Review – Feminist Economics

Jim Campbell and Morag Gillespie (eds.), Feminist Economics and Public Policy, IAFFE series on feminist economics, Routledge, pp232, 1138950866.

Ailsa McKay loved to quote Joan Robinson: ‘The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists.’ Feminist Economics and Public Policy is at once a tribute to the wide interests and curiosities of Ailsa McKay as well as a continuation of her work to enable women as individuals, and as a class to avoid being deceived by economists any longer.

Feminist Economics and Public Policy’s chapters are grouped into three sections that reflect the domains of Ailsa’s most concentrated focus: gender budgeting; women, work and children; and Citizen’s Basic Income. It opens with a chapter from Marilyn Waring, reflecting on the threads of conversation that she had had with Ailsa from her home in New Zealand. Waring sets a tone of warm critical appraisal that characterises the book. Her exploration of unresolved tensions within feminist economics; her concerns about its relevance to third gender peoples, the direction the debate on care is taking and the risk of creating a ‘boundary of reproduction’ that mimics the barren ‘boundary of production’, and the threat of entrenching a feminist economics monoculture with the mores of the global North, all engage with Ailsa’s ideas and work rather than merely restating them.

Waring’s own work in the Pacific informs her trenchant criticism of the notion that gender budget analysis is universal, but the first section proper of the book makes a resounding case for gender budgeting in the Scottish and European context. With the context set by Diane Elson on links between gender budgeting and macroeconomic policy, fellow Scottish Women’s Budget Group foremother, Angela O’Hagan, effectively charts the establishment, evolution, and impact of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group on the budget process in Scotland.  we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-poster

Women, work and care may be the domain in which Ailsa’s influence was most emphatically felt in Scotland. Sue Himmelweit opens this middle section by sounding a note of caution about the implications of framing childcare as infrastructure spending: might it overlook the benefit to today’s children by focusing on tomorrow’s productive workers, and undermine the case for types of spend where long-terms benefits are harder to measure? If Ailsa’s work could be summarised, it would be as making women visible and bringing their experiences from the margins into the centre. Her analytical contribution to the Scottish Government’s expansion of childcare is described by Scotland’s chief economist, Gary Gillespie, and his colleague, Uzma Khan, in their chapter on the integration of economic and social policy. It is apparent in another totemic issue for women’s labour market inequality, the persistent gender segregation in the modern apprenticeship scheme.

Emily Thomson neatly explicates the policy and advocacy effects of her work with Ailsa in developing an evidence-base that described women’s participation in the programme. Apparent too in this section is Ailsa’s foundational commitment to sharing her knowledge and thinking with activists. That the last time she spoke in public was at an STUC weekend school for trade union activist women is fittingly symbolic of the urgency with which she wanted to get what she knew into the minds of women.

The final section engages with different perspectives on the great intellectual passion of Ailsa’s life: the Citizen’s Basic Income (CBI). A staunch advocate for its adoption in Scotland, and its transformational potential to secure gender justice, she was sceptical of what she had seen as of more traditional social security policy in her work as a welfare rights advisor. The final chapters engage with CBI as gender equality measure, as possible practice in Scotland, and as international experience.

This is a clear and engaging book, straddling a wide range of ideas and attempting successfully to convey the breadth of enthusiasms that Ailsa McKay had for the illuminating power of feminist economics. It is a moment captured in the middle of a great many conversations happening in Scotland and around the world about how resources should be allocated between women and men, how gender justice should be realised in the labour market, and how citizens should share in the wealth of nations. They are conversations that will continue, enriched by Ailsa’s contribution.

Emma Ritch is the Executive Director of Engender. Engender is Scotland’s feminist membership organisation (https://www.engender.org.uk/)

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