EspañolA few days ago I finished reading Mercedes D’Alessandro’s book Feminist Economics. The author, a PhD in Economics, a Marxist, and self-proclaimed Argentinean feminist, focuses not on wealth inequality but rather between men and women.
According to D’Alessandro, there is a big gender gap in wages and in the burden of household tasks — and capitalism is to blame. Her solution, although not so clearly stated, relies on increased state regulation.
The book is a good summary of the views held by feminist economists. However, it is rife with contradictions, faulty arguments, and ultimately a misguided diagnosis of the current situation.
- Read More: Is Feminism a Friend or Foe of Freedom?
The first thing that garners attention is its proposal to “…think about a form of social organization in which women can play a different role than the one they have today.”
What role? That of a 40 year-old professional woman? That of a primary school teacher? Or perhaps Christine Lagarde’s role as the director of the International Monetary Fund?
I wonder whether it is not a little pretentious to speak for all women and just assume they don’t have the role they want.
The second controversial point is that domestic work — she quotes statistics that nine out of 10 women perform domestic work regardless of whether they have a day job — is unpaid employment and therefore exploitation.
This is simply not true.
For example, consider the following arrangement in a couple: by mutual agreement, A stays home and manages the household while B goes out to work in order to earn money. This is how many families are organized nowadays.
Now, there is no doubt that A works within the home, in the same way that B does outside. However, it is not true that A is not compensated for what he or she does.
In short, B’s income becomes the entire family’s income and serves to provide for the whole group. The family, or the couple in this case, works as a team that splits up the tasks. Both activities, however, are equally compensated.
B takes up a job in the labor market in exchange for a salary, while A gets a place to live, goods, services, enjoy vacations, etc.
This idea of unpaid household work would be the most misguided were if not for the author’s incoherent criticism of capitalism. Quoting Silvia Federici, D’Alessandro argues that “in a society shaped by monetary relations, the lack of a salary has transformed a form of exploitation into a natural activity.”
However, thanks to capitalism, women play an increasingly important role in the labor market. According to economist Steve Horwitz:
“Two things began to happen in the 20th century that would eventually undo what looked to be a fairly stable family form. First, technological innovation slowly began to produce labor-saving devices for household production. Second, continued market-driven economic growth increased the demand for labor (including female labor) and continued to raise the real purchasing power of wages across the economy.”
In other words, thanks to the growth of the market economy, being a stay-at-home mom or dad is increasingly less necessary. Therefore, the arrangement of having the man in the labor market and the woman at home is losing strength.
Curiously, D’Alessandro acknowledges this advance. “In the 1960s, only two out of 10 women worked outside the home; nowadays almost seven out of 10 do.”
On the other hand, the author also asserts that, although for every dollar US male workers earn women receive around 79 cents, this number used to be at 59 cents. This means women’s wages have grown by no less than 20 percent over the last 50 years.
Finally, she also highlights how women’s situation has improved in the corporate world:
“Over the last decades, women have enjoyed more access to high positions. According to the US census, in 1980 only seven percent of women had an administrative or managerial position, compared to 17 percent of men. By 2010, this gap had virtually disappeared.”
Despite these favorable trends, D’Alessandro continues to say that “the wage gap between men and women has been around for a couple of hundred years, and there is no sign that it will change substantially.” This assertion contradicts the figures she mentions just a couple of paragraphs before.
Feminist economics starts off from a fundamental mistake: to consider women as a homogeneous whole, without taking into account the nuances and differences that exist between them. Second, it erroneously assumes that any activity not done for money is akin to exploitation.
Finally, she incorrectly accuses capitalism of causing inequality, when it is the system that has done the most to improve the living conditions of both men and women. Fundamentally, capitalism has freed women from the need of getting married to improve her material conditions.
Feminism is wrong about capitalism and by seeking to undermine it, it may end up going against its own interests: women’s greater economic well-being.