Feminist economics is often narrowly associated with work and money related concerns (like most of the general field of economics). Some common examples include the gender wage gap, the effect of policies such as paid family leave, and welfare policy. But the field also holds the potential to make interventions in central areas of feminist social and cultural concern. Notably, socialist feminists, among others, have long maintained there is a key connection between the transformation of economic relations and cultural life. For me, the dream of feminist economics lies in its ability to bring about a fundamental reorientation of what we value, how we relate to one another, and thus what we can imagine. By creating spaces of personal and collective autonomy, freedom from work, and egalitarian social relations, feminist economics interventions feed not only our bodies, but our dreams. The conclusion to a series, this piece addresses continual wellspring of political hope that feminist economic thought provides.
Expanding the Horizon of Our Political Imagination
Out of all the awful things that capitalism does, one of the scariest may be the ways in which it can limit our capacity to imagine different, happier worlds. The manufactured scarcities, enforced competition, hyper-individualism, and false needs that capitalism presents us with means that many visions of social transformation get dismissed as “too idealistic” or “impossible” before they even leave the planning stage. Nonetheless, where there has been imaginative thinking about a world beyond the chains of capitalist ideology, some visions for change have employed feminist and other radical economic insights in the service of broadening the terrain of the dreamable. With the struggle to end violence against women, I feminist economic thinking makes possible the utopias that we desperately need.
Socialist feminists have long held that the ways in which our homes and neighborhoods are structured helps to reinforce patriarchy and the nuclear family. As historian Dolores Hayden writes in The Grand Domestic Revolution, so-called “material feminists” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries sought women’s liberation and economic democracy through a physical reorganization of domestic and communal space. Plans for co-operative housing, communal kitchens, socialized childcare, and the breakdown of the barriers between the public and private spheres were all part of a larger vision to create a society where communities would be free to define the good life on their own terms, without subordinating any of their members.
In her book, Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici offers another historical example of how the material conditions imposed by capitalism undermine women’s autonomy. She notes that “in pre-capitalist Europe women’s subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, lying outside the sphere of market relations.” Thus, this proposes that the existence of a women-oriented commons is key to building women’s social power, allowing them to resist the control of husbands and fathers.
Here, feminist economic thinking comes into direct conversation with feminist challenges to patriarchal sexual politics. Feminist critiques of monogamy and the nuclear family assert that these institutions not only exploit women’s care labor, but also render them vulnerable to sexual, physical, and emotional violence. Victoria Robinson, in her 1997 article “My Baby Just Cares for Me: feminism, heterosexuality and non-monogamy,” argues that the political economy of monogamy undergirds sexist oppression. Like the materialist feminists before her, Robinson suggests that liberatory social relations can only emerge when we change the material conditions under which we live our lives.
Socialist feminist interventions, such as co-operative housing and socialized childcare, offer women a serious alternative to monogamy and the nuclear family. This, along with the social solidarity fostered by egalitarian living arrangements, might help to bring about the end of intimate partner violence, or at least substantially reduce it. By breaking down barriers to leaving abusive partners and bolstering community-based forms of survivor support and perpetrator accountability, these new economic arrangements would offer hope for a future beyond the wretchedness of daily life under patriarchy and heterosexism. Indeed, though hardly unquestionable proof of my hypothesis, Katie J.M. Baker’s analysis in an article for Dissent supports this suggestion. Baker analyzes the account of one self-styled American “pick up artist” in his attempt to coerce Danish women into sleeping with him and reads his subsequent failure as the efficacy of social redistribution to liberate women and end rape culture. By granting women (and all who have historically depended on intimate partners and private families for economic support) unassailable access to economic resources, the Danish Welfare state figures in Baker’s piece as an example of what feminist economics might achieve.
The promise of feminist economics to help end violence against women through the types of reorganization of society described above suggests a way past the failure of increasing criminalization and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex to end domestic violence and dismantle patriarchal social relations. While legal reforms and increased police funding have brought limited relief to some, many other women have suffered as a result of these policies due to the structurally racist, heterosexist, transmisogynistic, classist, and misogynistic character of the US criminal justice system. Instead, we might take our cues from queer legal theorist Dean Spade, in his video manifesto, “Impossibility Now,” Spade critiques the limits of rights-based legal reforms, and argues that the future of trans liberation lies in a radical intersectional politics that seeks to dismantle state and capitalist power. Many of Spade’s ideas, such as working to decriminalize sex work and end poverty, fall squarely into the camp of feminist economics, and this is not a coincidence. What continues to draw me back to the field of feminist economics is its promise of the just distribution of material plenty to bring about social and political equality, level oppressive hierarchies, end coercive social relations, and reorganize our lives about care and community.
While there is much more to be said about feminist economics, this series has demonstrated the pivotal role it can play in supporting truly radical struggles for political and social change. In continually asking us to look beyond the limits of present moment, feminist economics affirms that there can be enough for all to thrive in equality and plurality. After all, economics is not really different from politics, which is not different from ethics, which is not different from dreaming up utopias and how we might get there.