A Feminist Political Economy Perspective

A feminist political economy perspective is an interdisciplinary study of society, which is a totality of political, economic, social, and cultural relations, all which are mutually interdependent and form an intersectional nexus. Underlying this nexus is a set of divisions of labor that are largely unequal and that separate social reproduction from production, though they are part of one process. Such separation is supported by a set of discourses around perceptions of existence including sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and class. These discourses are the institutionalized rules, norms, and values that govern the divisions of labor as well as the distribution of resources, responsibilities, and power within these divisions.

One such important institution (out of four—the state, the market, the civil society/community, and kinship/family), as Diane Elson (1991) first discussed, is the state, which occupies an overwhelmingly powerful position, subordinating women and the disadvantaged through policies that favor production for the market at the expense of social reproduction. Policy-making can, however, be a contested site when women and the disadvantaged exercise agency to influence policies to take into account their concerns for the equitable distribution of resources, fair recognition of their contributions, and due protection of their citizenship rights (Chen, 2008).

Such exercise of agency in different parts of the world has encouraged member states of the international community to recognize access to education, health, food, water, and housing—key in social development and central to reproduction—as legitimate rights claimable by all, including women, men, girls, and boys. These rights, sanctioned by internationally agreed standards, are fundamentally important for the goal of attaining a general state of physical, mental, and social well-being. This goal requires a multi-sectoral strategy by governments to protect multiple rights (especially dignity, equitable access to quality services, and participation in decision making), and the integration of production, distribution, and social reproduction (Chen, 2008).

An example of the norms that have been institutionalized in Chinese patriarchal institutions and state policies is the core Confucian value of “men governing the outside, while women govern the inside [of the house hold].” This norm has helped not only to establish men’s superiority in authority and wealth but also to enforce women’s subordination and their responsibilities for reproduction. These responsibilities include: biological reproduction and daily maintenance of the current and future generation of workers; transmission of skills, knowledge, and moral values; and construction of individual and collective identities and maintenance of cultures. Historically, women have also often had to bear the burden and stigma of selling sex to support themselves as well as their families.

As defined by the 1996 World Food Summit Plan of Action, food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 1996). While the roles that women play in agriculture vary from country to country, in general they play a major part in food production as well as food security, traditionally being those who care for the basic needs of the household. However, their reproductive responsibilities are unpaid, and are excluded from social recognition even though they are central to the production of the means of life as well as the use of these means to reproduce life itself on a daily and intergenerational basis. They are central in terms not only of food provision but also of education of the young and care of the old, the young, and the sick—apart from the care of men in the family, who occupy a superior position as “heads of households” or “breadwinners.” This care, which can only be partially provided through public and commercial services, has been provided mostly based on personal volition. The fact that it is unpaid suggests “that much of the value of personal care for others comes from it being given as a gift, without immediate recompense, in a context of mutuality” (Elson this volume).

As women provide more care than men and receive less, Elson argues that a more viable way to achieve equality in care provision and reception, namely, symmetrical reciprocity of care, is through universal, state-based entitlements. That is because such entitlements, which operate on the principles of equality and fairness and would be made available to all members of a society, are likely to be more accessible, transparent, and effective. Most importantly, claiming them is not stigmatizing as it is not seen as a sign of failure or dependency (ibid.). Women benefit because these entitlements require the development of public policy-making that reflects the needs and interests of women and men and abides by international human rights standards. It is thus a mistake to separate social reproduction from economics as care matters not only for production but also for the well-being of people overall.

This perspective of integrating production and social reproduction in one process is feminist as it argues for recognition in policy-making of women’s contributions and their rights to food, water, jobs, and health as equal to men’s. Such recognition requires a feminist political economic analysis to decipher not only the impacts of policies on women but also women’s potential to influence policies.

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