Shyaonti Talwar


"Another world is not only possible. She is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
- Arundhati Roy

Articles > Feminist Economist Nancy Folbre on the Political Economy of Care

By Dr. Shyaonti Talwar

Feminist Economist Nancy Folbre on the Political Economy of Care cover image

Feminist Economist Nancy Folbre on the Political Economy of Care

Liberal Feminism and Socialist feminism have always been ideologically pitted against each other on the continuum of feminist theory in that the former stressed on the idea of women being ‘equal to’ or ‘no less than men’, foregrounding the need for women to be more like men and adopt masculine traits of behaviour and attitude whereas the latter (socialist feminism) believed in studying and revisiting economic and cultural structures of power that are the cause of women’s oppression and subordination with a vision to eventually revise the systems that determine and define gender oppression just like class oppression. The politics and economy of care can be discursively located at some point in the middle of this continuum.

Nancy Folbre uses myths to address contemporary concerns. She looks at Oedipus’ story and his famous response to the Sphinx in Greek mythology to underscore the necessity of feminist theory. Oedipus as a prince, has not exactly had, what could be called an enviable life. He accidentally kills his father and ends up sleeping with his mother, as in, possessing the woman and the throne, both and then is blinded apparently for his misdeeds which he committed, albeit unknowingly. Desperate and bewildered, he approaches the Sphinx to find out why he has been subjected to such travesties of fate. The Sphinx tells him it is because he was unable to answer the riddle correctly. A confused Oedipus exclaims: But I did! You asked me “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night?” I answered it is “Man – who crawls on all fours as a baby, then on two legs as an adult, and then with a walking stick when in old age.” The original myth says that, as this was the right answer the Sphinx who had been plaguing the region of Thebes with all kinds of problems and calamities, hurls herself off the rock to her own death. However Folbre revises the myth and has the Sphinx telling Oedipus that this is not the right answer as he only mentioned “Man” and not “woman”. A nonplussed Oedipus says: “C’mon, Man means both man and woman. Man stands for woman too” at which the Sphinx quietly says: “Oh, that’s what you think.” The implication of this revisited and thoughtfully revised myth being the exigence of feminist theory which will foreground the issues and concerns of women instead of invisibilising and assimilating them in the universal category of ‘man’ besides pointing to the underlying patriarchal politics of language.

The second story Folbre shares is the very common tale of King Midas who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold which leads to his daughter turning to gold when he touches her. This tale in a way reflects the deep anxiety and tension between material pursuit and altruistic engagement and the latter being compromised for the former. Relating this to the economy of care Folbre talks about the culturally perceived and essentialised association of men with material pursuit and women with altruism which relegates women to the sphere of care. Traditionally women have always been more stigmatised and still are, as compared to men when they are in pursuit of their self-interest. Women are essentially regarded as better care-givers and in the process, care-giving stands essentially feminised. Consequently care work both paid and unpaid, in the care sector, is not only seen as something to be done by women but also profoundly undervalued because it is a woman’s job. Apart from bringing up children and looking after the ailing, elderly and disabled in the family in the unpaid segment, this refers to jobs such as teaching, nursing, professional chid-care services, etc. in the paid segment. Within a capitalist economy, just as the worker’s bargaining power determines the quality of services, so also the woman’s bargaining power determines the quality of services related to the care sector. Feminisation and overspecialisation in care has led to reduced bargaining power for women impacting the quality of care offered and the emotional well-being of women.

Very often the language associated with care-giving focuses on or abounds in phrases like “l can’t help it”, “I love doing what I am doing”, “I like being with children”, “I think what I am doing is only human” and similar such expressions. In other words, it is always the emotional worth of the activity that is foregrounded and not the financial returns. Because care work is underrated and undervalued and such services are also underpaid not only because they are undervalued but also because care workers themselves are reluctant to get paid a better amount out of guilt or shame or a sense of moral obligation, this particular sector has a very high turnover and hardly any specialisation. Also the stigma associated with it prevents men from taking up jobs in the care sector since it is not respectable enough or financially feasible to run the house as the economy and families largely function on the presumption of the man being culturally and morally obligated to run the house. This has a direct impact on the quality of services dues to an absence of professionalism and specialisation and also because of the tendency of people to treat this service as a temporary stopgap arrangement before moving on to something else or a part time engagement on their own will and accord and not something that is indispensable to their sustenance.

