Capitalism, For and Against: An Introduction to a Feminist Debate

Written by: Ann Cudd & Nancy Holmstrom


While political philosophy and feminist theory have rarely examined in detail how capitalism affects the lives of women, the recently published Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate sees authors Ann Cudd and Nancy Holmstrom take up opposing sides of the issue, debating whether capitalism is valuable as an ideal and whether as an actually existing economic system it is good for women. In a discussion covering a broad range of social and economic issues, including unequal pay, industrial reforms and sweatshops, they examine how these and other issues relate to women and how effectively to analyze what constitutes ‘capitalism’ and ‘women’s interests’. Each author also responds to the opposing arguments, providing a thorough debate of the topics covered. In honor of International Women’s Day, here’s a teaser of what each has to say in the introduction to her position.

For Capitalism as a Feminist Ideal and Reality

Ann E. Cudd

A WOMAN BORN IN THE LATE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY in Europe had a life expectancy of less than thirty years. She would have expected to bear seven children, and spend her days gathering wood and water, spinning yarn and making clothing, preparing food, and tending children. If she were born to a wealthy, aristocratic family she would have served mainly as a pawn in a diplomatic game between aristocratic families run by men and serving the interests of the oldest and most dominant among them. She did not look forward to any sort of political voice let alone power of her own unless she were one of the small handful of queens by birth. If she were born to a peasant family, she would have been illiterate. Much of her life was spent in hard labor and dirty, cramped conditions of life. She had little control over the timing or number of children she would bear, and she would likely bury most of her children before dying herself in childbirth.

My maternal grandmother was born in the late nineteenth century in the upper Midwest of the United States. She bore five children, four of whom lived until maturity, and she lived to be eighty years old in good health until her final days. When she was in her thirties, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and she became eligible to vote in federal elections, although she never lived to see a woman elected as governor or as a senator from her state. She graduated from high school and lived the hard working life of a farm wife, but her children were more educated, and her youngest daughter, my mother, was able to earn a Master’s degree and have a professional career. While my grandmother was born in an age of horse-drawn vehicles, she lived to ride in cars, watch television, and have a phone in her home.

Today, a girl born in Europe or North America can expect to live into her eighties. She will learn to read at an early age and grow up surrounded by ready access to information and entertainment. She will carry a phone in her pocket that she can use to communicate with virtually anyone on the planet. She will be able to choose when and whether to bear children, and the gender and sex of her intimate partners. With varying amounts of effort and good luck (depending on her race and class position at birth), she can live a professional life just like her brothers. She can participate fully in social and political life, with almost as good a chance of gaining real power as any man.

These massive changes in the lives of women and girls are due in large part to the development of capitalism, the now dominant economic system on the planet. Capitalism has been the incubator of ideas from technology to marketing, and morality to politics. In my contribution to this book, I will present the case for the claim that capitalism has been the main force in the advancement of women and of society more generally, and that it can continue to be a liberating force for women around the world. As convincing (or so I shall argue) as the historical case seems, though, there are reasons for skepticism about the positive value of capitalism in the contemporary world and going forward into the future. While the quality of life for women and girls in the middle and upper classes of North America and Europe is beyond question better on virtually any measure than could ever have been imagined even by my grandmother, women and girls in much of the global South live far lesser lives than their contemporaries in the global North. Capitalism also clearly creates and sustains massive inequalities in wealth around the world and within wealthy societies. Although men are also the victims of global poverty and inequality, women are far more vulnerable to these twin ills.Women are also trafficked in greater numbers than are men, and this trafficking is motivated in part by greed and enabled by the great inequalities in wealth in the world. Women, as a group, remain dominated by men in all societies, with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries, which have reined in the workings of capitalism through significant, democratically implemented, government interventions in market and social life. These facts notwithstanding, I shall argue that women’s best opportunity for liberation from both poverty and domination by men exists in the development of an enlightened capitalism.

