Victoria Bateman is currently best known for protesting naked against Brexit, but she has also used her body to take a stance at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society (Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in economics at Cambridge University). She had a couple of garments on, but not the main ones, and
Victoria Bateman is currently best known for protesting naked against Brexit, but she has also used her body to take a stance at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society (Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in economics at Cambridge University). She had a couple of garments on, but not the main ones, and she endeavoured, by the shock, to rid the field of its “sex problem”, “to punch feminism into the centre of economics”.
The discipline acts as if feminism had never happened; most of the time, it acts as if women had never happened. And this, according to Bateman, is more than bad manners: it leaves economics powerless to answer its own fundamental questions, which centre on the prosperity of some continents rather than others, the persistence of poverty, the highs and lows of free markets. Her hypothesis is easy to accept, almost too easy: economics is a social science, for all its unshakeable love affair with squiggly equations. Seeking to explain complex systems of human interaction with reference to only one half of any given population is like trying to split the atom with a rigid focus on protons, and the odd rider: “Sure, sure, we know neutrons exist of course, but they aren’t literate, so we can’t know that much”.
This lacuna gives Bateman almost too much space to play in. If someone were to say: “I want to rebalance the gender scales of economic history,” they could be talking about reworking our understanding of labour, to include the elements that Adam Smith famously discounted because as soon as you’d done them, they needed doing again – an omission that Swedish economist Katrine Marcal examined in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? Indeed, anything that can’t be counted, monetised or improved by making it faster – from cuddling a baby to playing a minuet – has been ignored by classical economics and could therefore reasonably be called “female” on these grounds.
To go further, anything that we find it hard to price in GDP terms (try setting the environment in a cost-benefit analysis against profit; it never wins; the baseline is time and nature is eternal) might not therefore “become” female, but does tend to be ignored by the same models, the same systems of thought and the same economists who ignore women. So it makes an elemental sense that, as Bateman quotes the female economist Bina Agarwal, “there are important connections between the domination and oppression of women and the domination and exploitation of nature”. The problem is that, once you’ve identified the myopia of the discipline of economics – which Bateman does trenchantly – its tools become faintly ridiculous, like self-delusion made of maths.
But she sets out on a more precise quest. She wants to show “how women made the west rich”, and to do so must prove a number of hypotheses: that female liberation is good for productivity; that female autonomy, especially bodily autonomy, is vital for economic development; that market participation by women enlivens both societies and markets. She wants to make a case for feminism that isn’t values-based, in other words, but value-for-money based: gender equality is good for prosperity. So when she then sets out to measure gender freedom with straight numbers – age of marriage for women; number of witches burned at the stake, percentage of them female; market participation by women – the reader could be forgiven some scepticism. Isn’t it attempts to count the truth that led us up this cul-de-sac in the first place?
More specifically, can we really say with this kind of certainty that women working in cotton mills during the industrial revolution were emancipated by their labours? Famously, children worked there too, not because they were realising their social destiny but because their families would have starved otherwise. I should check my Marx, while remembering that he’s just another white man, but I feel sure this was about exploitation, not equality. Besides which, the fact that women participated in the industrial revolution does not indicate that their relative equality propelled it.
Bateman’s confident assertions, attached to causalities that are pretty contestable, awaken one’s inner pedant. Did Protestants really, in their earliest iteration, have “a more liberal attitude towards sex and women’s bodies” than Catholics? They wouldn’t even let you watch a bear dancing. Her connections are often so broad, spanning multiple centuries over the entire globe, that it is impossible not to want to tease them out a bit. So, if the age of marriage indicates the relative autonomy of women, which in turn predicts the economic success of a nation, and northern Europe’s (average age 25 towards the end of the 18th century) accounts for its outpacing China (average age, 14), how is it that Spain (where women married in their teens) was so early to develop economically? Can we even compare the social meaning of marriage, in emancipatory terms, across three centuries?
Bateman, one senses, would happily be challenged on any of this, since her driving purpose is not the definitive establishment of one truth – this isn’t a Thomas Piketty-style painstaking data mine, heading inexorably towards the unarguable. Hers is a more post-ideological, occasionally zany approach: once we admit the catastrophic error of omission of one half of the species, surely all our calculations must be up for grabs? Come join me! Let’s recalculate everything, let’s invite debate! She is not, she makes clear at the start, anti-market or anti-capitalist (tacitly: unlike some of those smelly feminists you’ve heard of) – rather, she would like to see all economic debate around the market versus the state reshaped to take in the “economic no-man’s land”, the third space that the market can’t cater to, and the state can’t control. In other words, the space of kinship, love, family, reproduction and the body – what Bateman refers to at one point, endearingly, as “va-va-voom”.
This determined avoidance of a political position has led some to suppose Bateman a kind of Catherine Hakim 2.0; Hakim, you may recall, is the sociologist whose driving theory of “erotic capital” is that men have a higher sex drive than women, and this differential gives women an economic advantage that only religion and/or prudery prevents them from maximising. This comparison is monumentally hugely unfair to Bateman, who makes no suppositions about sex, merely recording soberly how it benefits a nation when its population can copulate without procreating.
Yet there is a shadow that hangs over her workings. Assume that misogyny tends to coincide with environmental degradation, with poor welfare provision, with high inequality, with essentially every social ill you could name – and I have no doubt that it does. And assume that your approach is to filter everything through the lens of gender, to attribute every success to female emancipation, and every downturn to women’s disempowerment. It remains hard to make the case that if only women were better represented in the structures that exclude them (markets, institutions, Forbes rich lists, boardrooms), the world would be better. Surely the problem is further up the pipeline, as they say in equality workshops: a system that only understands things that can be counted will never really be able to build “va-va-voom” into its forecasts. Bateman’s is a strong and adventurous argument that fights shy of the radicalism of its own conclusions – even if shyness seems like a curious criticism to make of an economist who appears in public naked.
• The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich is published by Polity (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.