Gender’s Value in the History of Capitalism


The History of Capitalism, with its focus on ocean-spanning networks, commodity flows, and the financialization of exchange, largely takes for granted a male/female gender binary. As a result, women play little part in its core narratives and gender appears as a cultural gloss on economic transformations. But, as the institution of the auction demonstrates, women and gender were essential to capitalism’s emergence. Understanding how households, gendered divisions of labor, and female bodies acquired and incubated value opens up a far more dynamic picture of economic change. Households varied dramatically in size and stability in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which supported different distributions of power between the men and women within them. What constituted “men’s work” and “women’s work” was always in flux and not necessarily linked to particular bodies, although capitalist institutions used laws governing inheritance and slavery to link monetary value to specific ideas about gender. Simultaneously, cultural stereotypes such as the frivolous female consumer, the poor widow, or the fecund slave woman spread through popular culture. As a result, nineteenth-century capitalism and the ideas about masculinity and femininity familiar to us today created one another.