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The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought

Author(s):Diman, Robert
Nyland, Chris
Reviewer(s):Rima, Ingrid H.

Published by EH.NET (August 2004)


Robert Dimand and Chris Nyland, editors, The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar, 2003. ix + 315 pp. $95 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-8440644-78-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ingrid H. Rima, Department of Economics, Temple University.

Robert Dimand and Chris Nyland have brought together fifteen essays, six of which have been previously published in leading journals, to examine little known insights that eighteenth and nineteenth century classical economists had about the relatively inferior status of women in their societies. Despite their disparate national backgrounds and areas of contemporary specialization, the contributors’ essays “hang together” surprisingly well. This is surely attributable to the skill of the editors, both in inviting contributions and guiding their cohesiveness. The leitmotif that links them is their recognition that classical economists were neither without interest or voice relating to the status of women. The historical origins of modern day gender conservatism is quite clearly attributable to classical thinkers who, like Jean-Baptiste Say and William Nassau Senior, were politically rather than philosophically oriented. Given the political unrest implicit in the class inequalities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concern of Say and Senior was directed chiefly to maintaining civil stability and order in spite of the harsh working conditions of unmarried single mothers and widows. Their argument, which still has present-day adherents, was that the lower wages of women (and their associated poverty) is in large part a reflection of the fact that a man’s wage is necessarily a requisite for a family, rather than a single person. Counterarguments were being expressed in the writings of reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and Priscilla Wakefield’s “Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex” (1798), which extended the relevance of Smith’s productive labor to women. Editor Dimand provides further details about her work in his chapter 10. Along with the insights provided by Evelyn Forget about the alternative work opportunities provided for unmarried women in quasi-convent communities established by the state, and favored by J. B. Say, we learn that the harsh era of post-Napoleonic France was not without influential socially concerned classical thinkers.

While the great English jurist Jeremy Bentham shared the concerns of most conservative English thinkers who feared the repetition in England of the revolutionary attitudes that prevailed in France, he also recognized that English law excluded women from their rightful freedoms and opportunities. Even though Bentham’s Utilitarianism provided a philosophical foundation for greater gender equality as a modus operandi for realizing greater social “happiness,” it was the fear that these revolutionary attitudes were capable of crossing the English Channel that prevailed. The essays in this volume thus establish that the conventional wisdom that classical thinkers, with few exceptions, which included John Stuart Mill and his wife, Harriet, focused almost exclusively on the economic role of men, and were unconcerned with women, is patently untrue. Each of the contributors, Annie L. Cot, Evelyn Forget, Peter Groenewegen, Thomas Heenan, and David Levy, in addition to the two editors, provide analyses that enlighten us about the nature of classicists’ interest in the sources of gender inequalities, and the possibilities for readdressing them.

The secondary theme of the collection — namely that the cultural and economic transformation of the status of women lends itself to explanation in terms of Adam Smith’s “stages of social history” view of economic progress — is presented with less assurance than the first. The origin of Smith’s stages of social history perspective is attributed by editor Nyland to one John Millar, a fellow Scotsman and faculty member at Glasgow. Smith is said to have developed the stages of history perspective in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1766). Nyland explores the theme in two chapters: Chapter 5, “Adam Smith’s Stage Theory and the Status of Women,” and Chapter 6, “Women’s Progress and the End of History.” The essential conclusion of Chapter 5 is that with the achievement of the commercial stage “productivity and wealth accumulation reaches a stage that makes possible very important changes in the state of society and particularly in relation to women” (p. 117). Yet, Millar is reported to have opined that “an end point to the rise of women had (by then) been reached” (p. 120). Thus, in chapter 6 “Women’s Progress and the End of History,” the focus shifts to Malthus’s views on the importance to society of preserving the traditional form of marriage, leading Nyland to an ambivalent assessment of the likely ongoing progress of women and the inference that the social evolution of women may well require a society that has developed beyond capitalism. Nyland further suggests Smith’s “stages of economic development” perspective for explaining the possibilities for changing the status of women has been obscured partly because his Lectures languished unpublished for more than a century, so that “he never published the [stages of history] argument” (p. 6). This is not entirely accurate; the sequel to the Lectures (1766) was his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (WN) (1776), which carries forward the theme of stages of social history in its Book III “of the Different Progress of Opulence in Different Nations.” This is the briefest and least studied part of the five books comprising The Wealth of Nations, and has yet to receive the critical attention it deserves. With this book, Smith is returning to the “stages of social history” theme introduced earlier in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1766) to speculate about the origin of economic surplus and its role in the relationship between “the higher and lower orders” of the economic hierarchy.

Joseph Schumpeter once observed that the materials of Book III of WN would have made an excellent starting point for an historical sociology of economic life (Schumpeter 1954, p.187.) Smith’s focus in the Lectures is on the societal aspects of economic behavior, and on the institutions within which the economic process is carried out during the stages of economic development that preceded the nascent industrial economy of the England of his own day. This differs from the perspective of the four other books, in which Smith’s focus is on the relationship between economic rather than social classes.

Class conflict (of which gender conflict is surely an integral part) is the likely outcome when the stationary state “in which that full complement of riches which the nature and its institutions permits it to acquire” (Smith 1776, I, viii, p. 82) — in which there are no ongoing additions to the economic surplus — has been attained. When the growth process becomes attenuated at some future time that is still too distant to contemplate, with the emergence of a stationary state (which Smith describes China as having already achieved), the inference can be made that gender conflict is as likely to become aggravated as class conflict. The prospect for both gender and class conflict in a “slow growth” or “no growth” economy seems inevitable as those who are poor come to recognize they are involved in a zero-sum game.

A difficulty that is encountered in understanding Book III is that it is often necessary to interpolate passages from the Lectures and from other Books of WN to develop Smith’s underlying historical perspective and their relationship to class enmity. Thus it seems that the extension of Smith’s stages of social history perspective to incorporate gender conflict (as well as class conflict) requires a linking of the argument to the growth of society’s social surplus, which is ongoing until the advent of the stationary state. The conflict to which the classical economists addressed themselves is among social classes — workers (women as well as men), capitalists and landlords. Book III extends the stages of history analysis from the Lectures to anticipate that class conflict is the likely outcome when the stationary state is reached. It is surprising to encounter the renaming of the classical stationary state, which is so central to classical thinking, especially after Smith, as “the end of history stage.”

Be that as it may, this is a small distraction that does not take away from the recognition this volume provides about the contributions of classical thinkers to the origins of gender conflict.


Ingrid Rima (1998) “Class Conflict and Adam Smith’s Stages of Social History”, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 20 (1).

Joseph Schumpeter (1954), History of Economic Analysis, Oxford University Press, New York.

Adam Smith (1937 [1776]) The Wealth of Nations, Modern Library, New York.

Ingrid Rima’s publications include Development of Economic Analysis, Routledge (sixth edition), 2000.


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century