Capitalism, Ecology, and the Official Invisibility of Women
When it comes to the world economy, what you “see” is not usually what you get—especially when it comes to gender. Capitalism has fueled a world in which women are rendered invisible and saddled with the majority of labor. They are responsible for two-thirds of all working hours, produce 50 to 90 percent of the world’s food and 100 percent of the world’s children. Yet, for all this, they receive only 10 percent of the world’s income and own less than 1 percent of the world’s property. As a result, women make up 70 percent of the world’s poor.
Moreover, gender violence is more of a threat to women’s health than the sum of traffic accidents and malaria. Often, when women are “seen,” they are seen as simply bodies to be manipulated in ways that lead to profit. In a very real sense, as people, women are invisible.
Stephen Lewis, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, wrote in his 2006 book, Race Against Time, that the World Bank, the UN, and other international organizations repeatedly emphasize the need for greater and more effective action to counter gender inequality to achieve sustainability and other economic goals, but continue to work contrary to that type of action. Lewis wrote, “There is no greater emblem of international hypocrisy than the promise of women’s rights.”
More recently, Elizabeth Arend, program coordinator at Gender Action, has documented the “alarming gap” between the World Bank’s “rhetoric and reality.” Apart from ignoring issues of unequal access to land, credit, technical inputs, education, decision-making power, and the extra demands of child care and other domestic commitments, “the bank’s declining support for rural agriculture disproportionately harms poor women, who constitute the majority of small-scale farmers and play a critical role in growing, processing and preparing food.”
While gender inequity is expressed and felt differently in the Global North and South, the phenomenon is universal in scope, even as it varies by region, race, and class.
Dominant media have supplied a number of “solutions” to this inequity, all of which emphasize women changing their ways. Writing in the New York Times, novelist Stephen Marche, noting that housework overwhelmingly remains the purview of women, puts the burden of change on women themselves—don’t do it: “The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.”
According to Jonathan Chait, writing in New York magazine, the underlying reason for the continuing disparity in housework is simple. Cleaning makes women happy because they like cleaning: “[A] possibility that probably explains a big part of the gap: Women in general just have higher standards of cleanliness than men do. People who care a lot about neater homes spend more time cleaning them because that makes them happy.”
Thus far, mainstream attempts to document and analyze economic gender disparities tend not only to blame women, they tend to assign women dated “essential” characteristics that frame the disparities as permanent.
Capitalism and “Brain Chemistry”
Although various gender disparities have existed throughout history, the construction of a new ideology of gender oppression goes back to the scientific revolution and the dawn of capitalist social relations, which sought to place men above women, closer to heaven, more rational and desiring to dominate and control not only women, but also the Earth.
Francis Bacon, one of the most influential early philosophers of the scientific worldview, consistently applied the language of the courthouse and the forcible extraction of knowledge from those accused of witchcraft to describe how the “secrets” of Earth (which is gendered as female) should be wrenched from her. Bacon, in highly sexualized language, explains his thinking on scientific endeavor in the preface to The New Organon: “But any man whose care and concern is not merely to be content with what has been discovered and make use of it, but to penetrate further; and not to defeat an opponent in argument but to conquer nature by action; and not to have nice, plausible opinions about things but sure, demonstrable knowledge; let such men (if they please), as true sons of the sciences, join with me, so that we may pass the ante-chambers of nature which innumerable others have trod, and eventually open up access to the inner rooms.”
As urban commodity manufacture for exchange replaced rural production for use, men were converted into propertyless workers; the Earth was reimagined as a lifeless machine, ripe for exploitation, and women were driven systematically and forcibly from production into unre- munerated—and therefore valueless—reproductive acti- vities in the home.
Fast-forward to today and a new scientific “study” posits men and women’s divergent ways of interacting with the world as a matter of gendered differences in “brain chemistry.” Before one even gets to the details of the research, one has to wonder why is this research being carried out in the first place? What is it that makes scientists, with their supposed objective search for truth, so enthralled with trying to prove that “stark differences exist in the wiring of male and female brains,” as one article reported the findings of a recent brain study of 1,000 males and females, by a research team at the University of Pennsylvania.
As researcher Ragini Vermi commented on how the team’s results “surprisingly” validated gender stereotypes, “If you look at functional studies, the left of the brain is more for logical thinking, the right of the brain is for more intuitive thinking. So if there’s a task that involves doing both of those things, it would seem that women are hardwired to do those better…. Women are better at intuitive thinking. Women are better at remembering things. When you talk, women are more emotionally involved—they will listen more.” Conversely, if Vermi “wanted to go to a chef or a hairstylist, they are mainly men.”
Moreover, the study allowed no acknowledgment—let alone a serious consideration of—the varieties of gender and the ways in which transgender and gender nonconforming people might fit into the supposed “brain chemistry” mix.