Against Capitalism as Theory and as Reality

Nancy Holmstrom

WHEN WE STARTED ON THIS PROJECT IN 2006, capitalism seemed to be bigger and stronger than at any point in history. It was truly a global system, fulfilling – for better or worse – Karl Marx’s description in The Communist Manifesto of 1848: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere … In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

The fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1989 led market enthusiasts to proclaim that liberal capitalism was “the end of history.” The free market approach to capitalism had been hegemonic in the United States for over a quarter of a century, President Ronald Reagan having declared in 1981 that “Government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem.” Although the dot.com boom of the late 1990s was over, there was the new housing boom. A financial crisis had exploded in Asia a decade before, but the West had weathered the storm, and it only confirmed the experts’ conviction that the Keynesian approach of mixing government spending with the market, more typical in Asia, was bad for the economy. Whatever its validity, Keynesianism was defeated politically. The European model of capitalism, sometimes called social welfare capitalism because of its extensive government spending on social services (or branded as “socialism” by adherents of the free market), was under heavy pressure due to global competition with the more market oriented approach of the Americans, known as neoliberalism. This was true throughout the developing world as well, as international agencies like the World Bank insisted that as a precondition for loans, countries must cut public spending. Although some critics pointed to fundamental problems in the system, and some protested against the effects of the free market model on the working class and the poor throughout the world, this was undoubtedly a triumphalist period for capitalism. Margaret Thatcher, the UK Prime Minister during the 1980s, famously declared “there is no alternative,” repeating it so often that the doctrine became known simply as TINA.

How very different today! Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate how different the economic landscape looks in 2009. The biggest financial institutions in the world failed. They have survived only with massive government, that is, taxpayer, assistance (but never called “welfare” ). Blue chip stocks fell in value to less than a dollar. Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman , described recent economic numbers from around the world as “terrifying,” writing, “Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.” Some have managed to stay rich or become even richer through the crisis (“spinning gold out of other people’s misery,” in the words of playwright Wallace Shawn),  but most people throughout the world are suffering. Most mainstream economists and the press advocate some variant of Keynesianism as the only way to prevent “Great Depression II” and to managing capitalist economies beyond our immediate crisis (although academic economists remain resistant to questioning the fundamentals of their free market theory). The majority debate in the public sphere concerns how much and where to put the government aid and how much government control there should be over it. The February 16, 2009 cover of Newsweek magazine proclaimed, “We are all socialists now,” meaning simply that everyone favored more government involvement in the economy, that is, Keynesianism, and in April 2009 the widely respected Rasmussen Poll showed that only 53 percent of Americans say capitalism is better than socialism – a particularly striking figure in a country which has no socialist or even labor party and where liberal capitalists are considered the “left.” Some people are even saying that Karl Marx’s thought is more relevant today than it was at the time when he wrote.The question implicit in these reactions is whether our current crisis is simply a crisis of the fi nancial sector, or of neoliberal capitalism generally, or is it, most fundamentally, a crisis of capitalism?

I cannot predict how things will look when you are reading these words. Will capitalism have managed to stabilize itself, and the preceding paragraph sound like hysterical ranting? If it stabilizes itself, on what basis will it have done so? Since the crisis is global, how would Keynesianism be applied beyond the nationstate? Will it work? if so, for how long? Will the crisis be resolved only through an even bigger crisis, with a massive restructuring and shakeout of low profi t fi rms and a lowering of wages – which is what happened in Asia after their recent crisis? Who will have paid, in other words, for the crisis? (Talk of a “ jobless recovery” gives us a hint as to who will pay.) Or will the crisis be ongoing, and with what political, economic, and personal effects on people throughout the world? Or will it be resolved, but then reappear? And if so, what other alternatives will be proposed, either within capitalism, or going beyond? Or, by the time you read this, could the whole economy have been re-configured, as were the economies of Eastern Europe in just a few years? In their case, of course, the change was toward capitalism, but their story illustrates just how rapid social economic transformation can be when conditions are right.

