The Sex Factor: How Women Made The West Rich by Victoria Bateman

The Blurb On The Back:

Why did the West become so rich?  Why is inequality rising?  How ‘free’ should markets be?  And what does sex have to do with it?

In this passionate and skilfully argued book, leading feminist Victoria Bateman shows how we can only understand the burning economic issues of our time if we put sex and gender – ‘the sex factor’ – at the heart of the picture.  Spanning the globe and drawing on thousands of years of history, Bateman tells a bold story about how the status and freedom of women are central to our prosperity.  Genuine female empowerment requires us not only to recognise the liberating potential of markets and smart government policies but also to challenge the double-standard of many modern feminists when they celebrate the brain while denigrating the body.

This iconoclastic book is a devastating expose of what we have lost by ignoring ‘the sex factor’ and of how reversing this neglect can drive the smart economic policies we need today.  

You can order The Sex Factor: How Women Made The West Rich by Victoria Bateman from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Victoria Bateman is a fellow and lecturer in economics at Cambridge University and campaigns against the marginalisation of women’s bodies in public life.  This book, which makes some interesting points but is too dependent on sweeping assertions and broad generalisations, she argues that economics is gender biased and fails to consider both how women are important for economic growth and how real human behaviour impacts on economic activity. 

I picked up this book because I’ve been reading more about economics in the last couple of years to try and improve my knowledge of the topic.  I was specifically interested in learning more about feminist economics because it had been referred to as a discipline in some of the other work I’d read and it seemed to me to be clear that there’s a lack of consideration to women’s economic activity and to the value that women contribute through unpaid labour in the home (including domestic and caring duties).  One of the best things about this book is that Bateman writes clearly and explains jargon and theories in a way that is easy for laypeople like me to understand.  She’s also a very fluid writer who clearly sets out what she’s going to cover before taking the reader through her arguments so I didn’t have any problem with keeping track of what she was saying or where the book was going.

Part I of the book outlines the standard narrative of our how the western world developed and grew rich with a particular focus on the Industrial Revolution.  Bateman seas to prove how women have been ignored in accounts of the Industrial Revolution, even though she believes that the way the Industrial Revolution and the situation in England in particular meant that women had more freedom to participate in the opportunities that factory work gave to them and this in turn allowed them to become even more free.  There are some interesting points in here, such as that the institutions within a country are important for growth but may follow it rather than determine it.  I also found her discussion of the fact that it’s high wages that help drive growth rather than low wages to be fascinating and pertinent, given that we have been stagnating since the 2008 collapse and that is in part due to the low wage/high uncertainty situation caused by the gig economy.  

However, I was less convinced by some of her historic assertions on the situation faced by women – especially western women – during history, e.g. the assertion that consent of the bride was necessary for marriage during the Middle Ages (which seemed to me, from what I’ve read of history, to be something that lip service was paid to during this time whereas behind the scenes it could be coerced quite easily) and how they usually left the family home to set up their own households once married (I don’t doubt that this was the case for some women – notably those in the more prosperous classes – I have to question whether that was the case for women of lower classes where there wasn’t necessarily the money to do so).  In general, I found that the assertions were very broad and the evidence to support it quite limited.  I’m also a little leery of anyone from the west seeking to characterise and evaluate family relationships in the Middle East, across Africa, India and in China because they’re such broad areas with variations in local customs so some of the assertions made here about how such customs impacted on economic development didn’t sit too well with me.

Part II then looks at gender equality and income inequality.  Again, there are a lot of generalisations here as she sweeps through the causes of gender inequality starting in the Stone Age.  This partly results from the fact that she is cantering through the topics so quickly but again, there are some interesting points buried between them such as the fact that women were in the workplace before feminism campaigned to put them there and she also makes interesting points about how women were moved into service sectors in part because those industries didn’t work to the advantage of men.  Although she touches on the intersectionality here of the experience of non-white workers, I would have liked to have seen more of it – especially given that BAME women particularly suffer when white men seek to protect their labour spaces.  

I can’t say that I was wholly convinced by her argument that rising inequality in the world today is due to a lack of freedom for women, not because inequality doesn’t play a part but because I get the impression from what I’ve read that there are wider structural arguments that play a part, not least of which is the role played by tax avoidance and the way successive governments systematically lift taxation on the ultra rich and corporations in a bid to stay competitive.  I did find her chapter on female bodily autonomy and prostitution interesting as she’s clearly very passionate about the subject and she writes convincingly about the hypocrisy surrounding the female body and how it should be displayed.  However, while I have no personal objection to people being allowed to sell sex if they wish, the objections to it are not specifically gendered as male prostitutes have the same arguments applied to them.  I also thought that she was overly dismissive of some of the concerns about the sex trade and how it is open to abuse and would have liked to have seen some consideration of how abuses including sex trafficking happen even in countries with looser attitudes to sex and prostitution such as the Netherlands and Germany.  I also thought that she overstated her case when she focused on the lack of respect given to people who use their bodies to make a living rather than their brain given that those who sell physical labour are similarly looked down upon.

Part III turns to examine markets versus the state and the best combination of the two.  This section worked well for me because she uses feminist economic theory to critique both elements and highlight the advantages of each and believes that markets have been central to allowing women to gain their freedom.  I found Bateman’s summaries of the various arguments – from Marxism to classical economics arguments – informative, insightful and I think this is where she best makes her case for what feminist economics can offer to the discipline.  She is particularly good in the sections on ‘big state’ and state intervention and how the notion of the state rose from Enlightenment thinking and the need to separate economics and the market from government and religion.

Part IV was probably the best part of the book as it ties in with the gender bias inherent within economics.  Bateman is particularly good at exposing and skewering the machismo inherent in the thinking of certain economists but at also emphasising at how economics, in its quest for the purity of rational actors, neglects just how messy and irrational people really are.  She draws a lot on behavioural economics in this analysis (which I confess I find especially fascinating in terms of the effects of studies to test economic principles) and how people can behave contrarily for reasons due to socialisation and personal pride.  

All in all, I did find some of the specifics in this book to be very interesting with Bateman making good arguments in support of the feminist economic cause.  However, the specifics do tend to be overwhelmed by the sweeping generalisms and I think this is one of those books where more granularity would have bolstered the case that she seeks to make, although I would definitely check out her other work on the strength of this.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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