The feminine twin in economics

The feminine twin in economics

ironThe household: part of the female supply or care economy. Creator: tony dowler. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.


When we speak about economics or read about the subject in the newspapers, generally the focus is on the market, prices or competition. Our daily lives now reflect an economic theory and practice which has established itself over the last two hundred years. Economics refers to an autonomous market economy viewed as independent from the social and natural environment.

Yet the modern economy is far more than that. In my opinion, it has been a twin birth since the outset: the birth of non-identical, bisexual twins. It consists of a market economy built around a model of masculinity, and a feminine[1] economy based on care work.

However, economic theory has only ever focused on one of these forms – the market economy – as if it were an only child. The other half of the economy has been largely ignored. This damages the invisible part and makes it difficult to explain how the visible part of the economy actually works. For example, modern crises such as the climate crisis or global poverty have often been misinterpreted as accidents caused by mistake, instead of what they actually are: systemic crises. Sabine Hofmeister describes this problem in the following manner: ‘The “blind spot” is the whole.’[2] Only by taking both twins into consideration, can we understand and critically analyse the parts which make up economics as a whole, and work together to make them viable for the future.

Economics as an autonomous market economy and the consequences of this narrow definition of economics

According to the dominant economic model, people act in the market in ways which maximise profit and efficiency. They are guided by individual preference, the money available to them to buy products, and the information they have about goods and prices. They are Homines oeconomici: individuals with no social basis, who are only able to relate to one another as competitors. Consequently, economic interactions are perceived as symmetrical relations of exchange between two equal commodity owners. These individuals base their decisions on either their own needs (although this actually provides no basis at all because their needs are never considered satisfied) or the profit they can expect to make, which also provides no basis for decision making as it is expressed in terms of the highest possible amount of profit. Consequently, Homines oeconomici are only concerned with their own well being. Yet this idea of a socially unattached ‘lonely wolf’ is strongly marked by masculinity and the rationale of this system can only be described as exuberant and reckless. We can currently see the effect of this on financial markets: more and more speculative excesses and dubious financial products are leading to huge profits for the few, and a financial crisis in which everyone else is left to carry the costs.

The individuals who have to bear these costs belong to a part of the economy which has no place in market-oriented economic theory and practice: the care economy. The care economy constitutes the caring activities which are undertaken and form part of our daily lives. Whereas the market economy is dominated by men, and this particularly applies to high-ranking positions, the care economy is still largely associated with women. At the same time, (paid) labour is understood as productive and creating value for the market, while care work is perceived as unproductive; at best reproductive. The results of the care economy then find no place in budget calculations; they are not even considered economically relevant. Yet although the care economy is not valued in monetary terms, the services it provides are essential for the daily practices associated with the market economy. Acknowledging this is imperative if the role of care within economics, and what carers have to endure are to be understood. Carers are essential for the market as they ensure the labour force is able to return to work on a daily basis; provide a social space to raise children; and act as a crisis buffer to care for individuals whose labour is, or has become, superfluous to the needs of the market. This includes the unemployed, or the elderly after their active phase of employment has ended. To put it rather bluntly, the care economy is not valued in monetary terms, but it is essential if money is to be made on the market. This also applies to the second part of the so-called reproductive sphere: the environment. The environment is also treated as if it were only there ‘to serve’ the needs of the market; yet the market is also built upon the productive output of the environment. Similarly, the environment then also finds no place in economic calculations.

These problems are caused by the way that economics is divided into the productive and the so-called reproductive by the narrowly-defined model of economics provided by theories of the market economy. The basic productivity of human economic activities such as feminine care work, but also the productivity of nature, are split off and excluded from activities defined in economic terms. This exclusion is destructive: it leads to unlimited and thoughtless exploitation. Yet this exploitation constitutes the underlying cause of the current social and ecological crises. Both crises belong to the same crisis – the crisis of the ‘reproductive’. The wealth, growth, and social welfare which have been achieved by this type of economics are based upon the destruction of life’s own basis: the productivity of the care economy and the natural environment. Consequently, this form of economics is inherently unsustainable.

Economics as a pair of twins – the care economy as a key area of economics

In order to address the problems of the market economy, the economy must be transformed and made sustainable: economic activity should preserve, not destroy, its own foundations. In order to achieve this, we will need to look at the economy from a different angle. The concept of the ‘care economy’[3] provides a good example. Instead of taking on the position of the market, and labelling feminine caring activities and the natural environment as ‘reproductive’, it views the market from the position of care and the environment. Consequently, the market economy no longer exists as an end in itself, and so neither ecological nor social life is expected to serve its needs. On the contrary, these relations are reversed: markets become the means of providing what is needed for life: (speculating) masters are then turned into (caring) helpers. The question we now have to ask ourselves, but at the same time are actually now able to deal with, is which (financial) markets are good for people and the environment. Furthermore, the ‘reproductive’, which is destroyed by economic activity, needs to be structured so as to ensure its preservation.

