The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought

Jenny Coleman (Senior Lecturer and Programme Coordinator of Women's Studies Programme, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand)

Women in Management Review

ISSN: 0964-9425

Article publication date: 1 July 2004




Coleman, J. (2004), "The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought", Women in Management Review, Vol. 19 No. 5, pp. 274-275.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Why is it that in all human societies women have suffered being placed at a lower status than that enjoyed by men? The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought seeks to address the ways classical economists have addressed this question. Premised on the claim that, contrary to conventional wisdom, classical economic theorists did engage in gender analysis, this collection brings together familiar names such as John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Harriet Martineau and John Stuart Mill, as well as less familiar and relatively obscure classical economic theorists such as Poulain de la Barre, Charles Secondat (Baron de Montesquieu), Adam Smith, Condorcet, Jean‐Baptiste Say, Nassau Senior, Priscilla Wakefield, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler.

The central thematic argument that binds this collection is that classical economies have not limited their focus to the activities of men in the marketplace and neglected women's participation in economic spheres of production. As the editors point out in their opening chapter, although much of the work which did address the relations between the sexes tended to be by independent writers and did not receive widespread circulation at the time, when considered collectively a gradual development of thought can be traced comprising three main elements. First, all human beings are born with inalienable rights. Second, the sexes differed on biological grounds in terms of relative muscular strength and the ability to give birth and, third, the social significance of these biological differences is variable.

For those familiar with the basic premises of liberal humanitarianism, this trajectory of thought is hardly new. What is new, however, is the way in which this volume draws together the contributions of individual scholars from the latter half of the 17th century who, although often only marginally concerned with explaining the hierarchical nature of gender relations and, while inevitably echoing aspects of the prevailing dominant ideologies, contributed to a transformation of economic understandings of the relations between the sexes. The result is a collection of diverse and detailed analyses of the various ways classical economic theorists have critically addressed what, in contemporary terms, is called the politics of gender.

Several of the contributors to this volume have multiple chapters and a number of the articles have been previously published over the past decade in academic economic journals. The reprinting of these works enhances the specialist focus of this collection. While undoubtedly representing an important and relatively neglected dimension in published histories of classical economic thought, the central value of this work is the way it offers a bridge between the writings of classical (largely but not exclusively male) economic theorists, and the writings of men and women who challenged the economic underpinnings of women's assumed inferiority and subordinate status from the late 18th century onwards.

There are several key ways in which this objective is achieved and enhanced. One is through detailed attention to the social, political, philosophical, and historical contexts within which these classical theorists wrote. A second key strength is the accessible language within which the philosophical traditions underpinning classical economic theory are presented. The editors are to be commended for this approach, which ensures that lack of a prior grounding in the philosophical traditions of classical economic theory does not diminish the accessibility and usefulness of this collection. On the contrary, this collection should be recommended reading for all scholars with an interest in the historical underpinnings of contemporary gender relations and gender analysis.

Chapter 2, “Poulain de la Barre and the Rationalist Analysis of the Status of Women” serves to illustrate the central approach of the collection. In this chapter, Chris Nyland subjects the contribution of François Poulain de la Barre, hailed as the pioneer of Cartesian rationalist analysis of the status of women, to an economic analysis of gender status. The chapter traces the development of de la Barre's analysis in relation to the prevailing philosophical traditions of the late 17th century. In doing so, Nyland provides an accessible overview of the philosophical methodology of René Descartes along with the theoretical and political implications of this methodology for the metaphysical and socio‐political construction of women as innately inferior and subordinate to men. The outcome is that this chapter provides an access point from which to develop a more critical and informed level of understanding of the significance and potential limitations of many of the early arguments that developed advocating the rights of women based on their common humanity with men.

Unlike Poulain de la Barre, Hobbes, and Locke who discussed “man” and “woman” at an abstract level, Charles Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689‐1755) offered an analysis of the ways in which biology and the environment shape gender behaviour. His work, which is the subject of Chapter 4, is hailed as important for the ways it focused attention on the limits of attempting to analyse gender outside of the concrete and material conditions in which actual men and women are situated. Despite believing that there was no justification in natural law for one sex to exercise absolute law over another, a situation he considered to be a despicable form of tyranny, Montesquieu, like most of the other male theorists whose ideas are discussed in this volume, is certainly not claimed as a pre‐ or early feminist thinker. He accepted, for example, that wives had a natural dependence on their husbands and that women's weaknesses were both physical and mental in character. Some of his assumptions about the differences between the sexes and his explanations for differing patterns of gendered behaviour certainly appear misogynist from a feminist perspective, but his studies in the early 18th century pioneered systematic examination of how gender behaviour is shaped by the two fundamental influences of the human body interacting with the environment. In this respect, his methods of analysis, rather than his conclusions per se, are of interest and value to the development of an economics of gender.

In contrast is David Levy's chapter on “Taking Harriet Martineau's Economics Seriously”. The author's framing premise is straightforward. Rather than treat Martineau as a journalist, he proposes to take her economics seriously on the assumption that she knew more about the economics of sex than those critics who evaluated her as an economist. Levy then proceeds to setup a dialogue between Martineau's arguments about slavery and sexual exploitation and the claims of “the experts”. In the process, Levy systematically responds to “the experts” critiques of Martineau's arguments and counters charges such as sexual hysteria and intellectual dishonesty that have been variously attributed to her work. Although Levy's concluding statements are rather bland (“we have no good reason to doubt her solution, in part because we have not thought about the problem as much as she has”), his essay does offer a serious analysis of the underpinnings of economic theory that inform her analysis of slavery.

Only five of the 15 chapters are specifically about the contributions of women to classical economic thought and only four of the essays are written by women. Of particular interest is the chapter on Priscilla Wakefield's Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement published in 1798. Grandmother of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, known for his theories of systematic colonisation, the lesser known Priscilla Wakefield was, among other things, the founder of the first savings bank at Tottenham, author of several books, a prominent Quaker and an active social worker and feminist. Her Reflections, which stressed women's responsibilities in contributing to the social, political and economic well‐being of society, offered an analysis of how to enable women to fill those obligations. In contrast to Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman, issued by the same publisher six years earlier, Wakefield's reform proposals were premised on an acceptance of distinct social classes and were couched within the conservative language of duties and obligations. As this chapter shows, she made a powerful case for new educational and employment opportunities for women and for gender equality in wages and her contribution to the wider field of writings on women's rights and duties stands out by virtue of her attention to the literature of political economy.

In reading the essays in this collection I was reminded of Dale Spender's Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them. Spender's agenda was simple; an assertion of women's contribution to the history of ideas as political, social and economic theorists. If judged from within Spender's framework, The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought could be viewed as a return to the cooption of feminist ideas by men. This would be an unfair criticism. In its desire to give recognition to the attention of the economic and social status of women within classical economic thought, and in drawing together relatively obscure and neglected texts, this collection sits more as a complementary companion to Spender's Women of Ideas. As a closing caution, it is precisely because of its focus on relatively obscure and neglected texts that this volume cannot be hailed as representing an important shift in the history of economic thought. On a more positive note, however, it does exemplify the value and necessity of gender analysis in economic theory, regardless of the gender of the theorist.

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