Feminist Economics

Authors: Janina Urban und Andrea Pürckhauer | 18th of December 2016
Patron: Prof. Dr. Christine Bauhardt
Thanks to PhD Alyssa Schneebaum for her helpful comments


1. Core elements

Feminist economics analyses the interrelationship between gender and the economy. Thereby, feminist economics also takes the unpaid, non-market intermediated part of the economy and society into account and examines the driving forces behind common dichotomies such as economic–social, productive–reproductive, masculine–feminine, paid–unpaid or public–private. Moreover, feminist economics analyses patriarchy and capitalism as interrelated forms of dominance. Against this background, questions arise about the distribution and disposal of property, income, power, knowledge and the own body.

Since liberal and constructivist research traditions exist alongside critical ones within feminist economics, it cannot be considered a coherent paradigm. Yet, all of these approaches deal with reproductive labour and care. Furthermore, feminist economics analyses the relationships between state policy, science, language, growth and gender relations. Feminist economics criticises that economics is blind with respect to women's experiences and highlights that women are hardly represented in the economic discipline, which in turn affects scientific findings. Hence, feminist economics point out the fact that scientific findings, common ideas, and society as a whole are all formed by power relations. For instance, the analysis of gender relations has only slowly entered the field of economics even though the women’s movement has been being active for centuries.

Central questions focused on by feminist economics are:

  1. Why have housework and care not been recognized as work in economics since the 19th century and why are they not dealt with in economic theories?
  2. Which dynamics drive and emerge from the widespread dichotomies economic–social, productive–reproductive, male–female, paid–unpaid, public–private?
  3. What is women’s current situation with respect to labour-market participation and wage income and what are the social processes behind this situation?
  4. Why does the image of a rational, egoistic, objective, utility maximizing homo economicus rather correspond to a masculine stereotype and what does this mean for scientific findings?
  5. What are the gender specific effects of macroeconomic policies and how would discussions on macroeconomic aspects, such as public spending, growth or international trade look if economics was not blind with respect to gender relations?

2. Terminology, analysis and conception of the economy

For feminist economics, the understanding of labour, which does not only comprise wage labour but also housework and Care, as well as the the (non) payment of work and their distribution among genders are central elements.

For feminist economics, the economy is the way in which humans collectively organize in order to guarantee their survival (cf. Power 2004, 7). By working and using natural resources, humans reproduce their livelihood, through the production of goods as well as through individual, social and generative reproduction. Reproductive labour comprises market- and non-market-intermediated, paid and unpaid work. Reproductive labour includes for instance raising children, caring for the elderly, purchasing and preparing meals, cleaning, whereas generative reproduction denotes the bearing of children (cf. Bauhardt 2012, 5, 6). Caring activities are just named ‘care’ and have different dynamics than industrial production. The ‘product’ only comes into being if its recipient is present. Moreover, its quality is heavily impacted by rationalization, for example, if machines are used to save time, since the quality of caring activities emerges from human contact (Madörin 2010, 87; Bauhardt 2012, 5-6). Even if the productive sphere always requires a reproductive one, since it is based on the availability of Care (and natural resources), up to now, economics has primarily analysed the market-intermediated and paid part of the economy. However, reproductive labour is increasingly visible, partly because this type of labour is now increasingly marketized and partly because women participate more often in the labour market. Due to this ‘feminization’ of labour, the feminist research tradition has increasingly gained attention in economics.

Feminist revisions of Marxist theories, amongst others developed within the feminist movements, worked intensively on the concept of labour and the role of the reproductive sphere in the production process. They take labour, including reproductive labour, as the source of value. Accordingly, labour creates not only material but also use value. In industrial production, which is primarily carried out by men, the owners of the means of production appropriate the profit. This profit represents the difference between the wage, which the workers are paid for their reproduction, and real value of the products they produced. The wage covers expenses for, for example, the food and rent of the whole family, but does not remunerate the reproductive labour mostly done by women (Federici 2012, 25ff.).

During the transition from fordism to post-fordism, the ‘division of labour’ between men and women was broken up and since then has been permanently changing (Bauhardt, 2012, 5–7). Despite those economic and social changes, feminist economists emphasize that power relations remain in place. First, power relations articulate themselves in the form of low payment – buzzword gender pay gap – or the double burden of women, who apart from wage labour carry out most of the reproductive labour. Second, they have expanded extensively, both internationally –, for example, via global care chains – and intensively – via the marketization of activities that formerly have not been executed on the market. Moreover, many feminist economists highlight that capitalist production is not only based on the exploitation of women but also on the exploitation of nature. Consequently, women’s contribution to the economy (reproductive labour) and that of nature (resources and sinks) are systematically undervalued (cf. Biesecker et al., 2012, 4).

