Feminist IR 101, Post #7, Political Economy and Globalization

May 28, 2011

Why is it that women represent 70% of the world’s people living in poverty? What does it mean to have economic stability? How do international structures interact with local structures to produce or disturb that stability? Is economic stability something people (or states) only gain at the expense of others? Are sex trafficking, migration patterns, home-based work, and base economies, related? If so, what does gender have to do with it? These are some of the questions feminist IR political economists ask.

Women are the majority of people in poverty around the world. The percentage of women living in rural areas who can be classified as impoverished is actually rising, not dropping. Women who work for wages are generally poorly paid, and many women do home, care, and agricultural work that goes unpaid. Women have not been left out of the economic reforms planned by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, but their gender is often invisible to the planners and implementers of these policies.

Feminist perspectives on global political economy (GPE) are investigating the extent to which these disturbing trends should be blamed on gender discrimination. They are interested in the causes of women’s, and other marginalized groups’, economic insecurities, and potential solutions to these problems. Feminist work in political economy has recognized what scholars have identified as the gendered division of labor in global politics, and analyzed its impacts.

The gendered division of labor in modern times can be traced to the Industrial Revolution in Europe, where definitions of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman were shaped around the growing division of work to be done at work (man) and work to be done at home (women). The notion of a “housewife” developed, where women’s work was seen as private, domestic, and the property of the family, and the public world of the market was populated by rational, economically oriented men. Despite the fact that more and more women have come to work outside the home in recent times, the association of women with housework, caregiving, and mothering remains strong.

When women do go into the workforce, they are overrepresented in the caring professions (teaching, nursing, daycare, service industries) and underrepresented in the financial industries and capital trade. To the extent that women choose these professions, they do not choose them on the basis of profit maximization (which is what traditional economic theory assumes), but instead based on social expectations of what women should be and what they should do. Cynthia Enloe once claimed that a “modern” global economy requires “traditional” ideas about women.

Feminists have noted that ideas about gender also often lead to women having double responsibilities. Women who work outside the home continue to do the majority of the care work inside the home, while being paid less than men with comparable qualifications for their workforce duties. Care labor often requires time and energy that would otherwise be spent on paid labor. Women often sacrifice professional opportunities to care for children and elderly relatives.

The narrow definition of “work” as work in the waged economy tends to make it difficult to see many of women’s contributions to the global economy. Feminists have argued that the gendered division of labor cannot be understood without reference to political, economic, and social choices based on assumptions about gender. Feminist work about the global political economy has made a number of observations to highlight the importance of gendered forces.

For example, feminists have highlighted some gendered economic forces, like the global sex trade (see the recent work of Jacqui Berman, Jennifer Lobasz, and Jessica Peet), that are often ignored by political economists. Feminists have studied gender representations in the movie and beauty industries (see the recent work of Angela McCracken and V. Spike Peterson). They have pointed out that the gendered divide between the “public” realm and the “private” realm obscures the work women do. Feminists have also argued that, in addition to neglecting women generally, conventional work in political economy has also underestimated women’s economic agency.

Several feminists have also attempted to understand the gendered nature of globalization. V. Spike Peterson has divided the globalized economy into three sectors. The “productive” sector is the thing we usually think of as the global economy – where goods and services are made and traded. The “virtual” economy is the trade in intangible things, like money and information. The third sector, which Peterson gives equal weight as the other sectors, is the reproductive economy. The reproductive economy includes pregnancy, parenting, household maintenance, elderly care, and socialization. Feminists argue that these three categories taken together are more suited to finding women and gendered structures in the global political economy, and a more accurate reflection of how the world works more generally.

Feminists have therefore asked about how the global political economy would function if we restructured it taking women’s labor and women’s experiences into account.

They have looked in unconventional places, like households, sweatshops, and camptowns, for economic knowledge. These inquiries have led feminist to suggest restructuring the health care industry on the basis of care (see the recent work of Fiona Robinson). Feminists have also argued against the treatment of sexuality as a commodity. They have suggested that women’s unpaid labor be recognized not only intellectually but financially. Feminists have suggested that the gendered structure of the political economy and the gendered distribution of resources in the global economy require attention not only among feminist scholars, but also in IR more generally. Feminists have argued that we cannot understand the global political economy without reference to gender, and feminist political economists have built a research program to explore these questions.

I know the “feminist IR 101” series has been on (incidental but long) hiatus, but, with the end of my blogging career coming soon (July 1), and the series now being very security-biased, I figured I would finish its unfinished business, and hope the last couple of posts (#7 on Political Economy and Globalization, #8 on Human Rights, #9 on Transforming IR, and #10 on Feminist Scholarly Community) will be as useful to the people who have let me know that they are using these posts in their classroom as the others have been. While war/security is the theoretical territory in which I am the most comfortable, I think “Feminist IR 101” sort of thinking – quick discussions for students, crib guides for potential reviewers – is generalizable across (feminist) IR, and want to finish it. That said, since this isn’t my specialty, specialists should feel free to critique and correct.


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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.