Women & Evolutionary Economics - A comparison of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Women and Economics" in historical perspective

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

36 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

I Introduction - Why and Wherefore

II Methodological Reflection

III Common Denominators between Veblen and Gilman

III 1 Adaptation and Reception Processes

III 2 Seeking Roots of Gender and Class Discrimination
III 2.1 Male Canons of Taste - Structural Repression
III 2.2 Fashion as Social Marker and Discriminatory Factor

III 3 Reproduction Processes of Discrimination

IV Conclusion


“There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver.” - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“It is always sound business to take any obtainable net gain, at any cost and at any risk to the rest of the community.” - Thorstein Veblen

I Introduction - Why and Wherefore

Ever since Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel “Looking Backward”1 was published in the year 1888, it became a major influence for thinkers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, John Dewey, Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and Thorstein Veblen. What was so unique about the novel, and what fascinated particularly the economist Thorstein Veblen and the feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was not only that it presented a vision of a future without war and crime, where men and women were equal, but that it addressed the causes for inequality and injustice in the 19th century, precisely rooted in their own technologically advanced society. In contrast to many other scholars at the time, Gilman and Veblen chose not to examine other cultures that were far away from their own life experiences. Instead, both were interested in unraveling the roots and causalities that had made their world such an unequal and often unjust place. Therefore, this essay seeks to draw a comparison between Thorstein Veblen’s and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most respective books “The Theory of the Leisure Class”2 and “Women and Economics.3 ” It will show that connecting these works, which were both written in the last three years of the 19th century, forms a compelling comparison on how oppressive class and gender relations came into existence and how Veblen’sideas, which were shaped by anthropological and economic research, can be used to support, verify, extend and falsify Gilman’s theory of an inherited unhealthy relationship between the sexes.

Following the waves of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, which resulted in Herbert Spencer’s formulation of Social-Darwinism, there was a widespread opinion between 1880 and 1914 that social and biological phenomena were closely connected.4 Although both Gilman and Veblen derived their ideas from comparing social to biological and anthropological phenomena, they strongly opposed Spencer’s view that social grievances are naturally, i.e. biologically determined. While the concepts of survival and development of the human species are central in “Women and Economics” and “The Leisure Class” alike, Gilman, in contrast to Veblen, did believe in the progress of civilization5. She was convinced that social conditions were not simply imposed by God or Nature but lay in our hands.

Veblen and Gilman rejected Spencer’s term, “Survival of the Fittest,” precisely because they were convinced that economical institutions, social relations and cultural habits were historically grown and were themselves results of adaptations to past circumstances and processes.6 It is important to notice the danger of a metaphorical use of the terms “Natural Law” and “Survival of the Fittest”, which were applied to justify the superiority of the dominant class, explain the predatory nature not only of animal but of human life and demonstrate the inevitability of competitive capitalism in its contemporary form.7 Furthermore, the term served not only to validate social stratifications within the US, but was used to

explain a natural “right” of the superior race to conquer and occupy foreign nations

- hence it came to form the basis of imperialism.

II Methodological Reflection

Starting with Veblen’s analysis of the economic conditions of the rising Leisure Class, this paper identifies the points of intersection between the mechanisms of class formation and social stratification in the United States and what Gilman calls the “sexuo-economic” relationship. The first part of the essay therefore examines common denominators and locates core problems that Veblen and Gilman address in their works. One of them is particularly the dilemma of widespread unawareness to social inequalities, due to adaptation and reception processes of individuals. The second part will take a closer look at what Veblen and Gilman see as the origins and interdependencies of social conditions and discriminations. Why is there such a great disproportion between affluence and poverty in the 19th century and still today? Are economic dependencies of women on men, hidden notions of prowess and honor and revived ideas of patriotism inherent in the capitalistic system? The third part will analyze how class and gender inequalities are historically reproduced. If women's economic situation is limited to gaining their income mainly through the channels of marriage, as was widely the case in the 19th century, how did this affect the education of their children, the future of generations and the "progress" of society in general? Since Veblen and Gilman believed that humans were the agents of social change, it is necessary to understand these developments in order to find solutions that can counter habitual inequalities and injustices, in line with the authors' judgments. The last part will conclude the essay.

Looking at Veblen and Gilman in a historical perspective and locating correlations that are still of value for us today, it is important to be aware of and distinguish between those correlations that rely strictly on causality and those that merely reflect existing notions of morality, presumptions, hypotheses or arbitrary transitions. The overall aim of this paper is to better understand the importance of gender constructions for class constructions and to illustrate how Gilman and Veblen are relevant for our own state of social and economic relations today.

