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The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich- a review

A book review by Eliska Bujokova

Eliska Bujokova

A book review of:

The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich by Victoria Bateman

Publisher: Polity Press, 2019

by Eliska Bujokova

[We would like to thank Polity Press for generously providing us with a copy The Sex Factor for review.]

When I first heard about Victoria Bateman’s new book at one of her many talks I attended at Cambridge, I thought to myself: here’s yet another ambitious monocausal explanation of how the West, or in fact England, got rich. Even though this one, most unusually to the disciplines of economics and indeed large part of economic history, named women as the principal actors as opposed to silent bystanders, I was not convinced. I still failed to comprehend the general academic trend of the reductionist attempts to name a single explanation of such a complex phenomenon as the industrial revolution.

As a historian by trade, I always assumed that we should be writing history for history’s sake, as opposed to draw didactic episodes that may inform the present. Such history, I thought, was inevitably at a great danger of becoming a means to an end, an intellectual tool formed by its author to serve a purpose, rather than retell a story of events gone by. Therefore, Bateman’s history-lesson-from-an-economist that forms the first part of the book fell rather flat with the historian in me. Her explanation of industrialisation as being facilitated by greater freedoms enjoyed by western women based on the European marriage pattern thesis previously developed by Hajnal and elaborated by de Moor and Van Zanden is thought provoking. Yet, in my opinion, it is largely based on the cultural imperialism of the western conception of freedom, family and agency.[1] I was rather discouraged by the historical prelude, however, as I proceeded with the book, I quickly realised there was a lot more to it than I initially gave it credit for.

The remaining three parts of the book tell a story of the genesis of mainstream economics, inevitably shaping and being shaped by its historical, cultural, social and political environments written from a very insightful point of view. Bateman reinserts the field of economics into the context of its formation as well as its influence, which alerts the reader to the traditional positioning of the discipline on a pedestal of reason and empiricism, far above the rest of social sciences, and indeed the human interactions it supposedly studies. Her reconceptualization of economics through psychology, sociology, politics and history seems to me incredibly useful. Her depiction of the often-deemed-hard-science through a feminist perspective shaped by the climate of austerity is humanizing, informed and inherently feminine in the most complimentary sense of the word. Her addition of emotion, dignity, responsibility and obligation alongside reason to the matter of the otherwise bare ‘economic man’ is essential.

Reading The Sex Factor recalls a memory from one of the weekly sessions of the Cambridge Group for History of Population and Social Structure I attended during my masters. Once a speaker commenced her paper by asking the academics in the room about how much of our research reflected our personalities, burning questions we asked ourselves, and the problems we grappled with in our personal lives. Probably more than three quarters of the room raised their hands and smiled in agreement accompanied by a slight sense of self-validation. We all were aware of the subjectivity of our respective disciplines, something that economics seems to shy away from, as Bateman points out. Her book unashamedly reclaims the position for the individual self within economic writing. Her perspective of a sex-radical libertarian feminist economist is flagrantly personal and as a result awfully captivating.

Throughout the book Bateman explains the naked protests she staged at multiple occasions bringing a medium of feminist performance art to the economics milieu in an attempt to draw attention to the centrality of sex, gender and control over the female body to the questions of economics. She takes the discussion further to ponder the dehumanized nature of the economic man and the association of the field with masculine traits (reason, self-interest, mind) deemed superior, and the pathological exclusion of anything conceptualised as feminine (emotion, altruism, body).

Offering this constructive criticism, she demonstrates the ways in which such economic theory-led policy perpetuates inequality and prevents an equitable, sustainable and environmentally aware economic growth. She ends by offering a four-tiered manifesto first instructing economics to re-centre on the content, that is human activity within and without the market as opposed to the overly theoretical nature of the discipline. Second, she suggests an interdisciplinary approach as a solution to the self-isolation of economics from other social sciences, which prevents us from fully understanding the economy. Third, she suggests the need for a greater dialogue between economic theory and policy in order to improve both. And last, she points out the need to revise the masculinist nature of economic theory and policy, which ignores the bulk of subsistence production and services, care work and domestic work largely done by women outside the strict confines of the monetised economy. The aim of the book is to introduce ways in which economics can be made more relevant to people’s lives and the result is riveting.

In spite of my initial dismay caused by the ways in which Bateman used historical parallels that seemed arbitrary and essentialising, I actually learned a lot from The Sex Factor. In my opinion, Bateman is not a historian, but she definitely is an economist, and I think an incredibly inspired one. Her book masterly synthesised economic theory and policy within a broader context of psychology, sociology, politics and feminism. The addition of her personal experiences of the discipline as a scholar, as well as an individual, and most importantly a woman, was enriching and demonstrated the need for humanizing the field of economics. Based on her expertise in economics, economic policy and feminist theory, but also a great deal of observation and analysis, Bateman’s book has a great potential in making mainstream economics look a lot less rational that it makes out to be and offering an accessible mode of reconceptualising the discipline as it stands today.

[1] John Hajnal, ‘European Marriage Patterns in Perspective’ in Glass, D. V. and Eversley, D. E. C., (eds.) Population in History. Essays in Historical Demography (London: Edward Arnold, 1965), p. 101-43, De Moor, T., van Zanden, J. L. ‘Girl Power: The European Marriage Pattern and Labour Markets in the North Sea Region in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period’, The Economic History Review, Vol. 63, No. 1. (2010), pp. 1-33.

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