Voices on Class: Destabilising Commonly Accepted Economic Narratives

by Diane

Diane is a queer black feminist nerd living in Chicago. She currently has lots of time to think about economic issues since she’s looking for work and living on her mom’s couch.

These days economic concerns remain on the top of the agenda politically, on the news, and in people’s everyday lives. But I’ve noticed that current narratives around economic concerns only serve the privileged and elite. However economics is not a distant, dismal science. It is the way our lives play out, bills get paid and children fed.

We are taught to see markets as neutral harbingers almost psychic in their ability to give wealth to those who naturally deserve it. This view ignores the amount of political work that shapes these “free markets”. Governments regulate markets by deciding what is legal to sell (tobacco) and what isn’t (hemp). Governments subsidize some industries and products (corn) but not others. It is decisions by politicians that define the nature of what is and is not a market. By asserting loudly that markets are by-products of governments, feminist narratives recognize the inherently political nature of markets and economic policies. We can start to see how voting, protesting and other political actions are inherently economic ones as well.

Have you noticed that the right wing attack on government is an inherently gendered one? Anti-government pundits and politicians, talk about “the nanny state” and portray those dependent on government as “sucking the governmental teat”.  Perhaps by feminizing government, the right wing hopes to devalue it and put it back in its place. Although the military and NASA have seen some cuts in recent years, much of the government cuts come from parts of the budget associated with caring for others: education, social services, and healthcare. Not only is caring considered women’s work, but these professions often have a majority of female workers (for example, 76% of public teachers are female and 81% of licensed social workers are female) so cutting the budget in these areas may lead directly to more women being unemployed.

It is more acceptable to cut budgets that directly affect women because women’s work is devalued in our society. In this way, economic reality reflects our cultures inherent devaluation of women. The unemployment of teachers, social workers, and other workers and lack of services for those who rely heavily on government spending can thus been seen as a smaller , though perhaps unconscious, part of the right’s war against women.

Other narratives around economics and work exclude the poor. For example when our culture thinks about working women, we are thinking of the experiences of middle-class working women. The focus on having it all and balancing work-family life tends to ignore the millions of working class women who have been working and supporting families for generations. In my neighborhood it is not unusual for women to support intimate partners, children and grandchildren on low paying work. So how and why did we deem the story of these working women less important? While emphasizing work-family balance without addressing the kinds of work done by poor women, mainstream feminism has helped silence narratives around working class women who work. When work family balance only addresses the concerns of privileged mothers, alternatives such as affordable child care remain outside the debate. The media’s focus on “mancessions” where middle class male heads of households find themselves being supported by female partners ignores that fact that this has been normal for decades among the poor.  When the term “mancessions” excludes the high unemployment of men of color since the 70s, the experiences of whole communities are devalued and silenced.

By recognizing the economy and economic narratives as inherently political we gain back power from the banksters, walls street bandits, and right wing pundits. We can fight back by taking back the economic narratives from those who use them to hurt or silence us. When they say “free market” we should say “fair market”. When they say it costs too much to care for others, we should point out that it costs a lot to jail others. We can continue to vote for politicians who share visions of economic justice. If no such politicians exist where you live, you should consider becoming one.  If there’s a political problem, there’s a political solution and that includes feminist activism that values women and creating economic narratives that include everyone. We all have a part to play in creating economic justice whether at the ballot box or talking to friends about the connection between their financial concerns and the limited economic narratives of the day.

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