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Diving into the rise and fall of patriarchal systems

An interview with Nancy Folbre, director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at UMass Amherst, who will be speaking at URI’s honors colloquium on Oct. 23

Photo courtesy of Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre, professor emerita of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/22/18
An interview with Nancy Folbre, a feminist economist, explores the rise and fall of patriarchal systems, a preview of her talk at URI as part of the series, Reimagining Gender.
When will political reporters as part of the series of candidates’ debates in Rhode Island feature more women as the moderators on the panels? What are the similarities of communities that encourage conversation and convergence in creating place-based economies? How can citizens avoid the trap of falling in binary divisions of hierarchies, yes and no, black or white, male or female, when discussing gender?
The demise of nuclear power, once hailed as creating electricity that would be too cheap to meter, is an unwritten story, one that is a result of a galvanizing citizens’ movement. Similarly, today, the story of how behind-the-meter solar installations on homes and businesses are radically changing the nature of the electricity grid and the need for more power generation is still an uncovered, unwritten story.

PROVIDENCE – Call it serendipity. Four decades ago, in late November of 1977, ConvergenceRI sat in a radio interview booth at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst with Nancy Folbre, creating an impromptu tag team duo to talk about the problems of nuclear power.

At the time, Folbre was an Economics scholar at UMass; she was busy collaborating with Anna Gyorgy on a book that would end up being called No Nukes: Everyone’s Guide to Nuclear Power, contributing chapters on the economics of nuclear power.

ConvergenceRI was serving as a volunteer communications spokesman for what was known as the Alternative Energy Coalition, at the personal request of Sam Lovejoy, one of the founders of the No Nukes movement, articulating the message that nuclear power was unsafe, not economical, and not needed.

We were both living in Montague Center, a small, somewhat sleepy town 15 miles north of Amherst, as were both Lovejoy and Gyorgy at a place known as the Montague Farm, at a time when the region in Western Massachusetts was often referred to as “The Happy Valley,” a hothouse incubator for politics, culture, and innovation. [But that’s a story for another day.]

During the radio interview, there was a kind of simpatico created, in the face of sometime hostile questions from the radio host; Folbre and ConvergenceRI found an easy balance of conversation.

Fast forward to 2018. Folbre is to be the fifth guest lecturer as part of the honors colloquium series at the University of Rhode Island, “Reimagining Gender: Voices, Power, Action,” on Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m.

Folbre is currently the professor emerita of Economics and director of the Program on Gender and Care Work at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She is also a MacArthur Genius fellowship recipient, awarded in 1998, and the author of several books, including: Greed, Lust, and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas (Oxford, 2009), Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family (Harvard, 2008), and The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values.

When asked about how the MacArthur genius award had changed her life, Folbre answered, in a direct, honest fashion: “I have no idea. I have no idea what might have been different,” she said. “It increased my intellectual self-confidence; maybe I took risks, got more professional opportunities. It is asking about any event in our lives. What is your standard of comparison? It is serendipity.”

In broader terms, Folbre shied away from articulating one specific vision of her work. “I want to change the way we think about how to make and create alliances and create public policy,” she said, figuring out what needs to be done in framing the theoretical environment.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Nancy Folbre, four decades after our first conversation, reconnecting in a discussion of gender economics and patriarchal systems.

ConvergenceRI: Can you give a brief overview of your talk, “The Rise and Decline of Patriarchal Systems,” which is the working title of your new book?
Well, it’s a summary of the book that I have just been finishing up. It has a theoretical dimension, a historical dimension and a policy dimension.

The theoretical dimension is an effort to think about patriarchal institutions as an influence on patriarchal systems that are also characterized by other forms of group inequality and hierarchy, which affect each other in sometimes unpredictable and complicated ways.

Sometimes this is described under a rubric called “intersectionality.” The notion is that instead of just thinking about people as being divided into men and women, rich or poor, capitalist and worker, or black and white, you need to recognize that people are in a variety of many kinds of potentially contradictory group positions.

And, people make decisions [according] to what extent they want to align themselves with other people, with whom they have things in common.

I think it’s a good way to think about issues of gender inequality.

The particular kind of analysis of gender inequality that I developed in the book is really very focused on the consequences of women’s specialization in work that involves care for other people.

So, whether it is unpaid work, or unpaid jobs, women tend to be specialized in a particular task that is really important and that has a lot economic value, but which is not really officially valued as much as it should be.

In general, people who provide care for others are not in a very strong arguing position.

ConvergenceRI: How difficult is it to challenge and change the dominant narrative of economics and politics?
I think it is hard, but I think it is achievable. It requires very smart, strategic thinking about how to create and maintain political alliances. It also requires a lot of patience and persistence.

ConvergenceRI: What were the lessons learned from the anti-nuclear movement in reshaping the narrative?
I think they are pretty consistent with what I just said. That a lot of the strategy behind the anti-nuke movement was to argument that nuclear power was unsafe, but that it was also economically inefficient, not cost effective, and that renewable energy and the commitment to renewable energy offered a much better path away from excessive dependence on fossil fuels.

I think that combination of arguments proved pretty compelling. Maybe, 20, 30, 40 years ago, we thought we were engaging in wishful thinking when we emphasized the benefits of renewable energy. I think that, in this case, not because we were super smart, but maybe kind of lucked out, the path of technological change pretty much vindicated our argument.

ConvergenceRI: How important is the value of storytelling in economics, rather than theory?
Story telling is really important, but theory is also really important, and I think the two things should be complementary.

