Economics (2015): What is the place of care in the economy?

Awarded to Professor Julie A. Nelson for her essay:

‘Husbandry: A (Feminist) Reclamation of Masculine Responsibility for Care’


What is the place of care in the economy? Much feminist work so far on the economics of care, while extremely important and revolutionary in its own right, risks implicitly reinforcing an association of care with only women and with only women’s traditional activities. The central image has been one of ‘mothering’ . The focus has been on hands-on care of children, the sick and the elderly. Men who participate in hands-on carework, then, while they may be recognised, are treated as somewhat anomalous. What is more, an implicit—and sometimes explicit—belief is expressed that the traditionally masculine realms of business and commerce (as well as sports and warfare) are in some essential way orthogonal to or inimical to care.1 This article challenges these associations.

Ethics, at their most powerful, originate with and resonate with metaphors, images, myths and narratives that describe who we are and who we should be as people. These contribute to the creation of the ‘gut feelings’ we have about what is right and wrong. This essay seeks to recover and reclaim the old English word ‘husbandry’ to evoke and promote a masculine-associated ethic and practice of care. Grounded in agrarian and pastoral practice, husbandry, in the sense used here, means careful cultivation, tending and management. This rich iconic image of masculine-associated attentiveness in productive activities is in stark contrast to the stripped-down images of Homo economicus and the ‘incentivised’ CEO—images that have arisen, I argue, from a deleterious financialisation of masculinity.

Recovering the term ‘husbandry’ may seem odd, to the extent the word may be more commonly associated with men’s historical legal and social domination of their female marital partners. This essay seeks to recover a different meaning of ‘to husband’, analogous to how gender theorists and activists re-appropriated the term ‘queer,’ converting it from a slur to a more positive usage.

Lest it be misunderstood, the argument here is not that there exists at some level of gender ‘essences’ a distinctly masculine style of care that we should label ‘husbandry’. Rather, the first goal is to evoke and popularise a rich prototype of care that masculine-gendered people may find to be particularly consistent with their self-image. The second goal is to bolster the recognition of care as an indispensable element of economic activity. The term ‘husbandry’ is especially useful for this purpose because of its historic link to activities that are easily recognisable as productive and ‘economic’.

This essay lays out the need for the reclamation of husbandry and then demonstrates how it could change our thinking about environmentalism, carework and business. Possible drawbacks of this reclamation are discussed as well.

Professor Julie A. Nelson

Department Chair and Professor of Economics, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts, Boston