If the supposedly extreme differences in brain connectivity as an explanation for the abundance of male chefs and hairstylists were not sufficiently preposterous, Vermi also put the putative ability of men to ski better down to the male brain’s extra connections in the cerebellum. All of this would be dismissed easily as fatuous nonsense were it not so influential—and part and parcel of the much larger effort to keep women as second-class citizens to maintain the profitability of capitalism and the dominant social order.
Similarly, a study from UCLA recently proposed to show that women have less interest in casual sex than men for evolutionary reasons, rather than another plausible explanation: the social stigma and negative cultural values to which society subjects women who engage in one-night stands.
In a classic example of finding what you want to find and the reversal of cause and effect, in the University of Pennsylvania study, scientists used the differences they somehow inevitably found in male and female brains to explain why men behave differently from women, ignoring how their contrasting treatment and behavior in society might have given rise to their differing brain structure.
The study, published in the highly prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was one of the largest to be done on “healthy” brains. But can one legitimately talk about “healthy” brains when they have been exposed to an exploitative and oppressive system from the first moment of their conscious existence where every nanosecond of sensory input is skewed by incoming data parsed through compromised societal sources that constantly validate sexist ideology?
Even the nature of the premise—that there are very distinct “left brain” and “right brain” people whose skill set and personalities are predetermined—is scientifically dubious when not wildly overstated. Another distinction is drawn based on false premises: that there are two immutable categories, male and female, into which gender falls. Gender needs to be seen for what it is: a flexible continuum, rather than a permanent, genetically predetermined binary opposite. As Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex, “A woman is not born; she is made.”
Did no scientist carrying out the study stop to wonder why “male” and “female” brains before the age of 13 showed very few brain connectivity differences, but that they grew with age? As many other studies have shown—and as Cecilia Fine outlines in her excellent book The Delusion of Gender—despite all the much-hyped claims, differences in cognition and interests assigned to gender are repeatedly found to be trivial.
Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University commenting on the latest study, noted that the authors act “as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain—they even provide a diagram—but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain.” Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry, determined the conclusions to be “purely speculative.”
Ancient cave paintings were, until recently, never examined for the gender of the unknown artists. Why look for something when the answer is assumed to be so obvious? Contrary to popular assumption, however, in findings that overturn conventional wisdom on the cultural norms of early humans and, thereby, call into question our notions of gender relations, 70 percent of the handprints on cave walls were those of women. (Clearly, these don’t allow for the reality of the gender continuum, but they do contradict traditional notions of gender dominance.)
Russell Brand, Climate, and Misogyny
In a related controversy, British comedian Russell Brand’s methodical demolition of the supposedly fearsome interviewing talents of the BBC’s long-serving frontman Jeremy Paxman on “Newsnight,” quickly became an Internet sensation. Brand rapidly reduced Paxman’s initially assertive demeanor to awkward and his forthright questioning dissolved into hectoring humbug, as Brand argued for the necessity of an ecosocialist revolution to overthrow and replace capitalism.
Over the course of the interview, Paxman became increasingly and visibly disconcerted. He wasn’t sure what to do with someone who stuck to his argument that voting for any mainstream party was to democracy what the game of charades is to real life, that climate change was essentially unsolvable with methods allowed by capitalism and that only a revolutionary movement capable of recognizing these two things has a chance of preventing social and ecological breakdown in the near future.
The successful public takedown of such an establishment figure, and the fact that revolutionary solutions to climate change were being brought before a mass audience, caused considerable tumult among radicals actively trying to build a movement to put into practice his suggestions for comprehensive revolt.
On the one hand, having ecosocialist politics and the need for revolution reach a mass audience, channeled through a popular, international celebrity, is quite a piece of publicity. As increasing numbers of people are beginning to do all across the world, Brand stitched together the ecological, economic, and democratic crises into a single narrative with a unitary, root cause: capitalism.
On the other hand, as many people highlighted, Brand has a deeply problematic history with regard to misogynist comments and has, in part, built his career on the sexual objectification and degradation of women.
To compound these contradictions, Brand, in an article attacking capitalism and putting forward the need for revolution, began his guest editorship at the venerable lefty British publication New Statesman in its October 24 issue with the sentence: “When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.”
Someone who could so effortlessly belittle both women and the issue of climate change in the opening sentence of an article purporting to care about the future of the planet and be “inclusive of everyone” raised further controversy about whether Brand was a spokesperson worth having. Brand has since responded to criticism of his sexism by suggesting that he has “an unaddressed cultural hangover” and that he doesn’t “want to be a sexist.”
Of course, in his discussion of climate change, he neglected to note that climate change only compounds the issues of gender-based disparities for the 50 percent of the world’s population who already are living systematically disadvantaged and disproportionately impoverished lives.
