Production and Reproduction

Updated: Feb 8, 2020

In the earliest years of economics as a discipline, there was clear recognition of the central confluences of the human economy:  the nexus between production and reproduction.  You can see it, of course, in Malthus’ emphasis on the relationship between agricultural output and population growth.  But you can also see it in Marx’ various valuations of commodities–he had the notion of surplus as much tied up in what it would take to keep a worker alive (reproduction) as in what it cost to make the object (production).

Nevertheless, there was much in the way of custom and law that eventually squeezed reproduction out of economic thinking.  Nancy Folbre has done a magisterial job in her book, Greed, Lust, and Gender, of explaining how ideas about the sexual freedoms and economic rights of women (or, more precisely, the lack of both) caused the phenomenon of reproductive labor (she is more likely to call it “care work”) to fade from consideration in economic theorizing. But the problem of ignoring care work because it is unmonetized–one of Folbre’s frequent and important points–is not the whole of why a renewed focus on reproduction is needed.

An essential element in the theory of the economy I am trying to build (the theory of women as an economy, the “Double X Economy” as such) is to reinstate the importance of reproduction as the “other half,” if you will, of production.  However, there are also practical and political reasons to bring reproduction back into focus as an essential element in our work toward gender equality in the economic domain.

I used this slide to illustrate the concept in a recent speech in Oxford.

I am defining “reproduction” to include not only unpaid care work, such as cooking and childcare, but also sexual services of all sorts, from marital sex to prostitution.  Traditionally, women have been confined economically by being restricted to the domain of reproduction.  (Even as they have left the home and engaged in wage labor, they have tended to go to industries that are extensions of reproduction, like health care and teaching and garment-making, where they have not been paid well.)

On the other side, however, women have been systematically excluded from “production,” which I am defining as the whole realm of wealth-generation, not only wage work, for instance, but investment.  Though women in the wealthy nations have, for the most part, won rights that allow them to own and access capital, it has not been long, in historical terms, since their rights were similar to those in the developing nations today.  That is to say that women have been prohibited from inheriting wealth, getting credit, owning capital assets, signing contracts, and even having their own bank accounts in most societies at one time and in many societies today.  So, it is not just that women were kept out of wage work, but that they were fundamentally unmonetized, a point I have been making often lately because it is the most basic characteristic of the women’s economy.

Being unmonetized makes you profoundly vulnerable.  Ever lost your wallet or had it stolen?  Today, we experience losing a wallet as a threat to identity, but the other practical effect of such a thing is that it leaves you without money until your access can be replaced.  It is like walking around naked.  You are completely dependent on others–if you are traveling, you may be really at risk until you get that access back.

Women in traditional societies live their whole lives that way.  Utterly dependent on the men who “provide” for them, they often must beg for even the smallest amount of cash.  They have no ability to leave even the most abusive situation because they quite literally do not have the money to buy a bus ticket or to buy food for themselves for a few days.  I am convinced this total power over married women, translated to a great extent through control over currency, is one reason why domestic violence is such a problem. Not only does it make the woman unable to leave, it gives the man the kind of total power that inevitably leads to abuse in human behavior.

I have seen many, many times in my work how the belief that women are “only good for” reproduction results in families failing to invest in the education of their daughters.  That same belief can and does lead to families selling these girls into slavery–inevitably into brothels or private homes as domestic servants.  If the girl cannot earn her way–because of social constraints and the failure to give her skills–there is nothing else for which she is fit except marriage, prostitution, or domestic servitude.  It is an enforced dependency, a measure to keep control.

This is one reason why when the garment factory comes to town, it is a major assault on gender norms.  All of a sudden, the most disempowered people in the village–the teenage girls–have the ability to leave and go work for cash.  It unsettles absolutely everything by changing the girls’ economic prospects, removing the requirement that they must marry or become prostitutes in order to subsist.

The coming of factories who will employ females takes a few teeth out of the local patriarchy’s bite.  In all the international angst over garment work, however, we very seldom hear the village life perspective being brought in.  Western economists and development experts are so accustomed to looking at factory labor from a purely productive view that they can’t see the reproductive choices workers are trying to avoid.  (I am reminded again of my friend Asif Ahmed’s comment that a substantial proportion of the girls working in the garment factories of Dhaka have run away to escape the constraints that marriage would put on them in the village. )

In the end, then, the requirement that women stay in place, doing reproductive work, rather than go out, to seek access to production in all its forms, has a wide range of effects beyond merely denying women a paycheck.  The insistence on constraining women to reproduction–and excluding them from production–directly feeds domestic violence and slavery, as well as many other human tragedies. This double-barreled economic practice is, I think, at the heart of social systems that perpetuate gender inequality all over the world.

The proof of this concept is in the conundrums faced by policy makers and corporations over getting women through the “leaky pipeline” and retaining them in the labor force.  Over and over, care work comes up as the reason women drop out, leave early, stay home, and so forth.  In Eastern and Southern Europe, failure to provide family-friendly environments for working women has resulted in low labor force participation and low fertility rates, which has now created a looming crisis in which the labor force will not be big enough to support the increasing numbers of elderly.

So, from a straightforwardly economic perspective, this place where reproduction and production cross is not to be taken lightly.  Yet, there is still a tendency to see them as separate compartments, with one domain legitimate and the other a silly matter with which rational men do not concern themselves.