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Rethinking the History of Capitalism: Gender, Women, and Power in the Economy.

It's a pleasure to engage witli Riv-Ellen Prell's essay in this volume. I want to thank the editors for inviting me, and thank Dr. Prell for having written such a generative and important essay. I agree with much of what she says. I particularly want to flag the importance of gender's absence from so much contemporary historical scholarship on the economy. Overlooking women's presence is, of course, striking. But it is just as striking that scholarship overlooks the ways that men's gender and sexual normativity gave them access to capital. Prell's essay powerfully delineates the limits of much contemporary scholarship on the history of capitalism.

My analysis, however, also differs from Prell's on a few points, based on my experience as a US historian concerned with gender, capitalism, and consumption. (I am not an historian of American Jewish history, to be clear). I have a keen sense of the importance of the "new" history of capitalism and thus a somewhat more sympathetic view of the state of the field than Prell. In particular, I appreciate how historical work on capitalism has generated important conversations around race among US historians. This strikes me as evidence of these scholars' ability to think intersectionally and to embed capitalism in social hierarchies (albeit not gender). I am also aware of the extensive work that does talk about gender and capitalism. Finally, and relatedly, I would frame consumption as a more complicated endeavor than Prell does, and one that is even more important than she suggests. In fact, I believe that reframing consumption is key to addressing the exclusions of women, and the stunted view of capitalism, that Prell and many feminist scholars have identified. Provisioning and consuming reveal fuller pictures of Jewish history, women's history, and economies as a whole.

Prell's essay says aloud what many of us who engage with questions of gender and capitalism actually think: that new literature has elevated questions of capitalism while erasing feminist thought and gender as a category. Some of this, as Prell shows, is intentional. A few scholars have asserted quite directly that history went awry when scholars took seriously questions of culture and discourse--and those scholars then proceed to equate questions of gender and sexuality with arenas of culture and with "soft" power. Others have simply sped past questions of gender, the presence of women, and whole systems of sexuality--treating these as of topical relevance but not of analytic importance. (1)

This inclination to privilege class, capital and men in economic history reaches far beyond Jewish history. Scholars of early and antebellum US history have also made this point, as Prell notes. Scholars who research more recent US history, as well as scholars from other disciplines, have long made similar observations. (2) We are in a moment when economic history might seem to be a victim of its own success; having successfully defined capitalism and the economy as key objects in human affairs and worthy of study, it has also disconnected these from other objects and systems--particularly gender.

To be clear, work on the history of capitalism has made important contributions to US historiography. It is part of a broader academic engagement with "new materialist" thought, emphasized the importance of labor and productivity, and helped scholars confront the continuity of inequalities in American life. Work on finance has revealed the long roots of instruments that structured, and continue to transform, the American economy. Most importantly, attention to capitalism has utterly recast the history of slavery. Since the publication of Walter Johnson's landmark study, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999), slavery has come to be understood as inseparable from American economic development, financial practices, and business history, and to have had a presence long after its legal abolishment. Rather than opposites, capitalism and slavery have been shown to be very compatible. It is difficult to imagine where contemporary US history would be without this key insight. We are all better for this work.

That said, in work on slavery as elsewhere, questions regarding women and gender often remain unasked. Let me be more precise: there is extensive and important work on gender and sexuality in slavery, in paid work, and in business history. However, too often this work is catalogued, taught, reviewed, and cited as being about gender and sexuality as opposed to capitalism. These categories remain historiographically separate although, of course, they were crucially entwined in people's lives and in the ability of systems to reproduce themselves. (3) Work on women and incarceration is a case in point. Books by Sarah Haley and Talitha LeFlouria have appeared in recent years and received widespread acclaim. Together, these books show how black women's incarcerated labor was crucial to southern enterprise and the creation of modern infrastructure in the South. Race and gender were sustained by, and themselves sustained, labor systems. Although both authors have won numerous awards, including in labor history, the works received far too little attention in key journals and prize committees in the history of capitalism. (4) Scholars struggle too often to recognize that capitalism is intrinsically tied to gender systems.

And this brings me to consumption. I share Prell's alarm at its absence in recent work, but reintroducing it will also, I suspect, require reframing it.

There are many reasons for the relative absence of consumption in so much recent work. Certainly, studying individual consumption is challenging, given the paucity of sources. But the absence of consumption also reflects the way that consumers are viewed: at best as individualistic shoppers who deploy style to craft identities and at worst as self-involved. They wield power, such as it is, through the happenstance of individual purchase--not through intellectual labor, financial acumen, political influence or collective action.

This is both incorrect and pernicious. As Hasia Diner and the many scholars noted by Prell have established, consumption is also about power--and power in the most structural, material, sense. Consumption, as many scholars have shown, consists of stores, purchases, and goods--all of which are deeply regulated. Power goes multiple ways; as much as stores tried to control the actions of shoppers, Jewish history is full of women's efforts to act collectively when prices rose, or a retailer was unfair. (5) Furthermore it is simply wrong to suggest that consumption is a sphere very different from production. Diner's work on peddlers, as Prell demonstrates, is a shining example of the porous boundaries between realms of consumption and production. All of this speaks to the ways that consumers' stories can reveal new aspects of consumption.