Being overburdened by unpaid care on the other hand has been seen to be a major reason for some of the psychological ailments women are diagnosed with such as depression and stress. Parenting is one area which largely courses on the myth that people with children are a lot happier than childless people. Happiness researchers however do not corroborate this theory as there are many variables to happiness and also because child rearing can be a very stressful job and especially so because of the taboo associated with it. Even if one finds it stressful one is not supposed to say it. The problem with child rearing is that one cannot experiment and decide that one does not want to do it or that one is not predisposed to it. It is something which can be experienced only when one is into it and then there’s no backing out. It also needs consistent and long-term commitment which can be stressful for the primary care-giver which in most cases is the woman. Similarly women are also conventionally expected to look after the elderly and the disabled if there are any, in the family besides bringing up children.

Folbre focuses on the politicisation and the gendering of care-giving by invoking the myth of Ulysses and the sirens. When Ulysses is travelling by sea, he is forewarned about the wailing of the sirens who are so melodious and enthralling that they force humans to jump into the sea to follow their voice. Ulysses does not want his crewmen and sailors to jump off the ship so he puts wax in their ears which will prevent them from hearing the sirens. At the same time he does not want to miss out on the melody so he asks his sailors to tie him to the mast so that when he hears the sirens he is not tempted to jump off. This is pretty much the way masculinist logic and hegemonic sexist capitalism work and manage the care economy. Either by turning a deaf ear or by resisting from taking the plunge. Women’s role in care-giving is akin to the chicken game where you lose if you are the first to serve/play. Since the woman offers her services first in the care economy, it is thrust on her and she continues with it while men back out.

Choosing to engage in care-giving is of course a partly informed decision, a conscious choice because of the projected pleasure that can come out of care-giving similar to taking up smoking or indulging in a chocolate cake. One knows that smoking is injurious to health, having a chocolate cake can clog the arteries and yet one does it, any which way because there is some amount of kick in the action, some amount of pleasure even if it is short-term. Care-giving may not turn out to be rewarding in the long run, it will certainly be taxing, consuming and exhausting and yet, it has this innate ability for instant self-gratification.

Moving on to gaming and game theory Nancy Folbre points out how Xena the warrior princess has been androgynously conceptualised to remove her from the feminine realm. She needs to embody more masculine qualities if she needs to be a warrior. However the makers of Xena wanted to target an older audience and therefore they had to make Xena more appealing and so they made her give birth to a daughter. A mother figure would certainly be more appealing to an older audience with a more feudal sensibility. The daughter however grows up independently even as Xena remains frozen in an ice cave so that there is a perfect solution to the problem of care-giving. The warrior Xena is woman enough by having birthed a girl but she is spared of the care-giving responsibility through an intricacy and a twist in the plot because that would have probably made her more of a woman than a warrior.

We are at a point in history where society is transitioning, gender norms and roles are being destabilised and gender identities acquiring both, a biological and a cultural fluidity. At such a time, it is only appropriate that norms of masculinity and femininity with respect to care-giving are also revisited and the stigma around care-giving dislodged so that care economy and the care sector ceases to be a gendered space, a gendered engagement and a gendered discourse. Changes of course have to be brought about at the level of policy making in the care sector and perhaps through activism which can be prompted by radicalising the discourse around care-giving through a process of ungendering and associating productive value to it rather than an act of unconditional cooperation which will only accentuate the implicit exploitation and reduced self-esteem of care-givers.

Share on WhatsApp

Contact Me : | | LinkedIn |