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Missing Women and Feminist Economics

More than two million women have vanished in the past year. This isn’t a case for criminal detectives; we need to call on feminist economists.

A woman and her daughter waving to her husband as he goes to work.

Sheffield, Alabama (Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)). Kenneth C. Hall leaves for work. 1942. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that over two million women have dropped out of the U.S. workforce during the coronavirus pandemic, in part because of household childcare needs due to school and daycare closures.* These women are not counted with unemployment numbers if they are not actively looking for work. If they are neither employed nor unemployed, then they have essentially disappeared from the economy.

To investigate how this disappearance could have happened, we first need to understand gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is a measure of economic activity, or the value of goods and services produced. Like many algorithms, economic measurements seem neutral because they use mathematical formulas, but in reality those formulas are based on a number of assumptions. In economics, there are assumptions made on what counts as economic activity, or what goods and services have value.

When women leave the workforce to become unpaid caregivers, according to how we measure GDP, these women are no longer part of our economic market. The “work” of raising one’s own children does not count as productive labor. No one is getting paid, no money is exchanged. It does not contribute to the country’s growth. It does not, in economic terms, add value.

What counts matters because public policies and budgets are created using economic models that encourage market growth. Nonmarket activities are unpaid work like childcare, home repair and maintenance, cleaning, laundry, and preparing meals for your own household. Because they are nonmarket activities, they do not count towards the nation’s economy, even though this unpaid labor done within a family unit might allow other members to work outside the home (or, in these pandemic times, to telework). Traditionally, unpaid labor is done by women.

Cartoon strip with each frame showing an hour in the life of a housewife, taking care of children, cleaning, and cooking. One frame in the middle of the day is the husband telling a coworker that his wife doesn't work.

My Wife Doesn’t Work. Between 1965 and 1980. Yanker Poster Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Enter feminist economics. To paraphrase economist Julie Nelson, feminist economics is not economics practiced by women, nor is it a “feminine” study of economics using soft, qualitative methods. Instead, feminist economics takes a critical look at economic definitions and assumptions. It argues that economic activity should be studied using inclusive tools, models, and topics that do not reflect a patriarchal society. In other words, a comprehensive study of economic activity would count stay-at-home-mothers (and fathers or other unpaid caregivers).

The term feminist economics was added to the Library of Congress Subject Headings in 1995, when Julie Nelson’s Feminism, Objectivity and Economics was published. This was also the year of the first issue of the journal Feminist Economics.

The ideas behind feminist economics have been around for a long time, as many materials in our collections can attest. For example, in the 1930s, Margaret Reid received her doctorate in Home Economics and published Household Production: A Study of its Economic Characteristics and Economics of Household Production (also digitized via Internet Archive). While you might be familiar with home economics as a course in high school on baking and sewing, her degree meant she focused on the study of household productivity, and she championed counting nonmarket activities as part of a country’s national accounting.

The Statue of Liberty holding a broom in one hand and bills of money in the other, standing on a pile of dirty dishes with children clutching at her robe. Text reads: In this we trust : the women of the world are serving notice! There are a list of demands. The sponsoring group is Wages for Housework.

In this we trust : the women of the world are serving notice! 1976. Jacquie Ursula Caldwell, artist. Yanker Poster Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James brought further attention to the “noneconomic” work of women. Their advocacy contributed to the Wages for Housework movement in Italy the 1970s, which has since expanded and campaigns to recognize and compensate unpaid household labor.

Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand economist, published the groundbreaking If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics in 1988, a critical examination of the United Nations System of National Accounts, which was later republished in 1999 as Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth. The System of National Accounts is used to monitor finances, track market development, and compare the economies of different countries. In her book, she shows that this international economic system excludes work done by women in “nonproductive” and “unoccupied” positions that, if those same services were provided by others, such as a paid housekeeper, nanny, or teacher, would count in the economy. Her critique is that this exclusion is harmful, since these national accounts influence policy decisions. Her work inspired Counting on Marilyn Waring: New Advances in Feminist Economics, a collection of scholarship about women in economic policies, edited by Margunn Bjørnholt and Ailsa McKay.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Margaret Reid, and Marilyn Waring are part of a long line of economists and public policy analysts that have brought attention to the invisibility of women’s work and criticized the exclusivity of economic policies. Caroline Criado Perez’s 2019 Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men explores how fields besides economics, including transportation, medicine, and safety, reflect male dominant assumptions. Janelle Jones, current Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, wrote last year about “Black Women Best,” an economic and public policy framework that centers Black women. Others include Barbara Rogers, Eleanor Rathbone, Claudia Goldin, Ester Boserup, Lourdes Benería, Kathleen Newland, Margaret C. Simms, and too many more to list here. Their work examines who is counted in our economy and how to make economic measurements more inclusive.

To find more publications on feminist economics, Library of Congress Subject Headings related to this topic are:

*Read more about women leaving the workforce in 2020 in this RAND Corporation article, National Bureau of Economics paper, and the U.S. Department of Labor blog.

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2 Comments

  1. EHS
    March 26, 2021 at 1:39 pm

    What an interesting piece. Thank you for this summary of the movement and the idea of feminist economics-and for the helpful search tips!

  2. Jordan M
    March 26, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    Fantastic work!

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