In this installment of The Curve, we asked our contributors to examine Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. If economic inequality continues to soar, as Piketty says it will, and inherited wealth plays a growing role in our economy, in what ways does that affect women specifically? And what weaknesses arise in Piketty’s own analysis due to the absence of gender and race from his book? Where can we, as feminists, build on Piketty’s analysis?
Our participants are Kate Bahn, a PhD candidate in economics at the New School for Social Research and co-founder of LadyEconomists.com, with a forthcoming review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century in the Women’s Review of Books; Joelle Gamble, national director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a nationwide student policy organization; Zillah Eisenstein, an internationally renowned writer and activist and Distinguished Scholar of Anti-Racist Feminist Political Theory at Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York; and Heather Boushey, executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. –Kathleen Geier
Kathleen Geier: Does Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century have anything useful to say about feminism? Thus far, discourse about this watershed book has been overwhelmingly male-dominated (the only feminist critique that I am aware of, before this round table, has been Zillah Eisenstein’s). Though Capital has many virtues, attention to gender, alas, is not one of them. Like most mainstream economists, Piketty does not deploy gender as a category of analysis, nor does he engage with the work of feminist economists. Nevertheless, he offers insights about the nature of economic inequality that feminists can build on to advance both gender and economic justice.
As the historian Stephanie Coontz recently observed, during the past forty years our economy has been shaped by two overwhelmingly important trends: the rise of gender equity on the one hand, and the decline of economic equality on the other. These phenomena may appear to be unrelated, but in fact they are linked. During the 1970s and ’80s, women’s labor force participation soared, driven in part by families’ needs for additional income as economic inequality began to spiral and most men’s wages declined. As women’s average educational attainment and years in the workforce increased, so did their wages. Even so, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn argue that during this period, women were “swimming upstream” in a context of rising wage inequality.
During the 1990s and 2000s, economic inequality continued to skyrocket, but gender equity began to stall. As leading feminist intellectuals such as Coontz, Arlie Hochschild and Paula England have noted, during this period the growth in American women’s labor force participation began to fall off, and so did their advancement in managerial and professional occupations. Low-income women also fared poorly, as they lost the right to welfare as an entitlement, and extreme poverty among female-headed households tripled. For a while, the gender pay gap continued to narrow, until progress there began to slow as well.