This change of perspective brings ‘economics in its entirety’ into view and suddenly the care economy emerges as an essential part of economics alongside the market. Modern economics should then not be compared to the birth of a single child, but rather to the birth of twins! Until now, the market has been perceived as a single child, but it is actually a masculine twin which has been accompanied by a feminine twin from its first day of life. This highlights the structure of the gendered hierarchy in economics mentioned above: whereas men ‘manage’ in high-ranking positions; women care at the roots. Yet this structure can be identified, deconstructed and put back together in a socially and ecologically responsible and gender-equitable manner.

This reorganization of economics constitutes a ‘reinvention of economics’.[4] We need to begin by studying the newly discovered twin sister – the care economy – as we already know her twin brother very well. After all, it is his principles and rationale that led to the current social and economic crisis. But can the care economy provide us with principles which could serve as a basis for a further development of the entire economy?

If we look, we find! The concept of the ‘care economy’ can be used to identify three central principles[5]:

Prevention: people live within social relations, care for themselves and others and rely on the care of others. This care also includes care for their immediate surroundings and that of future generations. The principle of prevention is characterised by precaution, foresightedness, caution, respect and the search for a general overview. Concerns about the future can then be turned into preventative care in the present. Care takes the needs of all those involved as its starting point, and integrates asymmetrical relationships into the economy.[6]

Cooperation: cooperation here is understood in terms of preventive care and responsibility. Cooperative economics is a form of economics in which we strive for pleasurable and ecologically sustainable economic processes and products in consultation with others. Responsibility is also important here, as both nature and future generations exist as voiceless partners within such consultations.

Working towards the good life: Caring economics aims to create a better life for everyone. What we understand by the good life should be constantly redefined through joint debate. At the same time, social welfare should no longer be merely assessed monetarily nor should it be calculated unidimensionally, instead it should be developed by taking various dimensions and numerous aspects into account.

The care economy is a ‘sustainable economy’, and whereas the current economic model expects people to manage their own ‘man-power’, in the care economy people instead manage ‘life force’. The care economy has the following rationale: seek to preserve the vital and productive foundations of the economy by deciding how to live your own life now while preserving in particular that which was previously categorised as ‘reproductive’. Furthermore, ensure the viability of the ‘reproductive’ in the long-term. These arguments are based on reason, but it is a reason that equally reflects thoughts and feelings. It incorporates the ‘care rationale’ found in Scandinavian discourses of care, and is supported by the ‘ethics of caring’.


Identifying the feminine twin of economics, and understanding that economics is actually made up of two sides, is just the beginning of a process of transformation which could turn current destructive economics into a viable, sustainable economy which protects the basis of human subsistence. Enhancing the status of the care economy would be a key step in this direction. However, further steps have to be taken: the market economy must be transformed along the lines of the feminine twin’s principles and rationality; and an economic sphere needs to be created that is not only compatible with nature and the social but also protects the environment and society. Economics then must become a means which satisfies needs. Ute Gerhard describes this process of transformation as follows: ‘It is then not a question of catching up or adapting women’s performances to market requirements, but instead of introducing care into social practices. In other words, it is about civilising the masculine self.’[7] In the processes associated with economic transformation, civilising masculine economics can be done by strengthening and developing its feminine twin.



[1]              When I refer to ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, I do so in the sense of gender. The focus of my argument is social gender, although social gender cannot be thought of as being independent of biological sex.


[2]              Hofmeister, Sabine. 1995: Der „blinde Fleck“ ist das Ganze. Anmerkungen zur Bedeutung der Reproduktion in der Ökonomie. In: Grenzdörffer, Klaus et al. Neue Bewertungen in der Ökonomie. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus, pp. 51—65.
[3]              See:
[4]              Cp. Biesecker, Adelheid/ Hofmeister, Sabine. 2006: Die Neuerfindung des Ökonomischen. Ein (re)produktionstheoretischer Beitrag zur Sozial-ökologischen Forschung. Ergebnisse Sozial-ökologischer Forschung volume 2. München: oekom.
[5]              Cp. Biesecker, Adelheid et al. 2000: Vorsorgendes Wirtschaften. Auf dem Weg zu einer Ökonomie des guten Lebens. Bielefeld: Kleine, 49ff.
[6]              Cp. Jochimsen, Maren 2003: Careful Economics. Integrating caring activities and economic science. Boston, Dordrecht, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
[7]              Gerhard, Ute 2008: Gesellschaftliche Rahmenbedingungen für Care. In: Senghaas-Knobloch, Eva/ Kumbruck, Christel (ed.): Vom Liebesdienst zur liebevollen Pflege. Rehburg-Loccum, 13-30, 26.


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