Tackling the woman question in Feminist Economics
by Crescia Lactao
“The woman question” planted the roots of feminism in the human consciousness and essentially ignited the fight for equal rights among genders. Who knew a revolution and movement would spur from a simple question?
French scholars in history started questioning what exactly were the intellectual differences between the two genders and if this separation even existed. Centuries later, this woman question is answered (for most parts of the world). In the modern era, the social situation for women is rapidly changing for the better compared to years ago, but while navigating this new society that is transitioning from male-centered traditions and customs, gender concerns and other “woman questions” have also changed.
A brief history on feminism
A “brave man” is no different than a “brave woman.” The ideas of feminism can be traced back to as far as the 17th century when French philosophers argued that aside from the obvious differences in physical characteristics between males and females, there were no innate neurological differences between the two genders.
The fruits of this debate would become the basis of feminist thought and its concepts. Philosophers started to deconstruct presupposed gender differences that were considered a fact of human nature and were also used as justification for the unequal treatment between the two genders during that time. Much of the feminist debate focused on the nature of virtues and questioned if men and women differed in the expression of these virtues.
By the Enlightenment period and the 19th century, the social disadvantages and realities of women as a result of the patriarchy were brought to attention and studied further. The concept of individual freedom began to be applied in feminism, leading to the emancipation of women as the main topic of debate.
But the social, political, and legal liberation of women was not only the point of discussion. Feminine values, characterized by their appeal to emotion, and masculine values, characterized by rationality and detachment, were identified and clustered. In recognition of these gendered values, feminism argued that feminine values were in no way inferior to masculine values and instead served as an important complement to masculine values, and vice versa. In addition, the care work predominantly done by women as wives, mothers, or daughters in the household became recognized as significant public service. During this time, feminism as a belief system progressed to a liberal-individualistic set of ideas.
As feminism shaped the world, the ideology also evolved. The construction of the current feminist ideology is a result of accumulated ideas throughout history that have been reviewed repeatedly. The “woman question” that pondered on gender differences helped establish the points of feminism that justify and validate women stepping into bigger social and economic roles. The next women questions to ask are whether the ideals of feminism can match with reality — and how to ensure they can.
Now and then: Male-centered systems
The world was once male-centered, and though that is changing, there is still work to be done. While the principles for feminism have been established, male-centered systems and structures persist today and are yet to be dismantled.
Undeniably, the modern world has been kinder to women, granting economic work and education as a universal right. Global goals factor gender equality into their agenda such as Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Women are allowed to pursue work other than reproductive work, like professional and economic work. Today, gender roles can be openly rejected. Some women object to taking over reproductive work and some men adjust to take over that mantle.
The world has come a long way from being explicitly and traditionally male-centered. Before, women barely had rights of their own, politically and socially. Their rights functioned behind the men in their lives — their father while growing up, then their spouse when they were married. Education for women was limited to housework and care work, so they barely had any presence in the academic field.
Now, feminism demands change in the hierarchy of ideas. Issues of gender that attack women directly like the objectification of women still exist, and patriarchal systems can still function, albeit discreetly. These systems could be expressed simply as a result of gendered expectations and biases, rather than explicit actions of misogyny.
According to Maria Sagrario Floro, a leading researcher in Feminist Economics, this hierarchy of ideas is even applicable to the discipline of Economics.
Together with her co-authors Lourdes Benería and Günseli Berik, Floro in her book Gender, Development, and Globalization critiques male-centered economics or the Homo Economicus that also acts as the mainstream analysis in economics.
Floro also lectured live last year December 4, 2020, in a research colloquium about Feminist Economics. According to her, economics is “male-centered” in terms of the premises or assumptions of its theories about human behavior, choices, and constraints. In other words, the mainstream economic theories tend to embody masculine values. However, as a result of the hierarchy of ideas that positions masculine values in the mainstream, female values in economic theories tend to be absent.
In mainstream economics, humans are assumed to be calculating, self-interested, and focused on building autonomy through their “optimizing behavior.” Mainstream economics mainly focuses on studying the exchange of goods and services and the process of efficient markets. The main economic concern is also growth-obsessed, which is emphasized and measured by the GDP.
While the male perspective has its benefits in ensuring progress, unfortunately, what is overlooked economically are the feminine values that would pay attention to the kinds of work that do not function under those assumptions such as unpaid care work that are typical to females. After all, unpaid care work contradicts the assumption of humans in economics as selfish and individualistic.
Mainstream economics studies profit-making work, which excludes the contributions of unpaid care work. Thus, care work is generally absent in the discussion of economic processes, concepts, and statistics. Simon Kuznet, for example, who developed the US National Income Account (NIA) in 1930 decided not to include care work when faced with the decision because it was too difficult.
Feminist Economics argues that the economic contributions of unpaid care work deserve its visibility and academic attention in the study of Economics. Ultimately, the labor force depends on unpaid care work to “maintain and sustain” their own productivity for the economy. Studies have also shown that there is an “intrinsic link” between unpaid care labor and wage labor.
Floro also believes that including unpaid care work is also “central” to understanding the female labor market. Including unpaid care work in economics could also acknowledge the reality of women who face the trade-off between care work and economic work. This could be the way to solve the lack of female visibility in labor force measurements or data collection.
The lack of female presence in early academic institutions and economic work could have set the current patriarchal hierarchy of ideas by default, and this reality has limited female presence in economics. While the feminist movement has gained worldwide traction, it is not an easy task to unlearn what was traditionally accepted.
Maybe Kuznet calling care work too difficult to measure is merely a symptom of this system at work. Maybe this time, a woman can try to take on that challenge.
Here are the resources I used for the article. Feel free to browse through them to learn more about Feminist Economics:
Becchio, G. (2020). A History of Feminist and Gender Economics. Routledge Taylor and
Benería, L., Berik, G., & Floro, M. S. (2016). Gender, development, and globalization:
Economics as if all people mattered (2nd ed.). Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.
Ateneo de Manila University: Department of Economics. (2020, Dec 4). Introduction to
Feminist Economics by Dr. Sagrario “Sergy” Floro [Video]. Facebook.