Beyond the Marxist analysis, neoclassical feminist theories mainly deal with questions of women’s labour-market participation and their wage income. Neoclassical economics focuses on the results of individual maximization decisions and evaluations carried out according to the marginal principle as well as criteria of efficiency (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 55–57). In such a framework, the exclusion of women from the labour market could be regarded as inefficient and as reducing welfare, since not all persons capable of working participate in the labour market (e.g. Harriet Taylor Mill already in 1851, in Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 18–21 or currently Maier 2004, 33). Explanations of the increased labour-market participation of women point to better education, higher productivity in households due to machines, lower birth rates and higher labour demand especially in the service sector (Knapp, 2002). The lower wages that women receive on the labour market are explained in terms of their concentration in certain sectors, for example, in the service sector, and their lower investment in human capital because of potentially taking care of the children. While neoclassical economics developed those explanations, feminist economists emphasise that the described patterns heavily depend on the institutional framework, for example, social role models of families and women, which are socially negotiated rather than a result of a market process (Maier 2004, 29).

Many feminist economics base their work on feminist constructivism and its description of the image of women and gender (Maier 2004, 46). They assume that in particular ideas and institutions determine how people live together, since knowledge claims and conceptions are (pre)determined by language and perception. With respect to gender relations, a differentiation is made between sex as biological gender and gender as socially constructed gender. Persons with female (reproductive) body parts are considered to be ‘feminine’, i.e. emotional, altruistic and dependent. Persons with male (reproductive) body parts are considered to be ‘masculine’, i.e. rational, egoistic and independent. Such socially constructed characteristics can be more stable than material relations in the economy and society if, for example, conceptions of the working father and the caring mother are maintained in language and imagination even if other family constellations are possible (Haidinger & Knittler, 2014, 43–45).

The ways in which the economic, political, cultural and scientific spheres are entangled can be shown with an interdisciplinary approach, taking the example of how modernity emerged. Friederike Habermann explains that until the 17th century, women, without the status symbol of a penis, counted as second-class men, but participated in the economic and political sphere. With the witch-hunts (amongst other events), femininity was constructed as being related to nature, emotion, and wickedness, whereas masculinity was supposed to be civil, rational, and driven by reason and morality. Different spheres, such as public and private, were created. Limited participation in those spheres was justified by alleged biological dispositions. For instance, in the period of the French revolution, women were no longer allowed to participate in the political and economic public. Instead, they were assigned to the (also constructed) sphere of the private, social and domestic. During this time, the political and economic order based on estates came to an end and the field of economics emerged. The latter was based on the theoretical constructs of markets and the ideal of the male citizen: the homo economicus (Habermann 2010, 157ff.).

3. Ontology

Gender relations are the key question of feminist economics and can be identified as the common point of departure for different analyses (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 43). Gender relations become apparent in power imbalances within families and in the distribution of resources such as money, time or mobility; and they have an impact not only on women's employment but also on macroeconomic relations (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 127f.). While feminist economists who are working in the neoclassical tradition would describe the scarcity of resources as central economic problem, most feminist economists see power relations as central force driving social and economic dynamics. Besides gender inequalities, other power relations are also analysed: for example, those that relate to ethnic or social backgrounds. The common analysis of different forms of inequality (race, class, gender) and their interrelatedness is called intersectionality (cf.. Vinz 2011). In this context, it needs to be emphasised that the category women is not  homogeneous, since women have different backgrounds and different experiences. This means that, for instance, class or other forms of discrimination need to be taken into account as well (Mader und Schultheiss 2011, 411).

In order to analyse gender hierarchies, feminist economics considers it as equally relevant to scrutinize the economics of households as well as economic policies or macroeconomic aggregates (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 43). First, feminist economics analyses how gender hierarchies influence household structures and (resulting from the aforementioned) employment opportunities or decisions, payment or the access to credits. Second, the interrelation between households and the state is also under scrutiny. Feminist economists point out that economic policies such as redistribution are shaped by gender norms and at the same time have an impact on gender relations.

