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  • The Inhumanity of Political Economy:Mid-Victorian Feminism and the Politics of the Abstract
  • Sarah Dredge (bio)

In an article in the English Woman’s Journal (ewj) entitled “Apropos Political Economy,” women’s movement activist Bessie Rayner Parkes presents some of the problems of applying the abstract science of political economy to a complex social world of living and suffering human beings. As she argues, political economy demands that the best and strongest machines—including human machines—be used to reach maximum productivity: [End Page 31]

But unfortunately this brain belongs to A Man, and the creature was so absurd as to get married, and four or five other young brains, flat, sloping, or peaked, are the result, which again are linked to four or five hungry young stomachs, and hearts about which we are not quite easy in crushing if we come too near the operation. It is only by considering men and women as mere wealth-producing animals that we steer clear of hindrance.


Parkes illustrates how a purely abstract approach to social questions can dehumanize both vulnerable individuals and the rest of society that allows them to suffer. However, her intervention was part of a wider, ongoing struggle. Her attack on the inhumanity of political economy is also aimed at countering its frequent use to dismiss middle-class women’s economic agency. At the same time, she is contributing to an internal debate, evidenced in the pages of the ewj, within mid-century feminism1 to establish a coherent position with regard to political economy.2 Feminists’ use of the discourse of political economy exposed contradictions within the middle-class women’s movement. Its campaigners naturally leaned toward the liberal arguments with which they had been raised (a liberalism that owed a considerable debt to political economy), but they also showed strong allegiance (through political opportunism or belief) to the evangelical concept of domestic ideology, which seemed to offer women a means of participating in social life via the idea of women’s sacred mission to represent the values of love and family. Whether Victorian feminists tried via logic to apply the “laws” of political economy to redress women’s status as “exceptional” and thus excluded from the form of the abstract subject upon which social systems rested or accepted the traditional role of women as the heart and conscience of society in order to give themselves some countering authority, women’s contributions would inevitably be deemed special cases: biased, sentimental, and, thus, inadmissible. In struggling against this exclusion, feminist responses varied between seeking to reform political economy from within by cleansing it of gender bias (by aiming for a truer abstract subject) and countering political economy by appealing to a moral law about which they felt themselves more qualified to speak, and so they continually reiterated rather than rejected the terms offered by patriarchal dominant discourse: those of political and domestic economy. But the effect of both internal feminist and external public disputes on political economy was also to challenge the idea of the “abstract truths” upon which it was based. Feminist engagement revealed that the supposedly “disinterested” laws of the market were only disinterested to the extent that they would reflect the interests and prejudices of whoever set the terms of the status quo and that these laws did not make a sound basis for a “science of society.”

Though her writings do not present a wholly consistent line on political economy (I have argued elsewhere that this is a common feature of the [End Page 32] opportunism of the mid-century women’s movement), Parkes often uses the strategy of employing domestic ideology to reinstate the human into social debate and to bring the domain of political economy into the popularly recognized expertise of women. If women were the moral arbiters of society, she suggests, then surely they could use this discourse to assert authority of their own, claiming a higher law than political economy? In an article entitled “The Opinions of John Stuart Mill,” she makes a strong case for this, declaring that “Political Economy is to the nation what domestic economy is to the family” and arguing that it is...


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pp. 31-35
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