5 Economic Assumptions Every Feminist Should Challenge

Feminist economist Devaki Jain with her husband, L.C. Jain in 1960s. Photo found on  devakijain.com . 

Feminist economist Devaki Jain with her husband, L.C. Jain in 1960s. Photo found on devakijain.com

This post is based on the work of feminist economist Devaki Jain. I eagerly read her book The Journey of a Southern Feminist, because as much as I wanted to believe in the feminist economy that fellow business owners introduced to me, I also craved more information from economists themselves.

What did I learn? I learned that academics take feminist economics seriously. In fact, they have quite a lot to say in its favor. 

But you might be wondering: what is feminist economics and who is Devaki Jain? 

Feminist economics is a field devoted to analyzing the overlap between economic theory and male-centric culture; measuring the economic inefficiencies that arise because of the patriarchy; and developing new, more accurate systems for assessing economic activity. 

This kind of work is published in journals like the renowned Feminist Economics, which earned praise from Nobel Laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen.

As for the marvelous Devaki Jain, she is:

  • An Indian economist and professor at University of Delhi

  • Author of 7+ books on economics, development, and social theory (her latest collection is called The Journey of a Southern Feminist)

  • Founding member of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS)

  • Recipient of the Padma Bhusan, one of the most prestigious civilian awards in India, for her social justice contributions

  • Comrade of fellow economist Amartya Sen and dear friend of Gloria Steinem (actually, I discovered Devaki Jain in My Life on the Road)

Here are five common beliefs about economics that Devaki Jain challenges, and which I encourage you to challenge, too: 

1. Economic Recessions harm all genders equally

Devaki Jain’s research on developing countries shows that when a family’s income dips, women are the first to lose access to a finite food supply and other basic resources. Working men who provide for their families might lose their jobs, but statistically, their wives and daughters will suffer more. A household's women will also assume responsibility for correcting the economic dip by providing extra labor such as craftwork to correct for the income decline. 

From left to right: Devaki Jain's husband L.C. Jain, Graca Mandela, Devaki Jain, Nelson Mandela. Johannesburg, 1999. Photo found on  devakijain.com . 

From left to right: Devaki Jain's husband L.C. Jain, Graca Mandela, Devaki Jain, Nelson Mandela. Johannesburg, 1999. Photo found on devakijain.com

2. Unemployed women Rely on Government support and don't contribute to economic growth

Devaki Jain speaks a lot about the contributions of the unorganized sector to the economy. While the organized sector refers to traditional employment, the unorganized sector refers to housework, handicrafts, childcare, and other forms of social work, whose second-order effects economists don't typically measure.

Being an Indian economist, Devaki Jain focuses on India, where 118 million women participate in this kind of "unorganized" work. Jain points out the paradox that even though their work contributes 50% to total household savings, low-income women have become emblematic of her nation's social welfare programs. She argues that these women must be seen as economic drivers -- which they are -- rather than as needy and insufficient.

According to Jain, the solution is to develop new metrics that accurately capture the impact of this work. One committee she highlights already started on this mission: 

The group, after scanning data, found that women were key to India’s GDP growth rate in most sectors, including savings and exports, and argued that women were India’s ‘growth agents’ and needed to be called that, rather than seen as objects or subjects of social welfare services... According to the National Accounts Statistics, the workers in the unorganized sector contribute over 62% to the NDP. 
From left to right: Devaki Jain, Gloria Steinem, and Devaki Jain's husband L.C. Jain. Photo found on  devakijain.com . 

From left to right: Devaki Jain, Gloria Steinem, and Devaki Jain's husband L.C. Jain. Photo found on devakijain.com

3. Adam Smith was an economist

Adam Smith might be called the patriarch of capitalism, but he technically wasn’t an economist. Smith was professor of moral philosophy. Yes, moral philosophy. I learned this in one of my economic history courses in college, so I was thrilled when Jain brought it up. She quotes D. Subbarao, the former governor of the Reserve Bank of India (and the first man I'm quoting in Writing on Glass!): 

“People often forget that the godfather of modern capitalism, and often called the first economist—Adam Smith—was not an economist, but rather a professor of moral philosophy. Smith had a profound understanding of the ethical foundations of markets and was deeply suspicious of the ‘merchant class’ and their tendency to arrange affairs to suit their private interests at public expense. In short, Smith emphasized the ethical content of economics, something that got eroded over the centuries as economics tried to move from being a value based social science to a value free exact science.

Which brings me to another widespread belief worth unpacking...

4. Economic laws are physical truths

Why do so many people believe that the free market is as irrefutable as the law of gravity? Gravity would still exist without people on the planet. Would the free market? 

In other words: Are economic observations scientific or social? 

In economics, it’s taken for granted that humans will behave out of self-interest. The entire field is built on the assumption that humans are rational actors. But traditional economic research doesn’t take into account the power dynamics that prevent women from acting in their own self-interest. Nor does it ask how human rationale suffers from cultural forces like unconscious bias. 

These are exactly the issues being taken up in Feminist Economics, the journal I mentioned earlier, but these arguments aren't new. Here's a 1960s-era passage from Devaki Jain’s friend Joan Robinson*, who taught multiple Nobel prizewinning economists at the University of Cambridge:

“I should emphasize that economic theory, in itself, preaches no doctrines and cannot establish any universally valid laws. It is a method of ordering ideas and formulating questions… To find causal relations we must know how individuals behave and how the behaviour of various groups reacts on each other.”

Economist Devaki Jain speaks on women, unity, and economics in 2012. (When she mentions Gloria, she’s talking about Gloria Steinem!)

5. Socialism, as an economic system, benefits women

This one is for my dear liberal friends who identify as socialists, under the assumption that socialism means an equal society. 

Devaki Jain acknowledges that Eastern European socialist countries did get women into the workforce and provide state-run childcare facilities, “two of the first demands of women’s movements, whether in rich capitalist countries or poor underdeveloped one.” But in the same breath, she qualifies her statement by pointing out that women were still “concentrated in the low-skilled, low-paid tasks within occupations.” They were also underrepresented in decision-making positions.


“The fact that, in spite of the provision of support facilities, women did not come into public policy areas seemed to suggest that attitudinally, socialists were not different from other men and did not perceive this aspect of inequality or the need for women to represent themselves. In other words, within the general notion of equality, the need for equality between the sexes was not strongly perceived.

This observation aligns with Jain’s general belief that even under the guise of equality, women deal with oppressive forces men do not. An economic system alone can’t, as Jain says, “release women from the binds imposed by historical and cultural attitudes.”

The solution, as she poses it, is women’s organizations. Throughout The Journey of a Southern Feminist, she shares data on the success of autonomous, women-formed and women-run groups in empowering females across both capitalist and social economies. So let's get moving. 😉💪🏽

Books Mentioned