Katharine Bartlett (Duke) on "Feminism and Economic Inequality"...

Katharine T. Bartlett, Feminism and Economic Inequality, 35 Law & Inequality:  A Journal of Theory and Practice 265 (2017).

Economic inequality was a key issue in the 2016 presidential campaign1 and probably influenced the election of Donald Trump. It is an issue that is profoundly significant to the growing number of individuals-- disproportionately women and minorities--who find themselves on the wrong end of the increasingly bi-modal economic spectrum, and raises serious concerns about the erosion of the “American dream” and the stability and viability of our democracy. Economists, political theorists, sociologists, and media pundits have kept the issue in the headlines. Yet, despite an impressive strand of earlier feminist work that made economic analysis central to an understanding of women's subordination, few feminist legal scholars in recent years have had much to say about it. Indeed, one of the central criticisms of feminism today is that feminists have too often ignored the pocketbook issues of the working class, such as labor protections, wages, safety-net issues, and health care, in favor of advancing the social issues of the more well-off, like abortion rights, environmentalism, and transgender bathrooms. Even when class issues take center stage, most progressives have focused on the poor and not the working class.

This Article celebrates the foundational work of Catharine A. MacKinnon by identifying the theoretical tools she has given feminist legal scholars that would be useful in bringing economic inequality to center stage. It does not itself develop a full theory of economic inequality--that is both beyond any expertise I bring to the table and the page limit I have been given. What it does, instead, is to review the current relationship between legal feminism and economic inequality issues, outline the deficiencies in this relationship, and suggest the relevance of the work of Catharine A. MacKinnon to move toward a more unified thinking about gender and economic inequality.’


Professor Bartlett celebrates the career of Catharine A MacKinnon, particularly as her work relates to gender and economic inequality.  However, Bartlett insists that the gender dynamics of class-based economic subordination has not been fleshed out.

“Thanks in large part to the work of Catharine A. MacKinnon, feminists understand how gender works as a system of subordination. They understand less about economic subordination. They recognize that there is a system of women's gender subordination that has economic consequences and, increasingly, that sex and race subordination are connected. But they have not adequately considered the critical role that class subordination plays in reinforcing and legitimating other forms of subordination, including subordination based on sex.”

Professor Bartlett is in search of a theory.   “Without a compelling explanation for and diagnosis of a problem that matches the desired prescription--i.e., a theory--moral rhetoric lacks both grounding and the power to persuade.”

And, of course, I offer one in asymmetrical market imperfections relating to gender.  “Economic inequality, like gender subordination, is a matter of power, not perception.”

Professor Barltett considers how race theories might aid gender theorizing on economic subordination. “An alternative way to theorize economic inequality is as a product of race and/or gender subordination.”

But she is disappointed, “Although these race and gender critiques powerfully show how both racism and sexism stack the deck against women and minorities, they describe the effects of subordination rather than explain its means of operation and success.”

Subordination as asymmetrical market imperfections cures the fault she is concerned with.  By describing subordinating phenomena in terms of imperfections in a supposed free market, we not only highlight an injustice, we also show it future redistributive effect!

Through AMI, we here at the Economic Justice Law Review seek “direct engagement with the principles and processes by which the economic system creates and sustains unfair social hierarchies.”

Like MacKinnon’s gender theory, AMI focuses on how the market affects groups instead of individuals.  “MacKinnon also insisted, as did Marx and other critical theorists, that the relevant unit of social theory analysis is the group, not the individual. This centrality of the group is sometimes hard to recognize, insofar as power in a liberal system is exercised through an ideology of the individual.”

In the end, where Professor Bartlett suggests that a feminist theory of economic inequality would focus on ‘inequality’ instead of the alleviation of ‘poverty’, she is mighty mighty close to the theory of group subordination as asymmetrical market imperfections.  Characterizing subordinating phenomena as asymmetrical market imperfections comports with Bartlett’s focus on inequality instead of  poverty because the ultimate goal is for the state to produce meritocracy. - DreSmith