One of the best questions a historian can ask is, “what am I missing?” Whatever you’re investigating, and whatever stage you’re at, it’s always worth your while to step back and look around. If you’ve been focusing on something, using a particular lens, it can be pretty hard to pan out. That’s where setting aside time for more eclectic reading really helps—journals and blogs are convenient ways to keep your field of vision broad. Sometimes, they can give you a kick. That’s how I felt about the forum on women’s history in this summer’s issue of the Journal of the Early Republic.
In that forum, both Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Amy Dru Stanley had harsh words for the new historians of capitalism. “The revived history of political economy in particular seems relatively indifferent to the actions of women or the operation of gender,” wrote Hartigan-O’Connor. For Stanley, it can seem as though proponents of the recent turn are “rewriting the history of capitalism so as to obscure the logic of sex.” Prominent work in the new history of capitalism, some of it discussed in this blog, has not prioritised sex and gender as categories of analysis. That might mean it’s missing something vital.
In Stanley’s view, the relative absence of gender from this new body of work mirrors a shift in emphasis—one we might see as characteristic of the “new” history of capitalism—from labour to finance, and from workers to their bosses. Such a shift risks leaving behind, or perhaps taking for granted, the work done by historians and theorists to uncover the role of gender and sex difference in the story of political economy and capital.
We should remember that the household was and is a central feature of relations of production (and consumption), that women were at the forefront of the shift of labour out of households into the factories, and that without their reproductive labour—in motherhood and child-rearing, and the maintenance of social ties—there could be no economy at all. More than that, we should remember that all of those structures and relationships were tied up with changing norms and notions of gender, ripe for historical analysis. There was no capital without sex, that much is clear. The real question for me is just how dynamic gender was, as a factor in capitalist development.
As Stanley’s work has helped to show, sex difference could take new and awful meanings under the conditions of capitalist exploitation. “Slave breeding lay at the heart of antebellum political economy,” she writes, “no less so than did finance, housework, and commodity production.” The power to use sex difference, and to define gender, was part of the power wielded by slave-holders and capitalists—it was also a contested power, open to resistance and subversion.
One of the achievements of the history of capitalism, like most new historical turns, has been to take apart old systems and old concepts and expose the insides. New names and terms can make that process of dissection more effective. Hartigan-O’Connor points to Edward Baptist’s decision to relabel antebellum southern plantations: slave labour camps. “Historians,” she writes, “could likewise find a replacement for “home,” another term that captured an idea about human relations but obscured the labor required to feed, clean, and sustain human bodies.” The power to define and label may be part of our own power, as historians, to resist or subvert the systems of domination in which we still live. To do that, we need to pay attention to what we might have missed.
 Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, “The Personal Is Political Economy,” and Amy Dru Stanley, “Histories of Capitalism and Sex Difference,” in “Politics in and of Women’s History in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 335-350.
 Among the works cited in Stanley’s essay are Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986); Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). For more recent work see Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage, Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Please do add more in the comments!
 See also Amy Dru Stanley “Slave Breeding and Free Love: An Antebellum Argument over Slavery, Capitalism, and Personhood,” in Michael Zakim and Gary Kornblith, eds., Capitalism Takes Command: The Social Transformation of Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
 Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).