III Common Denominators between Veblen and Gilman

In Veblen’s first book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” he argues that civilization in its modern form is not actually as civilized as people believe it to be. Instead, he claims, it is merely a continuation of the pre-civilized state. The reader, as a matter of fact, may come to believe that there is no such thing as civilization — just a relative state of gradual economic and social development, which does not necessarily approach an ever more civilized condition nor signify an irreversible achievement of mankind. Veblen argues that what was formerly predatory behavior in human society is now simply channeled into societal relationships. In this sense, predatory behavior is now simply concealed behind institutions and masked by civilized conventions. Veblen argues that honor and prowess still influence human behavior today as much as in the pre-civilized past. Honor, now and then, is defined by the possession of things others don’t have. While these possessions were anciently acquired through physical violence, they are now often acquired through institutions and can be seen in stock market takeovers. The stock market becomes the modern battlefield.

In the past, if the predator made his conquest, he was considered “honorable.” Such patterns of behavior can now be studied best in the example of the Leisure Class. What Veblen identifies as the Leisure Class only came into place with the rise of industrialization and the emergence of an affluent middle class out of the former working classes by the means of a cultural evolution and the division of labor. Members of the Leisure Class were considered affluent when they either did not have to work anymore to earn a living or could work in non-labor related fields.

It is already within the structure of society to strive for wealth, since wealth denotes honor. When wealth is seen in itself a struggle for subsistence8, it becomes crucial to stay ahead of your neighbors, relatives or colleagues. While the wealthy man is considered the most honorable, wealth, though, is measured by the ability to consume—and to make one’s consumption conspicuous. If married, male members of the Leisure Class were not only economically responsible to pay for the living cost of their wives and children but also had to make a vast variety of surplus expenditures in order to keep their status and pecuniary reputation. Wasteful consumption is therefore necessary to be in honorable repute if the individual wants to be successful and recognized in the competitive capitalistic system. The results for Veblen are obvious: modern society becomes a society of wastefulness.

The role of women in this society is a particularly vital one. They contribute to the notion of repute because they are often little more than “honorable” commodities - they embody the term “conspicuous consumption.” This ownership of women, Veblen claims, begins in the earlier “barbarian” stages of culture, when women where seized from enemies and served as trophies: “The practice of seizing women from the enemy as trophies, gave rise to a form of ownership- marriage9, resulting in a household with a male head.10 ” Veblen elaborates on this idea of women as conspicuous consumption: “From the ownership of women the concept of ownership extends itself to include the ownership of things as well as of persons”.11 In other words, women form a basis of a man’s wealth, and from there he acquires other possessions that amplify his status. Veblen also states, “Wealth is now itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor. By a further refinement, wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth acquired by the possessors own effort”.12 This quote not only most clearly links Veblen’s notion of honor with wealth, but also begins to define gender roles within his own country,


1 Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887,1888 (New York: Dover, 1996).

2 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899 (New York: Sentry Press, 1965).

3 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics, 1898 (New York: Dover, 1998).

4 Geoffrey M. Hodgson, “Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class and the genesis of evolutionary economics,” Founding of Institutional Economics: The Leisure Class and Sovereignty, ed. Warren J. Samuels (London and New York: Routledge, 1998) 170.

5 It is understood that the concept of civilization is in itself a dominantly anglo-saxon or eurocentristic concept, and is therefore implicitly excluding less ‘developed’ cultures or races. A close analysis on the importance of race for class and gender relations and discriminations can not be done in this essay.

6 Maureen L. Egan, “Evolutionary Theory in the Social Philosophy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman,” Hypatia Vol.4, Number 1, Spring 1989: 105.

7 Stephen Edgell, “The Conspicuous Conservation of Leisure Class Culture,” Veblen in Perspective: His Life and Thought (London and Armonk, New York: M.E.Sharpe, 2001) 112.

8 Veblen, 24.

9 See also III 2.

10 Veblen, 23.

11 Veblen, 24.

12 Veblen, 29.

Excerpt out of 36 pages


Women & Evolutionary Economics - A comparison of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Women and Economics" in historical perspective
Brown University  (Department of American Civilization)
Cultures of Imperialism: Race and Gender
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Die Arbeit ist Teilergebnis meiner Forschungssemester an der Brown University und Harvard University 2004-2005 und soll in einer ausführlicheren und thematisch eingegrenzteren Form in einer Magisterarbeit resultieren.
Women, Evolutionary, Economics, Thorstein, Veblen, Theory, Leisure, Class, Charlotte, Perkins, Gilman, Women, Economics, Cultures, Imperialism, Race, Gender, conspicuous, consumption
Quote paper
Bert Bobock (Author), 2004, Women & Evolutionary Economics - A comparison of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "Women and Economics" in historical perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93231


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