Therefore, the analyses of feminist economics primarily take place at the meso level. Nevertheless, feminist economics highlights the central role of gender relations for the analysis of macroeconomic relations by, for example, pointing to the gender blindness of macroeconomic aggregates such as national accounting and GDP, in particular. However, research at the macro level often takes place with reference to the meso level, for instance, for the analysis of the impact of unemployment, growth and income distribution on social inequalities (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 126ff.). Those interactions – as well as the assumption that social processes are subject to changes – demonstrate the dynamic conception of time of feminist economics:

‘A central point of reference for feminist economics was [and still is] the process which established the gendered division of labour and women's oppression in the public and the private sphere by laws, social norms, education or violence’ (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 36 own translation).

Feminist economics particularly points to the relevance of care and the (non-market-intermediated) sphere of reproduction, which is neglected especially in macroeconomic contexts (Bauhardt and Çağlar 2010, 9). This focus was set by Marxist feminists in the 1970s who started the wages-for-housework debate. Their demand was to take the value of unpaid reproductive activities into account. Despite economic changes since the 1970s, such as the marketization of reproductive labour, several arguments of the debate are still relevant for feminist economics: first, that capitalist production is based on unpaid or undervalued care and second, that care is paramount for economic analyses (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 85f.). This shows the relevance of contexts for feminist economics' analyses: it is argued that economic phenomena cannot be considered as isolated entities. Instead, spheres that are often considered as separated, such as public and private, reproductive and productive, social and economic are logically connected. For instance, economic production strongly depends on caring activities such as cooking or affection.

Constructivist feminist economists emphasize the social construction of gender attributes and consequently question those attributes. This does not mean that the latter do not have any material consequences: gender is a central regulating principle of the economy and society. Hence, socially produced gender notions significantly shape behaviour, role models, decisions and economic inequalities. This is also related to feminist economics' critique of the neoclassical concept of the homo economicus according to which humans are rational, independent individuals with fixed preferences (compare Habermann 2008). Even if some feminist economists who work in the neoclassical tradition use the construct of a rational, utility maximizing individual with fixed preferences, most feminist economists expose the problems with the concept. They argue that individuals cannot be considered as detached from the social context, which significantly influences their identity. Decisions depend on the household structure, the economic background, social expectations as well as on the care work, that is carried out besides the wage labour.

Furthermore, the meaning of gender relations in the social discourse changes permanently (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 51). In contrast to the utility maximizing, self-referential homo economicus, in particular, critical feminist economics highlights the possibility of collaboration. An example of this is the concept of the Commons, which describes the common organization and use of goods and resources (Federici 2011).

4. Epistemology

For feminist epistemology the following question is central: whose findings are we discussing and more concretely: ‘is the sex of the knower epistemologically significant?’ (Code 1981). Thereby, the situatedness of knowledge as well as power relations in science production are highlighted (Singer 2010). The term situated knowledge was coined by Sandra Harding and Donna Haraway (Haraway 1988, Harding 1991). Situated knowledge means that the researcher is always embedded in a certain historical, cultural, social and economic context. This impacts the research interest and the perspective as well as scientific findings. Furthermore, knowledge is always produced out of a certain position of power. Consequently, the questions arise: which topics are considered as relevant or which inquiry as scientific; and whose interests do they serve. Hence, the gender of the researcher influences research questions, methods and results. This is manifested in the double blindness of economics concerning women, their non-representation in economics as a discipline as well as the ignorance of women’s situations and contribution to the economy.

According to Mona Singer (2010), situated knowledge is a common point of departure from which different epistemological conclusions are drawn. Singer presents the following three different approaches.

1. Feminist standpoint theory assumes women, due to their situation, can analyse reality more adequately. Similar to the ability of the working class to comprehend and free themselves from their suppression that featured in Marx’ analysis, women and other discriminated groups are better equipped to comprehend the suppressive structures and their implications than the ruling class (Bar On 1993 in Code 2013 [author: 2014 in refs; which is correct?], 13). Yet, it is emphasized that the positions of the suppressed do not have an exclusive claim to the truth. Hence, standpoint theory does not plead for relativism but enhances a ‘strong objectivism’ which can be reached by including diverse forms of knowledge.

