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from  post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 9, October, 2001


Why the PAE Movement Needs Feminism 

Julie A. Nelson   (Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, USA)

What can feminist economics contribute to the Post-Autistic Economics movement?
Anyone familiar with both of these will have noticed that the two have much common ground.
Both seek to put at the core of analysis the economic and social problems facing women,
men and children.  Both protest the definition of the economics discipline around a single,
narrow set of methodological tools. Both are international and pluralistic movements,
incorporating participants from many countries and many schools of economic thought.

I would like, in this essay, to bring to the attention of PAE participants what I believe is
one of feminist economics’ most unique and fundamentally important contributions to the
discussion of the potential transformation of our field. This newsletter has carried articles
examining materialist, institutional, geographical, political and intellectual explanations for
the current abysmal state of economics research and teaching. Feminist analysis brings to
light other important dimensions of the story of how economics got into its current autistic
condition, and why it is so resistant to change. I believe that PAE will to some extent

misunderstand its own historical dynamics, and be less effective as a force for change, if
it neglects the insights that come from a gender-sensitive analysis of the value system
underlying contemporary economic study.

I invite you to do a three-part thought exercise with me.  First, think about the characteristics
held in highest esteem within the contemporary hegemony of mathematized rational-choice
modeling.  You will probably come up with a list that includes characteristics like rigor,
precision, detachment, quantitative analysis, abstraction, self-interest, autonomy, rationality,
etc. Next, think about the flip side of each of these terms. You will probably come up with a
list something like this:  pliability, vagueness, connection, qualitative work, concreteness,
generosity, interdependence, emotion. Lastly, consider the gender connotations of each list.
Most people raised in Euro-American cultures will immediately recognize that the first list is
culturally coded as “masculine” and associated with toughness and power, and the second
as “feminine” and associated with softness and powerlessness.

What is at issue, then, for PAE, is not simply changes at the level of methodology, but
a sea change in the underlying value system of contemporary economics.  A long and
intricate history of relations among gender, social organization, science, and conceptions
of knowledge formed these values. At the time of the Enlightenment, the world--and the
economy--came to be seen as
clockwork-like and mechanical.  This image of the economy,
 and an epistemological image of the knower as radically separate from the subject of study,
encourages the primacy of mathematical modelling. Feminist scholars have pointed out how
this epistemology reflects a fantasy of achieving solid security through the control of nature
by our minds, and a denial of all connection, embodiment, vulnerability, or flux. An early
Secretary of the British Royal Society, for example, stated that the its scientific purpose
was to "raise a masculine Philosophy … whereby the Mind of  Man my be ennobled with
the knowledge of Solid Truths." (Note the absence of feminine, body, women, and
contingency.) The autism of contemporary e
conomics reflects the cultural sexism in
which it historically developed--with a vengeance.

What is needed, much feminist theory suggests, is not a flip-flop into an image of humans
as totally powerless and fragmented, but rather an overcoming of the whole either/or
understanding of the relations of humans to each other and to the world. An authentic

recognition of natural and social connection leads to an understanding of the human

knower as both part of the reality to be studied, and able to reflect on that reality. The
fantasy of detached control can be replaced by the knowledge of lived experience.

Participants in the PAE movement should therefore be aware that whenever we call for
more connection to social problems, whenever we call for more concreteness, for more
flexibility, or for more embodiment, we are asking a lot.  We may think we are shaking a
disciplinary branch, but in reality we are rattling a very big emotional and socio-cultural
tree. We should not be surprised when defenders of the status quo often fail to engage
with us at an intellectual level. The fact that we are, in fact, generally much more reasonable
than they are (in the broad sense of human wisdom) is almost beside the point. Our calls
for change will often be perceived as calls for the emasculation of economics, for making
economics soft, for making economics impotent. Our calls for change demand that our
listeners “think outside the box” in a radical way that will, at the least, feel unfamiliar and
uncomfortable to many, and be perceived as profoundly threatening by some.

That said, it is important to clarify the roles of actual men and women in the perpetuation
of sexist gender constructs at the core of economics.  Common misperceptions about
feminist economists include beliefs that it is concerned only with “women’s issues,” is
only done by women, advocates a purely qualitative and emotional alternative to
contemporary thinking, or treats men as the enemy.  Those who hold these views display
their ignorance of contemporary feminist work.  A number of men challenge the sexist
beliefs at the core of the value system, and many women do not. The reason that w
have tended to take the lead in the feminist push within economics, is not because we
"bring something different" (via our genes or brain functions), but because the biases are
far more obvious to those who start somewhat outside the system.  Fish, it is said, do not
notice they are swimming in water.  Other "outside" groups, characterised as "other" by
way of race, sexual preference, age, disability, nationality, or class vis a vis the dominant
culture, also bring important perspectives. The PAE movement will be self-deluded if it
looks for accomplishments largely within a debate among Euro-American professional men. 
It will miss its mark if it ignores the problems suffered--and contributions offered--by those
who have long been labelled as non-rational and dependent, by a culture that elevates mind
and autonomy above all.

As I write this essay, in October of 2001, the events of September 11 are fresh in
everyone’s mind. To readers who may still think of feminist concerns as “just” women’s
issues, and of no concern to them, I offer one last reflection.  The Taliban, and its variety
of fundamentalist thinking, has been the most controlling and oppressive regime in regard
to women in contemporary times. Contemporary academic economics, and contemporary
global economic policies, are gripped by other rigidities of thinking--what George Soros
has dubbed “market fundamentalism.” Fantasies of control are operative in both phenomena,
and gender is far from irrelevant to understanding their power, and their solution.

Julie A. Nelson is the author of Feminism, Objectivity, and Economics (London: Routledge, 1966) and (with
Marianne A. Ferber) Beyond Economic Man: Feminist Theory and Economics (Chicago: Uni. of Chicago Press, 1993). 

For more about feminist economics, visit



Julie A. Nelson (2001) “Why the PAE Movement Needs Feminism”, post-autistic economics newsletter : issue no. 9, September, article 1.