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Market Feminism: Limits of the State

This post continues the summary of a talk I gave at the University of Vermont several weeks ago. The first installment is here.

A foundational question in the debate over theory and practice within feminist thinking is the role of the state and of reform through legislative means.

I believe it is time to focus on other avenues for action besides working through governments. Nations all over the world, including the most “advanced” from a gender perspective, have failed to follow through on equality for women. Indeed, on some issues such as equal pay, countries are studiously looking the other way while a staggering degree of discrimination occurs.  In many developing countries, the laws that have the most impact on women–family and inheritance rules, for instance–do not come under the purview of the state at all, but are completely controlled by religious institutions. The world’s poorest and most repressive states often show no friendliness to the cause of women whatsoever.  So it seems to me that the limits of the state’s usefulness as a lever to empower women are becoming clear.


The bar representing perfect equality--where women are paid the same as men for the same job--is the black one at the far right. So, every country shown here is falling well short. In this chart, the only nation without equal pay legislation is India. Note India's record is little different from the United States'. See that Scandinavian countries are really not much closer to equal pay than India or the US. All the different metrics for wage comparisons make it clear that gender discrimination in pay continues at a level so massive as to be measurable in the aggregate, despite decades of equality law. It is a clear failure of the state to enforce protection for half the citizenry.


Liberal Feminism–the predominant approach over more than two centuries in America–has often worked through changes in law, even when economic reform (such as stopping employment discrimination) was the objective.  The feminist movement in America (and England) grew from the tradition of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on citizenship, reason, and debate–and so naturally leaned toward legislative solutions. With that in mind, we can understand why so much practical focus has been on the state.


Market Feminism adds a practice-oriented, evidence-based economic approach to the "pass a law or blow it up" repertoire of the Second Wave.


Marxist and Radical Feminists have criticized Liberal Feminism for being too “reformist.” It was better, in the radical view, to “wait for the revolution” rather than to make smaller changes that offered better opportunities or increased comfort–because reform only forestalled an inevitable, but desirable, systemic upheaval. As I will explain in the next post, the case for revolution as a strategy for empowering women is difficult to make if you pay any attention to the unique circumstances of female subordination (as compared to that of class or race) or if you are mindful of the actual track record of revolution in producing changes that benefit women. By the turn of the 21st century, even radical theorists began adapting their stance, talking instead about “gradual revolution” and handing the remit for action to the state. Thus, reform through legislative action became the default approach under both liberal and radical rubrics.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote Women and Economics, a treatise that places a surprising emphasis on evolutionary speculation. But Gilman hits the nail on the head by attributing women's subordination to the practice of forcing the human female to rely on the male for her food supply.


The case for Market Feminism–that is, practical economic intervention on behalf of women–must therefore be made as an alternative to reform via statute.  (Please note that I am arguing for an alternative, or supplementary, approach, not a substitute for legal rights.)  There is some history behind such an approach, such as the consumer boycotts conducted under the National Consumers League and, of course, the many labor movements, such the strikes by the Women’s Trade Union League in the early 20th century.  A few attempts have been made to think about women’s subordination in broadly economic terms, beginning with the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  There is an active academic stream, operating under “feminist economics” since 1994 (but this field focuses mainly on critiquing the androcentric biases in economics as a discipline). Nancy Folbre has done a masterful job of showing how economic theory evolved in a way that specifically excludes and disempowers women in her Greed, Lust, and Gender.

However, to my knowledge, there has never been a feminist theoretical approach that focused broadly on the economy as the arena for both thought and action, with the practical intention of achieving women’s emancipation through economic intervention at every point women and the money system touch (not just wage employment).  And that is what I think we need.


In this map, higher gender equality is orange and high inequality is green. Patriarchy predates capitalism by thousands of years and still holds women by the throat in countries as yet relatively untouched by the modern economy.


Radical and Marxist Feminists are  unhappy with the thought that feminism could legitimately collaborate with the economic institutions of capitalism (see, for instance, Nancy Fraser’s recent piece in The Guardian). Many feminists, unfortunately, cannot see the difference between intervening through economics and “selling out.” Since patriarchy is often (usually) conflated with capitalism, any work that goes through the economic system (rather than ripping it to shreds) may be seen as antifeminist.  As I have tried to show many times and in many ways on this blog, patriarchy simply does not map onto capitalism in either time or space.  We need to stop confusing those two phenomena.

Liberal Feminism is generally felt to be “friendly” to capitalism–mostly because it is not unfriendly.  However, the economics that grew out of the liberal tradition rather explicitly conceptualizes human exchange as an “objective” (or natural) phenomenon best left unfettered.  Thus the economy is not seen as a political domain from which action in favor of social change can or should take place. Indeed, to suggest interference in the economy in order to advantage or disadvantage a particular group usually strikes traditional thinkers as morally offensive.  But we can easily see that the market is often harnessed to further the agenda of one group or another, as well as to bolster the interests of governments. So using the market on behalf of women would simply mirror practices that act on behalf of governments, regions, industries, religions, brands, families, and (every day of the world) rich white males.

Some of the most serious offenses to women have been impervious to legal sanction because of their fundamentally economic nature.  For instance, slavery is illegal in every country on the planet.  Yet human trafficking occurs on a larger scale than ever before in history and most of the victims are young females. Why?  Because they are seen to have little economic value, even by their families, except for reproductive functions, which is why they are mostly sold into sex slavery and domestic servitude.  Governments are often complicit. The only way we are ever going to solve the slavery issue is to change the economic equation that underpins it.

Furthermore, it is preposterous to argue that every corporation that ever existed is worse for women than the kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the theocracy of Iran.  Political swings even in the United States have raised the specter of a “war on women.”  Yet the World Bank has active programs underway to empower women, as do several other international economic bodies, as well as a handful of very powerful corporations.  These economic institutions may actually have a bigger effect on resistant patriarchies than international diplomacy can.  Do we really mean to be so doctrinaire as to condemn the “neoliberal” efforts of the World Bank, as if Saudi Arabia–just because it is a government–is a preferable partner?


How can we deploy investments on behalf of women? How would it change the shape of the world if women had equal access to credit for businesses they owned themselves? How might consumer products be designed to help women break through traditional limits? These are just a few of the questions Market Feminism would pose.


Market Feminism would look beyond issues of employment (well beyond the “family wage”) to the role played by inheritance laws, restrictions on credit, bars to ownership, access to markets, and so on.  This would be an essential contribution, as all previous feminist theories have tended to focus on labor, without really giving the rest of the economy much thought.  An authentic effort to liberate women economically simply cannot focus only on state interventions in matters of employment, but must consider every potential avenue for action, from savings to philanthropy.

In sum, the reasons for looking beyond state interventions are five:

(1) the demonstrated failure of the state to produce equality even where legislation demands it,

(2) the unfriendliness of many national governments to the cause of women,

(3) the prevalence of economic practices that subordinate women, but occur outside the reach of the state,

(4) the lack of evidence to support a theory that capitalism uniquely causes the subordination of women, and

(5) the increasing salience of many heretofore untouched economic tools that might be fruitfully engaged on behalf of women as a global class of economic actors.

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