2. Feminist empiricism highlights the importance of empirical research in order to better describe inequalities. Representatives emphasize that empirical analyses are neither objective nor contextually independent and do not present unequivocal findings and often present causalities in simplified form. Moreover, the approach questions current scientific criteria and highlights the importance of empiric adequacy, innovation, complexity, applicability to human needs and decentralization of power as feminist values in science (Longino & Lennon 1997, 21–27).

3. Postmodern epistemology is more sceptical towards the possibility of changing the discourse or institutions and gaining emancipation by science. According to this approach, knowledge is connected to power and the production of knowledge has to be critically scrutinized. An objective perspective on the world is not possible; instead there are always constructions of reality, which are determined by power relations. Accordingly, also adherents of feminist standpoint theory represent certain interests, for example, the ones of US-American or European women. Standpoint feminism responded to this critique and started to include, as mentioned above, discussions on the perspectives of marginalized persons hand in hand with claims for the democratization of knowledge (Singer, 296–298).

Moreover, feminist economic is often seen as an object-driven perspective, since it analyses the role of gender relations in the economy and includes different perspectives on this object of research. Even if those approaches adhere to different perspectives, besides relativist thought, constructivist approaches gained in importance in feminist economics throughout the past decades. Due to the common point of departure – situated knowledge (described above) – feminist economics can be increasingly described as perspective-driven since it recognizes the relevance of different forms of knowledge.

5. Methodology

Feminist economics' methodology is quite diverse and includes deductive but also inductive theory building as well as dialectics. Both deductive and inductive methodology are based on an empiricist and positivist world views, where situations can be captured by observations and hypotheses can be falsified (fallibilism). In deductive methodology, concrete statements are logically derived from general premises. In the inductive procedure, general theses are derived from observations. In the end, both approaches determine each other mutually. Many feminist economists work formally and empirically in the deductive tradition (van Staveren 2010, 27). However, inductive research was identified as particularly fruitful for the young field of feminist economics since it offers the possibility to create new categories and hypotheses (Krüger 1994, 78 in Mader and Schultheiss 2011, 415).

In her article Feminism and Economics, Julie Nelson (1995) described that mathematical models are associated with masculinity and hardness while qualitative methods are assigned female characteristics and are related to (scientific) weakness. She argued that science has not to be reinvented, but that feminist analyses should involve a broad variety of models and methods which are suited best for the respective research question. Accordingly, feminist economists use both qualitative and quantitative methods. For instance, qualitative methods can be used to show multiple structures of inequality whereas quantitative methods enable a revision of statistics with regards to gender relations (Mader and Schultheiss 2011). Often, a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods is used, employing a broad variety of methods, from econometrics to discourse analysis.

Following Marxist analyses, authors like Gillian Howie (2010) attempted to dialectically develop terms of feminist theory, since this approach is considered especially helpful for the analysis of social relations and knowledge creation (Hartsock 1998). A dialectical approach does not assume linear causalities, but has a dynamic conception of possibly contradicting processes. Economics and social developments emerge from a tension of different processes.

A special method of feminist economics, called ‘consciousness raising,’ was established during the second wave of feminism. The method consists of people from different socio-economic backgrounds – mostly women – meeting in safe spaces. Then, their different experiences are reflected and in the end systematized in the common dialogue (MacKinnon 1989, 87 ff.).

6. Ideology and political goals

Feminist Economics has always been intertwined with political and social movements, especially the women's movement, advocating the right to vote, access to the labour market, financial independence, participation in unions, sexual and physical self-determination and recognition (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 8, 15ff., 75f.). Furthermore, they advocated for the extension of the concept work, which should not only comprise paid, but also unpaid activities (Mader und Schultheiss 2011, 416). The aim of theorizing and analyses is to point out gender hierarchies and other inequalities, to criticize economic or social structures, institutions or laws and to present alternatives that enable the emancipation of women and people of colour (compare Haidinger and Knittler, 38). Thereby, emancipation is not perceived uniformly and policy advice differs among different perspectives of feminist economics. For example, liberal feminist economics demands gender equality concerning wages, vocational choice (equality of opportunities) or the representation in political bodies and economic departments, for example, via quotas. A further demand is to take the gender dimension in political and economic decisions into account (i.e. gender mainstreaming).

