Liberty Matters

Final Response: Do we need feminist economics?

As Lemke and Novak pointed out, mainstream economics as well as mainstream sociology are missing some fundamental elements in describing gender inequality: the role of agency, the nature of social norms, the relevance of extra-economic factors cannot belong to the ceteris paribus assumption, as standard economics usually places them. As Novak underlines, the “add and stir'' approach is no longer acceptable, and feminist economics realized its beginning. Like any other heterodox approach, feminist economics was a critical response to standard economics’ way of explaining gender issues, which was grounded on the idea that the traditional division of labor between men and women in the private sphere, as well as in the public sphere, was rational and efficient as it is based on biological differences, reinforced by diversified investments on human capital. In 1992 when Becker was awarded the Nobel prize "for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior," economists who used to criticize Becker’s approach founded IAFFE (the International Association for Feminist Economics). Much later, in 2006, feminist economics was officially recognized by the American Economic Association as a heterodox research field: in fact, AEA assigned JEL code B54 to feminist economics. As economists know, JEL code B includes all the heterodox approaches that either criticize or reject standard economics. For instance, the JEL code of Austrian economics is B53[1].
As Kling rightly wrote, a narrow focus does not lead to any significant result in describing social phenomena related to gender. Nonetheless, to claim that feminist economics is all about power relations is reductive: the intent of feminist economists was precisely to enlarge the narrow focus of standard economics on gender inequality by including power dynamics, gender stereotypes, social pressure, and other cultural elements that cannot be classified as a matter of preferences. Feminist economics does not deny tastes and preferences, rather it reveals the complexity of the decision-making process related to gender issues such as the division of labor between genders. To be fair, even standard economics revised its own methodological assumptions lately by going beyond “tastes and preferences” in order to explain gender inequality.
The interpretation of feminist economics as an analysis of gender issues based only on the dynamic of power might be applied to Marxian feminist economics, which is grounded on a structural critique to the capitalist system and the consideration of capitalism and patriarchy as two sides of the same coin. Nevertheless, this vision is far away from classical liberal feminist economics, grounded on the fundamental principle of individual freedom regardless of gender. The combination of classical liberalism and “the woman question” (the first wave of feminism) started in the late eighteenth century; it still exists and should not be forgotten.
[1] JEL classification is listed here: