The gendering of a discipline

Padmini Swaminathan

The context
For almost all students of economics, Adam Smith is the father of economics with Smith’s publication of the Wealth of Nations in 1776 being considered a watershed moment. Unlike others before him, Smith increased the scope of political economy to address wider societal concerns, all of which in some way or other impinge on an economy’s ability to function efficiently and productively. Over the years, the father and his brand of economics taught across the globe have come in for criticism from various quarters, not least from ‘feminist’ economists. These critiques have contributed in no small measure to enriching the discipline apart from making it ‘relevant’. This article seeks to elaborate simultaneously on the themes of what constitutes the concerns of ‘feminist economists’ as well as why the ‘relevance’ of what passes for the subject-matter of ‘mainstream’ economics has increasingly been called into question not just by ‘feminist economists’ but by others as well.

padmini It would be pertinent to begin with how a teacher, Duncan K. Foley, of a course on the ‘Theoretical Foundations of Political Economy’, ended up writing a book titled Adam’s Fallacy in 2006. The theme of ‘self-interest’ is foundational in economics and forms the basis of what generations of students of economics have come to believe as constituting the cornerstone for the functioning of competitive capitalist markets, for fostering progressive technical change and for producing material wealth. While Foley does not call himself a ‘feminist economist’, nevertheless, the converging point of Foley and of feminist economists lies in their critique of the notion and application of self-interest. The “Economic Man’ in neo-classical economics is an autonomous individual who behaves selfishly in the market place; indeed his self-interest is what drives him to compete with other similarly placed selfish individuals enabling the capitalistic system of growth to flourish. What feminist economists have questioned is the contrasting behaviour, namely altruism, assumed for these same individuals when it comes to analyzing their behaviour in the family.

‘Rational behaviour or rational choice approach’ is another tenet that characterizes mainstream economics; a maximizing trait that is assumed to inform choices that individuals make not just in the market place but also within marriage. And so we are informed by ‘New Home Economics’ scholars such as Gary Becker (1991) that the feminist critique of the sexual division of labour is misplaced since the gender labour specialization wherein the woman specializes in (unpaid/unrecognized) household work while her husband works in paid labour in the market is in fact an optimal arrangement since it is efficient and beneficial to both and the household!

All economic research dealing with women or gender is not necessarily feminist economics; a feminist point of view implies a critique of male supremacy, a desire to change it and a conviction that it is changeable. Seen from this perspective, Becker’s ‘rational choice approach’ applied to division of labour in the household instantly reveals the reinforcement of family arrangements that have historically and generally been disadvantageous to women – invisibilizing their social and economic role in the household, even as this role very often militates against their acquiring the relevant social capital and experience to be productive and efficient, if they so choose and opt to be in the market place.

How does the economy and how do economists count women out and render women and their economic role invisible?
Feminist historians (for example, Margo Anderson, 1992) and feminist economists (for example, Nancy Folbre, 1991) have demonstrated very meticulously the origins of statistics as a form of knowledge, traced the history and politics underpinning the manner in which statistics on women and gender are collected; their research reveals the androcentric focus of census categories that years of struggles have failed to dislodge. India, having been a colony of the British, inherited the British classical political economists’ preoccupation with the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. While political correctness over time demanded the dropping of the term ‘unproductive’, its replacement by the term, ‘nonmarket production’ – characterizing largely a wife’s work in the home – implicitly defined ‘nonmarket’ as unproductive. Folbre (1991) describes how the prominent neo-classical economist Alfred Marshall was instrumental in restricting the “Domestic Class” category in the 1891 Census of England and Wales to those employed in paid domestic work. “The most important of all female occupations… is altogether omitted from the reckoning, namely, the rearing of children and the management of domestic life” (Ibid: 473). Nearer home, the women’s movement and the feminist economists among them are still battling this colonial hangover.

The author is Professor and Chairperson of the School of Livelihoods at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. A former Director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, she also held the Reserve Bank of India Chair in Regional Economics at the same institute. Her publications cover the areas of industrial organization, labour economics, and gender studies. She can be reached at

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