Boo! Happy Halloween everyone. This month, She Spends Bookclub read Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal. There’s a lot to chew on here.
I’m a big fan of the book America’s Women by Gail Collins, so I already know about how history often ignores the accomplishments of women. WCASD? tackles the same issue from an economic standpoint, shining a light on the valuable labor provided by the women of yesterday, today and tomorrow.
I like the book but there are some rambling aspects to it. Often, Marçal will argue against an economic model that I don’t fully understand, so I have no way of knowing if her point is valid. Blindly accepting arguments without doing significant research on them isn’t really my jam, so I tried to keep a critical eye on the models outlined. Also, there were full chapters that never mentioned gender, and I couldn’t follow the overall structure of the book. I was assured by my accountant friend that this is true of most books about economics, so I’ll give it a pass.
That being said, the vignettes and models proposed by the book were very interesting and thought provoking. Even if you didn’t read the book, head to our Facebook group to discuss the topics outlined below.
“Economic man” doesn’t even work for men
Marçal picks apart the idea of “economic man,” where Adam Smith (an 18th c. Scottish economist) argues that men are motivated by greed and our markets should be organized to capitalize on that singular notion. Economic man only acts in ways that benefit him. Economic man sells his services to the highest bidder. Economic man does not tip a waitress at a restaurant he knows he’ll never return to. Economic man is kind of a dick. Smith’s model relies on a world of these “economic men” all working with the primary motivation of furthering themselves. What Smith fails to consider is the labor of women - the washing, the cleaning, the cooking, the child-rearing - that offer no obvious benefit to women.
Marçal points out that humans are not economic men. Economic men never compromise, sacrifice or act selflessly. Of course, as real-life humans, we do these things every day, although our economic system is organized around the idea that we all act solely in our own best interest.
What do you think of the idea of the “economic man”? Would you say self interest should be the primary tenet our economy is structured around? What might another system look like?
Biological realities with political conclusions
Marçal explores the biological impact on the role of cis-women in the economy. Freud believed that women are better suited for housework because we are subconsciously trying to clean our “unclean” vaginas. Marçal discusses how, throughout history, women’s economic destinies were determined by our biological realities. We are subject to monthly menstruation. Pregnancy. Birth. From those biological events, our worth and value is extrapolated further. Because we give birth, we must be nurturing. Since we are nurturing, we must create the home. Since we create the home, we must enjoy cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, etc. This extrapolation takes “logical” steps from “women have periods” to “women like cleaning” and “women must not work outside the home.”
A good quote: “There is nothing in a woman’s biology that makes her better suited to unpaid housework. Or to wearing herself out in a vastly underpaid job in the public sector.” [Marçal 36]
Today, women’s bodies are still political battlegrounds. The economic impact of birth control access has been profound. What might the economic ramifications be if that access is again restricted? Who stands to benefit? Why?
How do you think this biological determinism has impacted your life, if at all?
Women’s work is WORK
Marçal likens the idea of “having it all” to just adding women to the economy and stirring. Structurally, the economy is still built around how men worked when women stayed at home. Paid leave, flexible work hours and childcare are all relatively new-fangled ideas. Women were expected to adapt to a world built for men, but men haven’t equally adapted to the homeworld curated by women. Often, that means we carry both workloads.
We’ve all read that Harper’s Bazaar essay by Gemma Hartley about a frazzled housewife asking her husband to hire a maid-service and the disappointment she feels when he can’t handle it. Then the brilliant returning shot by Gaby Del Ville, outlining the classism of the initial essay. Calling women’s work anything other than what it is (labor) devalues it not only for the women doing it for free after a long day at work, but also women who do it for money as maids, nannies and other domestic help. We were told we could have it all, but what we found was that meant doing it all. Full-time careers mean full-time domestic help. But who keeps the maid’s house clean?
I think it’s really fascinating how apps and meal-delivery services are filling this void that once was the total domain of women. Blue Apron, TaskRabbit, and other similar services are capitalizing on the fact that there isn’t a singular person in the household with these skills and capabilities anymore. What other ways has our economy been impacted by the realization that women simply can’t do it all?
What did you think of Hartley’s essay and DeVille’s response to it? Are privileged women just trying to pass the buck of housework without critically considering the domestic work industry?
Have you ever felt overwhelmed by housework and paying work? What do you do? If I’m feeling exhausted by my 9-5 job and I just can’t bring myself to rake the leaves, I’ll try to take a half hour nap. Then listen to loud punk music as I do my chores.
One of the most insightful scenarios proposed in this book was the economic rationalization of discrimination from the Chicago School in the 1950s. It punched me in the gut. I’ll just leave an excerpt here:
“What does a married woman do when she comes home from work? She wipes down the counters, irons the laundry and does homework with the children. What does a married man do when he comes home? Reads the newspaper, watches TV and maybe plays with the children for a spell [...] Career women simply spend more of their free time on housework, and that’s more tiring than being off-duty. Here […] lay the explanation as to why it is rational to pay women less. All that story-reading and counter-wiping made them much more tired than men. So, they couldn’t make as much of an effort at the office. At the same time, economists asserted the opposite -- that the reason women did more housework was because they earned less. Because women earned less money, the family lost less on the women being at home… The Chicago School calculated in circles.” (Marçal 36).
I think the reason why this passage resonated with me so much is because we still rationalize racist, sexist and homophobic discrimination all the time. The pay gap exists because the jobs women typically go for are lower paying instead of applying for those high paying “male” jobs. Rather than ask why jobs that require a higher degree of emotional labor are underpaid, we prefer to rationalize the economic reality.
Economic man does not irrationally discriminate based on things as frivolous as race, gender or sexual orientation, but he will step on people if they’re in the way of his self interest. What then happens when economic man’s economic system is set up in such a way that it is in his best interest to uphold structural racism, sexist hiring practices or homophobic ideologies?
Have you witnessed someone rationalize their irrational bigotry? Have you caught yourself doing this? How can we change the conversation?
- Jemma 🦄