On the other hand, critical feminist economists request a transformation of the economy up to the (revolutionary) reorganization of the society. Integrating women and care into the labour market is considered to be an important emancipatory step. Yet, they point out the consequent double burden of women, who continue to do the unpaid care, and the rationalization of the market which does not comply with the requirements of care. Hence, critical feminist economics instead focuses on the underlying structures of inequalities (Haidinger and Knittler 75ff.).

Political demands of feminist economists include: the reduction of working hours, a basic income or more radical concepts such as the four-in-one perspective developed by Frigga Haug. This perspectives argues for the distribution of available time to four equal spheres: besides wage and reproductive labour, this includes volunteering and leisure (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 150ff., Haug 2008). Moreover, critical feminist economics also has common positions with ecological movements. They point to the interconnectedness of the ecological crisis and the crisis of social reproduction (see below: multiple crises). This includes a critique of capitalist growth – with reference to the degrowth debate – or (sustainable) development. Proposed alternatives are: the concept of the commons (e.g. Federici 2011), which entails the communal usage and organization of goods and resources; and so-called sustainable livelihoods, which aims at auto-determined use of resources and ways of living (Bauhardt 2012, 14).

Moreover, the question of how women are represented in the economics discipline and how this impacts knowledge creation and policy recommendations, is a political one. For instance, social and economic experiences of women and unpaid labour are hardly considered in economic and political analyses. Thus, it is an importantaim of feminist economics to point to the fact that economics is not gender neutral and that women's experiences should be accounted for or even be at the center of  economic analyses (cf. Mader und Schultheiss 2011, 405 ff.).

7. Current debates and analyses

Current debates in feminist economics are presented in this section; the examples comprise contributions from different perspectives of feminist economics.

1. Time budget studies and gender budgeting

Time budget studies and gender budgeting are two central instruments of analysis in feminist economics.

In the debate on unpaid labour, time budget studies provide an insight into how people allocate their time between employment, unpaid reproductive labour, leisure etc. Those studies are relevant from a gender perspective since they do not measure monetary flows, but the time spent, as an indicator of economic wealth (Bauhardt 2012, 4); they enable the calculation of the share of unpaid labour in GDP (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 134f.). For instance, a study by the German Statistical Agency (Statistisches Bundesamt 2015) presents the time spent on these different categories of activities by women and men in Germany during 2012 and 2013. In comparison with the data for 2001 and 2002, both genders spent less time on unpaid labour. Yet, women still spent two thirds of their time on unpaid labour, while men spent less than a half.

Gender budgeting analyses the gender-specific impacts of public income and spending. An example would be to study the impact of taxes or public spending on childcare on the economic situation of women. Haidinger and Knittler call gender budgeting the currently most-influential concept and instrument of feminist economics (Haidinger und Knittler 2014, 139). Gender budgeting is a commonly known and accepted concept, which for instance is part of Austria's constitution.

2. Gender and austerity

In the wake of the financial and economic crisis, which started in the late 2000s and is still present in many parts of the world, a broad research field gained the attention of feminist economics. A central research question developed in this context: what impact did the recession, rescue measures, austerity and their economic and social consequences have on women and gender relations? Although occupations in which men are over-represented were affected more severely by the recession, austerity programmes during the second wave of the crisis had a greater negative impact on women. Public institutions and government assistance faced cuts and thereby relied on the compensation of caring activities in the private sphere, which means that care is again increasingly carried out at home. Moreover, a conservative roll-back can be observed in several EU-member states. Consequently achievements in gender equality are at issue. At the same time, critical feminist economics have questioned whether the crisis has opened the door for anti-capitalist interventions (compare Karamessini and Rubery 2013). In this context, the term multiple crisis illustrates that the financial and economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the crisis of social reproduction are not separate phenomena but different faces of capitalism in crisis (cf. Brand 2009)

3. Women and ‘development’

This is a broad field of research in feminist economics. The role of women in and repercussions on women of globalization and economic development are analysed as well as the marketization of the subsistence economy. Often, micro credits or women in rural areas are the central object of analysis. A further important aspect is women's rights and the consideration of gender in the context of development strategies – currently with regards to the new UN sustainable development goals (see gender budgeting). The field also includes critique of the term development (cf.. Bauhardt 2012). See, for example, the special issue of Feminist Economics on Land, Gender, and Food Security 2014, 20(1); and the special issue of Gender & Development 2016 24(1) on the Sustainable Development Goals.

