Women's Work and Why Capitalism Needs Feminism
I was born a feminist. Or maybe it’s my social location, watching my immigrant Cuban mother navigate a professional career in America. Or both. Whatever the reason, recently my curiosity was peaked when I read a social media post about Katrine Marçal’s book Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner: A Story of Women and Economics (New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2016). Ironically, why hadn’t I heard of this book sooner? What might it have to say to me? What might it have to say to all of us about improving capitalism?
The day my copy arrived I started reading. I’ve since read it through once and am going back with a pen for notes and deeper learning. As I finished my first pass I thought I'd write about and share some of its insights with you. Then I thought; wouldn’t that be disingenuous? My (a man) reading the ideas and words written by the author (a woman) about women and economics, only to recast and rewrite about them in my own words. Oh, I get that it’s done, but doing so is disingenuous.
So, instead, and in my way of fully and transparently advocating for this book, I’m sharing here several sets of direct quotes from the preface, prologue, and epilogue. Ms. Marçal can well speak for herself and does. My intent in sharing her words directly is to peak your curiosity and move you to buy and read her book for yourself. You’ll find good motivation for doing your part to improve capitalism. Ready? Here we go!
Image Credit Pegasus Books
From the Preface to the American Edition
The ‘having it all’ narrative is, at its core, a story about the broken promises of feminism. The women's movement told us we could have unencumbered full-time careers, a loving partner, well-adjusted children, time to cook dinner every night, and still some energy left to save the world in the evening after the kids went to bed. Then when these promises couldn't all be delivered, everyone blamed feminism (p. v). ...
But here's a thought: Maybe it's not feminism that's making women stressed. Maybe it's the way we run our economy. Maybe the changes achieved by the women's movement in the last 40 years have not caused these problems. Maybe they have simply highlighted an inherent contradiction in society between care work and competition. There is a contradiction between the things we do for ourselves and the things we need to do for others. And a contradiction like that is essentially an economic problem.
Feminism and economics seldom meet in the mainstream debate today. Isn't it curious how we are able to discuss how women can ‘have it all’ in a way so completely detached from most of the debates about the economy? The economy is after all the framework for most of our decisions on jobs, careers, and childcare. The first thing an economist would say to all of this is that there's no such thing as ‘having it all.’ Life is inherently about choice. But the question is not so much about what a woman chooses as what choices are actually available to her (p. vi). ...
Feminism has always been about pointing out inequalities that the rest of society thinks are perfectly normal. And there is perhaps no better way to reveal those inequalities in their starkness than by looking through the lens of economics.
This book is an attempt to tell that story about women and economics. It's about the consequences of undervaluing the work that matters most. It's about how we have set the wrong priorities, misallocated resources on a catastrophic scale, and failed to understand our own needs as human beings--and then created a economy around it. This book is a call to change that system, to make it human again and to use it to create a world that can actually work.
Yes, feminism needs economics, but even more than that: economics needs feminism (p. viii).
From the Prologue
Feminism is a tradition of thought and political action that goes back more than 200 years. It is one of the great democratic political movements of our time, no matter what you think about its conclusions. And feminism has also accounted for what is probably the largest systemic economic shift of the last century.
Some would say ever.
‘Women went to work in the 1960s’: that's how this story is usually told.
But it's not true. Women didn't go to work in the 1960s or during the Second World War.
Women have always worked.
What has happened in the last decades is that women have changed jobs.
From working in the home [which is not the same as our COVID-19 era WFH], they've taken positions out on the market and started to take payment for their labor.
From having worked as nurses, carers, teachers and secretaries they have started competing with men as doctors, lawyers and marine biologists.
This represents a gigantic social and economic shift: half of the population has moved the majority of its work from the home to the market.
We went from one economic system to another, without really being aware of it (p. 4). ...
Somewhere there is an equation that no one has managed to solve.
Maybe we don't even have the language to talk about it yet, but it is without doubt an economic question.
Many people are afraid of economics. Its word, its authority, its rituals, and its apparently all-encompassing incomprehensibility. The period that led up to the great financial crisis was a time when we were asked to hand the economy over to the experts. It was said that they had solved the issues for us and we weren't competent enough to understand their solution. It was a period when central bankers could become celebrities and named 'Man of the Year' by Time magazine for cutting interest rates to save western civilization.
That era has passed.
This is a story about being seduced. It's about how insidiously a certain view of economics has crawled under our skin. How it has been allowed to dominate other values, not just in the global economy, but in our own lives. It's about men and women and about how when we make toys real, they gain power over us (pp. 5-6).
From the Epilogue
As the author, I have attempted to contribute my version [of the current discussion about economics]. A story about how economic man was a way to flee from large parts of our humanity and how we now find ourselves in between the world views and enroute to losing our religion.
Feminism's best-kept secret is just how necessary feminist perspective is in the search for a solution to our mainstream economic problems. It is involved in everything from inequality to population growth to benefits to the environment and the care crunch that will soon face many ageing societies. Feminism is about so much more than ‘rights for women.’ So far only half of the feminist revolution has happened. We have added women and stirred. The next step is to realize what a massive shift this has been, and to actually change our societies, economies and politics to fit the new world we have created. Wave economic man off from the platform then build an economy and society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be a human.
We don't need to call it a revolution; rather, it could be termed an improvement (p. 197).
Indeed, to “build an economy and society with room for a greater spectrum of what it means to be a human” is neither a threat nor a revolution, but an improvement. As we collectively work toward improving our economy and society (in the United States we often blend these and refer to them together as 'capitalism'), we must work as brothers and sisters who share the name Human. What’s your role and next step in improving your corner of capitalism? After reading Ms. Marçal’s book, of course; that's an easy and actionable next step.
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