet mostly unindustrialized and still largely lacking democratic process); and the “rest of the world” net of the market democracies.

Communist countries, many of which are industrialized, have better conditions than sub-Saharan African countries, most of which are still comparatively untouched by the modern economy.

What you can see is that the market democracies have statistically significantly better conditions for women than the former communist world.  In turn, the communist countries have significantly better conditions than the contemporary world’s closest analogy to “traditional societies.”  Second Wave feminism often asserted that traditional societies had been more egalitarian than the modern market democracies.  It sounds like a cruel joke now, when we are so much more aware of the brutality that women in the world’s most remote areas endure. To be fair, Second Wave theorists were working with comparatively little data because women’s history was sparse, anthropological studies spotty and biased, and there was nothing but a deafening silence coming from behind the “Iron Curtain.”  But there was a strong imperative to drape the nonindustrial past in a soft gauze.  We know better now.

Market democracy performance on gender measures suggests looking closely at their economic institutions for ideas of where to intervene.

Indeed, since the market democracies have statistically significantly better conditions for women than the rest of the world, it seems worth looking most closely at modern economic means to further improve gender conditions (though medical and educational levers are extremely important and tightly related). And, given the shared interests of all nations in improving global prosperity, health, and stability, it makes all the sense in the world that major institutions would now be engaged in huge efforts to improve the lot of women. As a consequence, I suggest that Market Feminism would be distinguished by an inclusive ethos, one that built on multisectoral partnerships–and would engage both men and women in its efforts.  Market Feminism would not be separatist in the way that the radicals of the Second Wave often demanded.

Now, what I have done here is admittedly a gloss on a complex set of data and descriptors.  However, as someone who spends her time immersed in this stuff, I can say that you would discern this broad pattern in pretty much any set of measures currently available.

My theory of origin for women's oppression would place heavy emphasis on their exclusion from the money system. By this, I mean exclusion from wealth of all sorts, not just from paid employment.

I summarize that Market Feminism would be distinguished by its evidence-to-theory practice, its 360 degree economic vision, its inclusive ethos, and its promise of prosperity through closing the gender gap. But a theory does more than outline a set of practices and goals.  It attempts to explain how we came to be here, even says something about the essence of human nature, in order to infer appropriate action.

My argument is that a key means of women’s subordination has been their exclusion from the money system–right from the beginning, all over the world.  It has been argued in the past that female oppression grew out of private property rights (specifically inheritance rights), as well as that it grew from the exclusion of women from literacy when writing was invented. However, both the invention of writing and the institution of paternal private inheritance rights grow from the same moment as the invention of the financial system.  In fact, writing was invented specifically to keep track of goods: the tokens that were the prototypes for coins were also the precursors of writing.

Thus, all the countries of the world either have a present or a past in which women have been excluded not only from paid labor, but also from the various money and text instruments that form the basis of the financial system:  credit, contracts, wills, investments, ownership of all sorts.  I believe that the confinement of women to the reproductive realm has been largely effected by sanctions against their having any means of controlling wealth.  Even women from wealthy families could be effectively bound in chains if they had no access to cash.  The exclusion from the money system in its entirety kept women from having any autonomy or mobility whatever.

I believe it is the nexus of confinement to the reproductive realm and exclusion from the production domain wherein lies the key to domination.  The very fact that we have been taught to think of production and reproduction in such a compartmentalized way suggests what a focal point this part of the system represents.  Historically, the discipline of economics encompassed both production and reproduction (think:  Malthus).  But over time, both the adherents of Marx and of Smith have tended to separate them. (Nancy Folbre’s book, Greed, Lust, and Gender is a real eye-opener on this score.)

Now, earlier feminist theorists also often said that women must have agreed to the conditions that ultimately led to their subordination.  I see no reason to think that would have been true. Even in Gerda Lerner’s masterful re-reading of ancient law and texts, it is clear that a society in which women were routinely abducted, raped, and otherwise held down by the constant threat of sexual violence predated writing, property, or money.  The global data–as well as contemporary news and culture–point consistently to violence against women as the threat that ultimately perpetuates the system.  I don’t see how there is any avoiding that conclusion: indeed, I intend to argue that this violence is the creepiest aspect of human nature and, in agreement with Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden, that it must be unlearned if we are to survive as a species.  So, women did not agree, but were first coerced, and the intervening millennia simply embroidered on the earliest means of keeping them down.  Such a theory helps explain why patriarchy does not map on to capitalism, geographically or otherwise, and is always accompanied by violence, but not always by private property or literacy.

There are times when passing a law is necessary and sufficient and there are times when the best you can do is blow things up and start over. But we need to add another tool, a different kind of action.

I do believe barring women from having money was one of the first and most effective of these means of subordination, however.  Maybe “follow the money” should be the slogan for Market Feminism. Economic interventions, such as gender lens investing and training for entrepreneurship, should be added to the toolbox of the Second Wave, which basically had only had two practical strategies:  pass a law or blow it up.  In the posts that follow, I will talk about the limits of these two strategies, which characterized Liberal and Radical Feminism, respectively.

Importantly, my direction of travel implies that women’s advancement to power demands increasing female control over wealth. Further, the modes of such a movement’s leadership must be economic, as well as political.  These two things will create a great deal of discomfort in some quarters, where it is still assumed that an economic strategy necessarily supplants an emphasis on rights (and that economic leadership is synonymous with corruption).   I believe that, during the past ten years or so in which the international aid community has been devising new ways to empower women, we have learned that rights alone are not enough. Rights must be actionable.  A key precondition for claiming one’s rights is a certain amount of economic autonomy.  It is not useful to treat economic empowerment and human rights as mutually exclusive.  They are often mutually dependent.

What is the call to action? I will develop these over the next few posts. (Not enough space in one blog for a full-blown theory. Stay tuned.)

I will develop my argument further in the next few posts.  First, I will address the Second Wave’s continuing emphasis on working exclusively with the state, eschewing economic partnerships as a betrayal of feminism–and I will suggest that, on the contrary, the state cannot be relied upon to stand for women’s rights and so we must diversify our relationships.  Next, I will address the lingering romantic notion of “waiting for the revolution” and its inadequacy in the face of real geopolitical circumstance. Then, I will elaborate on the ways that other forms of economic engagement besides paid work can be harnessed to empower the world’s women.

The next installment of Market Feminism addresses the limits of working exclusively through state intervention to achieve freedom for women.  


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