I always try to bridge the two worlds of quantitative and qualitative theory and narrative. I think it’s more interesting and more [compelling] to go back and forth between the two.

I also think there is a place for people to specialize in one, relative to the other. I guess I wouldn’t take sides. I’d rather combine forces than take sides.

ConvergenceRI: The overall theme of the colloquium at URI is “Reimagining Gender.” For that to happen, does it require a fertile environment to nurture such explorations?
[laughing] I think most aspirations require a fertile environment. I think one of the things that we are seeing about gender today is that we have already seen a lot of pretty significant renegotiation of gender roles. Not that we’ve achieved some magical elixir of equality, but I think that younger people, in particular, have altered the social expectations around gender in some very powerful and subversive ways.

That is kind of a hopeful sign for other political efforts and other political movements. I think that we can point to some successes in the gender arena that should be encouraging for people who are concerned about other dimensions of social inequality.

ConvergenceRI: In asking that question, I was thinking, in particular, how Western Massachusetts served as an incubator, in what we often jokingly referred to as “The Happy Valley,” as a place where conversations and convergence occurred around change.
I do think there are little incubators [that exist]. Colleges and universities are really important incubators. And communities that coalesce around them are really crucial to that process. That is certainly true.

ConvergenceRI: What are the kinds of externalities that need to be captured and measured as part of understanding the value of caring as an important economic determinant?
That is a really huge problem about externalities in economics, and not just in economic theory but among managers and people who run businesses. There is a kind of presumption that people are paid for the value of what they produce.

That principle is not a bad principle, but it doesn’t work very well when it’s really hard to measure or value what is being produced.

I think a lot of care work really falls in that category. Not just care work, the care work that women do, let’s say, taking care of family members, or in jobs in health or education. It is also true for some jobs that men are traditionally very overrepresented in, such as police departments and the military.

You can’t really pay people on the basis of their individual performance, because it’s hard to put a monetary value on it, and a lot of what they do involves teamwork. It’s hard to attribute worth to a particular individual.

And yet we have this kind of cultural confidence in the paycheck as an arbiter of value and it is a very poor arbiter. So, some workers in our economy, I would argue, are overpaid, and a lot of workers are underpaid. And care workers in general fall into that underpaid category.

ConvergenceRI: Do you see the current Congress as a patriarchal system about to fall?
[laughter] I wish I did think it was about to fall. In fact, I thought about changing the title of my book to “The rise and fall and rise again of patriarchal systems.”

A patriarchal system is any system where patriarchal institutions continue to exercise a significant influence. I think Congress and our political system certainly fits that description.

It is not a binary system, either patriarchal or non-patriarchal. There are huge variations, a huge spectrum of differences, in the force and the efficacy of patriarchal institutions, and they are clearly being contested.

Which is one of the reasons why there is some blowback and resistance that has intensified gender politics and the gender gap. That’s really apparent.

It’s not totally clear what the result is going to be. I think that there are lot of reasons to believe, a lot of pressures that are working against patriarchal institutions, which are not very efficient or very satisfying for most people.

Unfortunately, what I think we’re seeing is an interaction of a lot of forms of social division based upon race, citizenship and class that create some complicated coalitional dynamics that can work against efforts to challenge patriarchal institutions.

Donald Trump is a very good example of that. The political coalition that he has managed to build is very predominantly male. But it still has a large number of women who are Trump supporters, because they see him as someone who will defend their interests on other dimensions of their identity. That is what makes the story more complicated, that intersectional dynamic.

ConvergenceRI: Is what you are saying is that we need to avoid falling into false dichotomies?
Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

ConvergenceRI: What are the kinds of systems that need to be built from the ground up in changing the narrative around gender?
In general, I believe in democratic participation and community-level participation. We need to have a portfolio of efforts to change and to challenge patriarchal institutions.

Women are very divided by class, race and citizenship; women also have a lot of common activities centered on class and race.

The #MeToo movement and the reproductive rights movement are really good examples, hopefully, about the ways to think about confronting the differences that divide them on a lot of other issues, such as health and access to health care.

ConvergenceRI: In one of your earliest books, The Invisible Heart, you write about the need to establish new rules for the mutual responsibilities for care giving? Can you explain what you mean by that?
I think women do a disproportionate share of care of dependents, family members who are sick or disabled, elderly family members. It is really important work, but it comes with a significant economic penalty.

It needs to get done, it is time consuming, and often stressful to provide that care. There are institutional pressures to continue [providing that care], and it leads to some problematic outcomes for women as well as men.

Men get disconnected from taking as much responsibility for care and sharing in the interaction.

Today, younger men are much more engaged in care giving and much more willing to participate in that respect.

ConvergenceRI: Do you believe we have reached a tipping point as a result of the #MeToo movement and the political activism of women?
Yes, it could be called a tipping point, but one that is not necessarily permanent. We see a lot of cycles, and those cycles can be reversed. I do think we have seen a tipping point in the redefinition of harassment and challenges to sexual assault. I’m pretty optimistic that those changes will persist, but I don’t think anybody can say for sure.

I am primarily an academic researcher about progressive political change. I’m not someone on the front lines of political organizing and political action. I believe that intellectual history and theory have an important role to play.

I often find that journalists want to boil down what I’m saying to a tweet level summary.

ConvergenceRI: I haven’t done that, have I?
No, you haven’t. Thank you.


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