4. Care economy and the global care chain

The term global care chain was first used by Arlie Hochschild (2000). It describes complex processes which, generally speaking, emerge from the entrance of women in western industrial countries into the labour market. This development results in the employment of female migrants as domestic workers or caregivers, while their children are then taken care of by the family (Haidinger and Knittler 2014, 120ff.). These dynamics prompt questions about the marketization of reproductive activities, working hours, division of labour between genders, employment decisions or the public provision of care. Time budget studies are often used for the analysis of the care economy. There are also analyses on global inequalities, sex work, the feminization of migration or the role of remittances to countries of origin (e.g. the special issue of Feminist Economics on Gender and International Migration 2012, 18(2), forthcoming 2016 special issue of Feminist Economics on sex work and trafficking).

8. Delineation: sub-schools, other economic paradigms, and other disciplines

This section provides a brief overview of historical developments pertaining to feminist economics. It then differentiates different theories within feminist economics, as despite having the common goal of analysing the gender dimensions of economics and the interaction of economics and gender inequalities, there is no common theoretical frame (e.g. see Knittler and Haidinger 2014, Mader and Schultheiss 2011).

To this day, women are hardly visible in economics. In the history of economic thought, women are scarcely mentioned, even though during the 19th century female theorists were already writing on economic topics. For instance, Jane Marcet (1769–1858) and Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) authored important standard works on political economy. Women did not, however, always publish using their own name; for example, Hariett Taylor Mill – who, according to Haindinger & Knittler (2014, 18), is one of the outstanding intellectual and guiding writers of the first women's movement in England during the 19th century – authored many works together with her husband, John Stuart Mill, while using his name. In terms of content, Mill advocated women's employment. With ‘The Accumulation of Capital’, Rosa Luxemburg wrote one of the central works of Marxist theory. Many female theorists were closely linked to the women's movement or advocated women's employment or their participation in unions in the labour movement (e.g. Clara Zetkin, August Bebel).

Also, the emergence of feminist economics as a discipline was closely connected to social, political and economic processes, amongst others the political claims of the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. ‘Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics’ by Marianne A. Ferber and Julie Nelson (1993) as well as ‘If Women Counted’ by Marilyn Waring (1988) are considered milestones of feminist economics. Those works raised issues such as unpaid labour, a critique of national accounting as well as the insufficient presence of women in science. With the foundation of the International Association for Feminist Economics in 1992 and the Journal Feminist Economics in 1995 , feminist economics got an institutionalized platform for exchange. Since increasing numbers of women participated in the labour market, demands and analyses have changed since the 1970s to include differences on the labour market, macroeconomics, care, knowledge production and identities.

Feminist Economics in itself is very diverse, but in particular three perspectives can be highlighted which are similar to currents in feminist theory:

  • liberal feminist economics: this perspective strives for gender equality which can be reached by equal access to the labour market and institutions. Structures enable individuals to realize their individual potentials. Liberal feminist economics analyses barriers to access for women, wage differentials or the effects of political and economic instruments on women and their economic decisions.
  • Constructivist feminist economics: this perspective questions attributions of gender identities and perceives the latter as modifiable. Those identities influence economic decisions, structures and processes. At the same time processes and structures have repercussions on identities and other spheres. A central role is assigned to gender performativity. For instance, the question arises whether women reproduce gender inequalities and stereotypes if they exercise a labour perceived as ‘female’ and thereby meet social expectations.
  • Critical feminist economics: this perspective refers to the material foundations, rather than to identities, to analyse inequalities. Marxists connected to Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa started a discussion on unpaid reproductive labour and its role in the production process by the wages-for-housework debate in the 1970s. A central aspect of the debate was the critique of the Marxist labour theory of value, which does not account for the reproductive labour carried out by women. Like wage labour, housework is considered to be an exploitative relation. Up to the present day, critical feminist economists expound the problems of the interdependency of capitalism and gender inequalities as well as the necessity of reproductive labour for the capitalist production process.   