Such stories, however, complicate rather than elaborate on women's authority and agency. Prell's suggestion that scholars look to consumption to find these can mislead scholars into thinking that that is all they will find. Consumption was (and remains) about a thousand different constraints even as it is, like paid work, also sometimes a realm of pleasure. What people bought does not equate to what they "wanted" but to what they could get, could afford, could store in their homes, could justify in terms of religious or ethnic identities, etc. As Prell herself notes, Jewish women were persistently surveilled and criticized for their consumption, both by Jewish and non-Jewish men. In the same way that workers have limited agency, we need to see consumers as similarly, inevitably, subject to power relations. The work of provisioning is as rich, as necessary, and as complex as paid work and financial investment. The fundamental insight of studying consumption is not that it is a realm of agency, but that there is no aspect of the economy that is apart from power relations.

There are other reasons to study consumption, too. Attention to consumption would raise new analytic questions. We might ask of capitalism not how did people make money or earn a wage but how did people get what they needed? How does capitalism look different if we look at it from the perspective of how people got what they needed rather than through the eyes of the (fewer) people who worked for wages or investing capital?

I'll offer one possibility. Much consumption, much of what people need, has not been about capital. It has taken place in non-capitalist societies or, as some would have it, it has taken place apart from capital and commodification even when it has occurred in nominally capitalist spaces. (6) For this reason, I think it gives away too much to call all of the books Prell reviews here part of an "economic turn." The books she critiques are not studies of the economy. They are studies of wages and wage earners, sometimes of labor (conventionally understood) and frequently of capital. But the economy is more than capital and economies are not entirely capitalist. Looking at the expanse of "the economy" and at the precarity or at least dependence of capital on very particular institutional and social formations can help us see the limits, dare I say the delicate balance, of capitalism.

In this historical moment, in particular, scholars are understandably loath to acknowledge that scholarship that uncovers the importance of wealth and power, and that can therefore be considered progressive and radical, might actually be something else. Defenders of the history of capitalism would point to much of the work on class and materialism as evidence of its significance. The shared goal of fuller understandings of the past, and the need to intervene in the present, must move us past this intransigence. Historians of capitalism must engage more fully with scholars of gender to appreciate the complexity of previous historical moments if we are ever truly going to understand systems of exclusion and their persistence.

(1.) Scholars of US capitalism are perhaps somewhat more likely than the scholars Prell discusses to include white women and people of color and to note that gender and race mediated economic experiences. However, like the scholars she identifies, most continue to theorize economic exploitation or the amassing of capital as separate from other systems (even if they are sometimes affected by them) and also as the most important underlying system in American life. For instance, Seth Rockman, an important scholar of class formation in the early republic who is quite attentive to the importance of race and gender, nonetheless asserts that capitalism is the "larger system constituted at the intersection of gender, race, and class" and that historians must therefore turn their attention to it. He posits that the exploitation of lower-class Americans by those with capital transcended differences among Americans. See Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 11. Similarly, Julia Ott has argued that historians of capitalism have not "abandoned" gender or race as important categories but have simply focused on explaining capitalism rather than these other (and presumably distinct) systems. Ott, "Interchange: The History of Capitalism," Journal of American History, 101, no. 2 (2014): 503-536. Other scholars are less nuanced. In the same journal's special issue in which Hartigan-O'Connor (and several other scholars) demonstrate the importance of gender and race to American economies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Stephen Mihm asserts that social historians focus on "marginal" actors rather than those whose decisions mattered to capitalism, that cultural history overlooks the "basic numeracy" and technical knowledge required for understanding economic change and that scholars must "grapple" with finance and those who controlled it instead of looking at those with less power. Mihm, "Follow the Money: The Return of Finance to the Early Republic," Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 4 (2016): 783-804.

(2.) See for instance Mary Yeager, "Women Change Everything," Presidential Address to the Business History Conference, Enterprise and Society (December 2015) and Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako, "Generating Capitalism," Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, March 30, 2015, accessed October 12, 2018,

(3.) Feminist scholars have continued to raise capitalism and the economy in other areas as well. These recent examples give a sense of the enormous range of this work: Susan Amussen, "The Contradictions of Patriarchy in Early Modern England," Gender and History 30, no. 2 (2018): 343-353; Jessica Wilkerson, "The Company Owns the Mine But They Don't Own Us: Feminist Critiques of Capitalism in the Appalachian South," Gender & History 28, no. 1 (2016): 199-220; Laura Briggs, All Politics is Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018).

(4.) Haley's book has not been reviewed in Enterprise and Society, The Business History Review, or The Journal of Economic History; LeFloria's received a short and largely positive review in the Journal of Economic History though the reviewer found her more compelling when "describing" conditions and women's lives than when making analytic claims about the structural significance of black women's convict labor (partly because so many were paroled to domestic service rather than work in industry or offices). In spite of this, these books and others like them are taught in courses on the history of capitalism.

(5.) Tracey Deutsch, Building a Housewife's Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Paula Hyman, "Immigrant Women and Consumer Protest: The New York City Kosher Meat Boycott of 1902," American Jewish History 70, no. 1 (1980): 91-105; Annalise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900-1965, 2nd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), chapter six.

(6.) For a classic statement of this, see J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). The definition of economic history has gotten some attention from other quarters, too. Recently, scholars of economic history and the "new" history of capitalism have disputed the validity and the boundaries of these subfields, with particularly heated exchanges among scholars of slavery. Though it is not directly related to points I made here, those who are interested in the historiography and these disputes might look at the readings collected in: Andy Seal, "Asking New Questions of Capitalism," U.S. Intellectual History Blog, August 20, 2018, accessed October 15, 2019, https://s-usih. org/2018/08/asking-new-questions-of-the-new-history-of-capitalism/.
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Author:Deutsch, Tracey
Publication:American Jewish History
Date:Oct 1, 2019
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