At the very minimum, we can conclude from this crisis that the economics experts at the highest levels of the US government, universities and financial institutions – the so-called “best and the brightest” – did not know what they were talking about and that capitalism has shown itself to be what critics have always said it is: a highly volatile, crisis-ridden system with devastating effects on the most vulnerable. But today this is exponentially more true as the economic problems of the United States spin around the globe with untold consequences for the globe itself; poor countries that had nothing to do with the causes of the crisis are seeing their economies shrink. The many trillions of dollars spent to aid financial institutions also put the lie to the claim that “there just isn’t enough money” that was used to justify lack of public spending on health care, education, and other public goods needed by the majority, particularly the most vulnerable. It is now completely transparent that the real question is how resources are distributed and who gets to decide this.

What does all this imply regarding whether or not capitalism is good for women? That is our concern in this book: to examine capitalism from a feminist point of view , that is, to examine it with a special concern for the interests of women. As there is no one feminist perspective on capitalism (or almost anything else), a case has to be made. However, I am taking as a premise that feminists should be concerned with ending the oppression of women whatever the causes, be they sexism, racism or economic, or some combination diffi cult to disentangle. A feminism concerned only with ending the oppression of women based on gender would be a very limited version, far from the emancipatory vision at its core. Positions on capitalism among feminists range from apparent indifference since they ignore it, to support for capitalism with various degrees of criticism, to opposition. Indifference is not a responsible position given the enormous and ever-increasing impact of the system in which we all live on all domains of our lives, even the most intimate. Instead, a feminist position on capitalism should be based on whether or not capitalism is good for women. Since capitalism is not the same in all times and places, and moreover is constantly changing, we cannot limit our inquiry to any particular form in which it is realized. To see the possibilities capitalism might have to offer, we have to examine both its ideals, on the one hand, and the fundamental structure and tendencies inherent in capitalism in all its manifestations, on the other hand. Many of its abstract ideals are very attractive, so in theory capitalism has much to recommend itself for all individuals, including women. As an historical reality also, capitalism has tendencies that are liberatory for women. However, other fundamental features and tendencies are arguably at odds with these liberatory aspects. So, ultimately, the question of whether capitalism is good for women has to rest on capitalism as an actually existing, historically evolving political economic system, not just a logically possible system. To focus on capitalism as an idea – without powerful arguments to show that it is also feasible – would be to make an apologia for capitalism. In any case, a political/economic system cannot be willed into existence. It comes into existence through a complicated social historical process of evolution and/or revolution, and its nature depends both on how it came into being and what it is replacing. Thus, while an examination of an abstract model, or what can be called the ideal or optimal version of a political economic system, has some value, this value is quite limited.

Therefore, my principal concern in this debate will be on whether capitalism as an actually existing system is good for women. We will find, however, that there is no simple yes or no answer to this question; it depends on how we answer these crucial sub-questions: compared with what?; which women?; with respect to what aspects of their lives?; in what time frame? I will argue in what follows that while capitalism creates favorable possibilities for women it also puts limits on these possibilities. Overall, I contend, the respects in which capitalism can be said to be good for women are more limited than those in which they are bad. Women do not tend to be the “winners” in the brutally competitive system which is capitalism; indeed, they are among the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth, particularly dependent on public goods. Therefore, feminists truly committed to women’s well-being – dare I say “women’s liberation”? – should oppose capitalism.

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About the Author: Ann Cudd

Ann E. Cudd is a co-author of Capitalism, For and Against: A Feminist Debate (2011). Ann E. Cudd is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Dean for Humanities, University of Kansas. She is the author of Analyzing...

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About the Author: Nancy Holmstrom

Nancy Holstrom is Professor Emerita and former Chair of Philosophy at Rutgers University Newark. She is the author of numerous articles on core topics in social philosophy. She is a co-author of Capitalism, For and Against: ...

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