9. Delineation form the Mainstream  

Women have been largely absent not only as economic researchers but also as the subjects of economic study’ (Ferber and Nelson 1993, 4)

In 1993, Ferber and Nelson highlighted the double gender blindness of economics in their publication ‘Beyond Economic Man’. First, women's reality is not represented in economic theories and analysis and second, women are hardly represented in economic science. This in turn affects economic theorizing: it reinforces the androgynous conception of persons and the neglect of the gender dimension in economics. Hence, it is a major concern of feminist economics to include gendered social processes, such as the division of labour, in economic analyses. If power relations and dominance are taken into account, many assumptions and explanations of mainstream economics – for example, how wages are determined – have to be rethought. A prominent example for the gender blindness of economic theory is Gary Becker's approach New Home Economics, one of the few neoclassic analysis which accounts for housework. In his analysis, decisions in a family on who works are taken on a rational basis (e.g. on who has the higher income). The theory biologically attributes ‘comparative reproductive advantages’ (Çağlar 2009, 224, own translation) to women, according to which women tend to do the domestic and men the wage labour. Also, decisions are taken by an altruistic (male) head of the family, while diverging preferences or repercussions are not analysed (Ferber 2003). Pujol argues that the image of women of neoclassical economics is similar to the one of the founding fathers, like Pigou, Jevons, Edgeworth or Marshall, which describes women as housewives, mothers, married, dependent on the husband, and as being irrational and unproducitve (Pujol 1995, 17f.)

A further central criticism of feminist economics addresses the neoclassical conception of the individual, the homo economicus (compare Habermann 2008), who acts rationally and is utility maximizing on the market and represents a male, white subject. In contrast, feminist economic sees individuals as embedded in social and economic structures, which determine their (im)possibility for action. Furthermore, the concept of the homo economicus assumes the existence of an irrational, female and emotional (among other characteristics) other, who is assigned to the ‘female’, or the so-called ‘private’ sphere. A further point of departure for critique by feminist economics is the division between the spheres of the market and the household. On the market, productive (male) actions take place; in the ‘private’ sphere, unproductive (female) activities occur. First, this perspective marks unpaid activities as unproductive and as not generating value. Second, it neglects the role of reproductive activities in the production process. This also has consequences for macroeconomic aggregates, since those activities are not accounted for in national accounts. This is the reason why, for feminist economics, indicators such as the GDP are not suited for measuring wealth.

10. Institutions


Feminist Economics: http://www.feministeconomics.org/

Many feminist economists publish in journals of ecnomics, political science or sociology: Femina Politica; Gender & Development; Feminist Review; Feminist Studies; Gender, Work & Organization; International Feminist Journal of Politics; Feminist Theory; Politics & Gender; Gender & Society;

Institutions, Think Tanks:

International Association for Feminist Economics: http://feministeconomicsposts.iaffe.org/; Feministisches Institut Hamburg (http://www.feministisches-institut.de/), Economy, Feminism and Science (efas) (http://efas.htw-berlin.de/), Netzwerk Vorsorgendes Wirtschaften (http://www.vorsorgendeswirtschaften.de/)


Bauhardt, C. (2012): Feministische Ökonomie, Ökofeminismus und Queer Ecologies – feministisch-materialistische Perspektiven auf gesellschaftliche Naturverhältnisse. Gender.. Politik.. Online- sozialwissenschaftliches Gender-Portal der Freien Universität Berlin.

Bauhardt, C., and G. Çağlar (2010): Gender and Economics. Feministische Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Biesecker, A., C. Wichterich, and U. von Winterfeld (2012): Feministische Perspektiven zum Themenbereich Wachstum, Wohlstand, Lebensqualität. Kommissionsmaterialie M-17(26)23.

Çağlar, G. (Hrsg) (2009): Gender and Economics. Feministische Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 18-48.

Code, L. (2014): Feminist Epistemology and the Poitics of Knowledge: Questions of Marginality. The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory, 9-25.

Code, L. (1981): Is the sex of the knower epistemologically significant?. Metaphilosophy, 12(3‐4), 267-276.

Federici, S. (2012): Aufstand aus der Küche. Reproduktiosarbeit im globalen Kapitalismus und die unvollendete feministische Revolution, Reihe: Kitchen Politics, Band 1, Münster: Edition Assemblage.

Federici, S. (2011): Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Veröffentlicht in The Commoner, 24.01.2011. http://www.commoner.org.uk/?p=113

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Assigned course modules

Title Provider Start Level
End of Equality - self paced beginner

Organisations and links


Beyond Economic Man. Feminist Theory and Economics
Ferber, M. A.; Nelson, J. A. (Eds.)
Year of publication: 1993
University of Chicago Press

The Elgar Companion to Feminist Economics
Peterson, J.; Lewis, M. (Eds.)
Year of publication: 2001
Edward Elgar Publishing