Women and the History of Capitalism

Women and the History of Capitalism

Cartoon or Sketch of Mill Woman_0One 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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4] “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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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!

[3] 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).

[4] Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

8 responses

  1. Good stuff. I think the most important thing about Hartigan-O’Connor’s piece is the call to rethink political economy entirely. She is not just raising gender as a “where are the women?” gotcha. As I understand it, she’s emphasizing that gender is a social relation and set of assumptions constitutive of political economy, and dynamic within it, rather than something “capitalism” simply remakes or affirms in a one-way fashion.

    • I agree, and I did try to bring that out in the post; but I don’t think I grasp the full implications of her point; I’d love to see it fleshed out more. As I mentioned, I still think it’s a question, just how dynamic was the role of gender within the political-economic system?

  2. I think this blog post actually points to a more fundamental problem with much of the new history of capitalism. Amy Dru Stanley points out that new historians of capitalism seem to have misplaced an entire literature on women and capitalism. Peter James Hudson has criticized the new history of capitalism for its “disavowal of radical scholarship.” John Clegg has asked how historians of capitalism can productively study capitalism without engaging with the existing literature on capitalism. Economists and historians too numerous to name have noted how the history of capitalism neglects or misrepresents the work of economic historians. When you have people from such different perspectives all saying you are not paying attention to the work of other scholars it seems to me that you have a problem. You can’t contribute to a conversation if you ignore what has been said by the people that came before you.

    The neglect of historiography leads to both the neglect of important issues and a tendency to claim credit for novelty where none exists. Baptist, for instance, presents himself as the man who has shown that slavery was a profitable capitalist enterprise, even though that has been the standard interpretation in economic history for decades. Although new terminology can be thought provoking, it can also be used to mask the lack of novelty. Beckert has received a lot of attention for his focus on “war capitalism,” but only the term is new. Many people have studied the way that states used violence to take land, force migration and expand trade.

    • I’m not sure how far we should go with this, though. Given that people have been writing history for a long time, every new turn goes through a period like this, where people will say “you’re just repeating what others have already said.” I think there are distinctive features of the “new” history of capitalism that are worthy of serious interest, just as there are clearly areas where things might be missing, as is always the case.

  3. It’s great to see thoughtful discussion of gender and capitalism–thanks for posting this, Tom. I think that some of the most recent research on capitalism has failed to take up Jeanne Boydston’s charge to see sex and gender as historical themselves, rather than as non-dynamic categories applied to the past. Brian Luskey and I have articles in a forthcoming Journal of the Early Republic exploring these ideas further in the context of political economy and capitalism.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Prof Hartigan-O’Connor! Very much looking forward to those articles, and I expect we’ll take up this question in the Junto again too.

  4. Pingback: A Woman’s Work: Nancy Prince’s Market Narrative | s-usih.org

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