Welcome back, Academic Feminists! Today I am excited to present a conversation with Kate Bahn and Katherine Moos, PhD Candidates in the Economics Department at the New School for Social Research and founders of the blog, Lady Economist, where they have weighed in on everything from the gender pay gap to the European economic crisis. Here, I asked Kate and Katherine to explain how economics can be “feminist” and to offer their thoughts on what the much-discussed (and best-selling) book on economic inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, means for feminism.
I love the name of your blog! Can you tell us about how it came to be?
KM: Why thank you! The name “Lady Economist” came to me the spring before I started at the New School for Social Research, when I was wrapping up my job at a non-profit. At the time I was reflecting on how my previous work had been in a female-dominated sector, and how for the first time in my adult life, I would be entering a much more male-dominated sphere. I had also been reading a lot of feminist blogs (including Feministing!) and loved how our generation had reclaimed the term “lady,” even though phrases like “lady lawyer” or “lady doctor” always got on my nerves. It reminded me of my high school’s sports teams, which were the called the Falcons, except for the girls’ teams, which were the “Lady Falcons.” It really stuck with me that even athletic programs, which were supposed to be so empowering for teenage girls, relegated female athletes to feminized and demure creatures.
Once I got to school and met Kate Bahn, she was obviously the perfect person to partner with on the blog. She had been organizing the women in the Economics Department in a social group she called the “Economisses,” which is a play on the masculine title of economist, and that became the subject titles for pieces that focus on women in the economics profession. The name “Lady Economist” has allowed us to offer an intersectional feminist blog about economics. I like to think of it as the center of a venn diagram consisting of three circles: third-wave feminist blogs, heterodox economic blogs, and progressive media.
What exactly is “feminist economics”?
KB: My elevator explanation of feminist economics is that it is two-fold. First, feminist economics addresses gender as a central organizing principle of the economy (similar to how Marxian economics addresses class as the central organizing principle of the economy). Second, feminist economics analyzes the ways in which gender influences economic thinking and theory, both how the gender of the practitioners (mostly an old white boys’ club) affects the point-of-view of economics (androcentric bias) about what is a worthy topic of study and also how gender cognitive schema influence what we regard as high quality economic theory (overvaluation of individualism and “hard” quantitative work, which we unconsciously regard as masculine and therefore superior).
But in practice it is a huge field. There is a lot of work in economics that I think is feminist without acknowledging its place in the feminist economics field. Like, once I met an economist who was studying access to latrines in a northern province of India, where women were bargaining in arranged marriages for access to latrines in the family home of their betrothed. It involved issues of safety and power for women in a most fundamental way. But this economist wasn’t in a particularly radical program and didn’t recognize his work as feminist. I still think he was one of the most feminist economists I’d ever met. On the other hand, there are economists who are vocal members of the explicit feminist economics community (whose association is the International Association of Feminist Economists) who are publishing work that is for all intents and purposes almost identical to more mainstream economics work, but just incorporates gender as a feature in their formal quantitative economic models. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is not a complete restructuring of the way we do economics from a more feminist foundation. Other economists in the feminist economics community are doing some pretty amazing interdisciplinary work really trying to create a more inclusive theory of what the economy is and how it works that incorporates feminist principles by developing models that include the social concept of gender rather than just the gender of individuals. My work is somewhere between the two ends of the feminist economics spectrum. I’m combining some labor market modeling tools that can be found in some mainstream fringe journals with a feminist analysis.
So, there’s a lot of noise around Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (which, for the record, I have not yet read). In thinking about that book, your current series on socialist feminism and grassroots movements like Occupy Wall Street – do you think we are witnessing a (re)new(ed) focus on economics in feminism?
KM: It’s on my list of summer reading, but I haven’t yet had the chance to read it. That being said, I’ve been enjoying reading the responses of other economists, including heterodox trained economists. From my vantage point I see two things going on: mainstream economics has failed to predict or explain the financial crisis, and has drawn the orthodoxy into sharp criticism. This is a good thing, from my point of view, because a lot of mainstream economic theory is fundamentally flawed. There is currently international student activism demanding more pluralism in economics. Some of these efforts are being speared-headed by our colleagues at the New School. It isn’t necessarily feminist though, which I don’t say so much as a criticism but as an observation. The frustration is that neoclassical economic theory is taught in most economics programs as a scientific fact, not as one particular school of thought.
The second piece is, as far as a return to a focus on economics in feminism, it does seem to me to be a function of the financial crisis and our generation’s economic reality: huge student debt, precarious employment opportunities, and an uncertain and fragile financial future. It would be a failure of feminism if it weren’t focused on economic issues, because it would signal that feminism was somehow divorced from the reality of women and men’s lives. I also think that as feminism strives to become more intersectional, and the voices of people color, as well as low-income and queer communities are given proper air time, issues around economic justice become central, because that is central to the feminist struggle they’ve been engaging with all along.
KB: For the record, I haven’t read it either. But economists love to act like experts on things they know nothing about, so I’ll continue in that tradition. It is really exciting to have a best selling book about economics. I always thought that economics was a linchpin to understanding society, which is why I study it, so it’s nice that other people are really talking about how economic history affects where we are now, acknowledging how crucial the study of economics is. That being said, maybe I’m a cynic, but I’m not sure how much is fundamentally changing in economics. There have been bright moments like this in the past that don’t seem to have changed the fundamental power dynamics all that much like the financial crisis and the surrounding debate. Thomas Piketty is another flicker that I’m worried won’t change much of how theory is taught in the long run.
Of course economic power is an important part of the feminist movement. Feminisms may not always explicitly discuss economics, but things like the Paycheck Fairness Act or access to parental leave are economic as well as feminist issues. We need economic work that explains why these things are economically viable and important. What I’d like to see is a little more discussion between feminist movements and feminist economists, so feminist economists are able to listen to people’s lived experiences and so that economists can have more input in policy or popular discussions about issues important to women and gender. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research does great work like this already and is headed by a great feminist economist, Heidi Hartmann. I just want to see more of it.
In addition to the above linked materials, you can find more information on the topics discussed below. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.
KB: If someone really wants to go all out, we have a feminist economics syllabus on Lady Economist.
A good basic outline of some feminist economics principles that have influenced my thinking: Julie Nelson, Feminism, Objectivity and Economics.
A book on care work, a major field in feminist economics: Nancy Folbre, For Love or Money. Nancy Folbre also writes for the NYT Economix blog. Her writing is really accessible, even if it is a somewhat academic book.
And the Feminist Economics journal is putting out a great series where they do simple, plain spoken one-pagers on every new article they publish, called Feminist Economics Research Notes. It can give people an idea of what feminist economics is and what research is being done in the field. It’s a good resource for the lay economist.
While not trained as an economist, Gwendolyn’s degree from the London School of Economics means that she is often mistaken for one.