Brand’s glaring blind spot when it comes to gender is pervasive on the left. One common demand of environmentalists and ecological economists is for corporations to internalize the unaccounted for pollution costs from which they so handsomely profit, but for which they do not pay. As far as it goes, this is obviously a worthy demand. Yet, there are far larger unaccounted—for costs within capitalism, and these are much less talked about and remain, to a large extent, invisible. The $2.2 trillion of corporate costs of pollution assessed in 2010 are a fraction of the $11 trillion of externalized and unaccounted-for wealth the UN calculated was generated in 1995 by the “invisible contribution of women.” At the time, the total figure of $16 trillion in externalized costs represented 70 percent of the global economy.
As the UN noted in 1995: “The general problem of unpaid or non-market work has long been noted. At the start of this century, Arthur Cecil Pigou, the pioneer of welfare economics, wrote that if a woman employed as a housekeeper by a bachelor were to marry him, national income would fall, since her previously paid work would now be performed unpaid. But unpaid work goes far beyond housekeeping, and its omission leaves a major gap in national income accounting.”
Apart from working longer hours—because household and community work is unvalued by capitalism—men’s total work time is two-thirds financially compensated (itself made possible by the “co-production” of women staying home), while for women, the figure is only one-third.
The UN’s 1995 Development Report recognized that: “This activity has an intrinsic use value or human value that is not captured by its value for exchange. At the heart of human development is the expansion of human choices by developing human capabilities. Income becomes one of the means to ensure the development of capabilities, but it is not an end in itself. The pursuit of good health, the acquisition of knowledge, the time devoted to fostering social relationships, the hours spent in the company of relatives and friends—all are worthwhile activities, yet they carry no price tag.”
Even when women are at work, as a study from Columbia Business School documented, they are much more likely to be expected to do unremunerated extra “favors” for co-workers and bosses, which, if done by a man, would be seen as befitting the term “work.” This prompted Heidi Moore to comment, “No matter what profession a woman works in, she’s actually in the service profession.”
Hence, while capital has a significant problem financially addressing environmental damage and remaining profitable, it would be utterly impossible to socialize and financially value the role of women in society. Environmentalists need to recognize this profound contradiction and understand that for capitalism, gender inequality is an intrinsic property and fundamental economic requirement.
While the UN’s 2012 report on gender, economic development, and sustainability recognized the need for far greater gender equity as essential to the achievement of sustainability goals, its report 17 years earlier noted that this would be possible only when financial entitlements “change radically, and the legal system would be overhauled accordingly.
Rights to property and inheritance would change, as would access to credit based on collateral, direct entitlement to Social Security benefits, tax incentives for child care and terms of divorce settlements.”
In other words, we’d be talking about a completely different system. Capitalism cannot measure or value non-monetized, more human, and relational sources of wealth. Were it to attempt to systematically do so by internalizing all cost—not just the costs of pollution, but also including those tasks performed predominantly by women—capitalism wouldn’t come close to being profitable and, hence, would be a nonviable system.
One can now answer why the oppression and subservient, invisible position of women is so necessary for the continuation of capitalism—and why our fight for a
more ecologically sustainable society also must challenge those entrenched iniquities. The recognition of the intensity of gender inequality and its relationship to capitalism elevates the importance and centrality of fighting both if we are to live in a truly sustainable and socially just world.
Notwithstanding the fact that there are obvious ethical complications connected to the idea of, for example, attaching monetary value to the raising of children, there are other ways in which it could be done in a society not predicated on profit. In a critique of how some concepts within second-wave feminism have been co-opted by neoliberal ideologues and even adopted by some feminists, Nancy Fraser suggests some ways in which to reformulate our demands to reignite the liberatory message within: “First, we might break the spurious link between our critique of the family wage and flexible capitalism by militating for a form of life that de-centres waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including—but not only—carework. Second, we might disrupt the passage from our critique of economism to identity politics by integrating the struggle to transform a status order premised on masculinist cultural values with the struggle for economic justice. Finally, we might sever the bogus bond between our critique of bureaucracy and free-market fundamentalism by reclaiming the mantle of participatory democracy as a means of strengthening the public powers needed to constrain capital for the sake of justice.”
Privatized, unvalued, and invisible work carried out mostly by women—the raising of children, the caring for other humans, and so much else—would be valued and socialized. At times, it can seem that the hand of human consciousness slips so smoothly into the glove of capitalist ideology; we appear content. Unfortunately for the capitalist class, and despite its best efforts to have us buy in, looks are deceiving.
As Marx pointed out, the lived reality of ordinary people constantly chaffs against the inner confines of our mental prison and the limits of our physical lives. If this were not so, absolute propaganda from absolute dictatorships would be the end of human history and make the goal of liberation and equality impossible. But it is so—and it means that, given a sustained fight for both gender justice and ecological transformation, liberatory goals are indeed within reach.
Chris Williams is an environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. He is chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in chemistry and physical science. He also reported from Fukushima and was a Lannan writer-in-residence in Marfa, Texas. This artlcle is reprinted with permission from ©Truthout.org.