Toward a Feminist Theory of Economic Development

2011 January 4

by Wesley M. Brown

Women love shiny and stinky things. Don’t bother debating me on this question; I am married with two daughters and a female dog. I have more jewelry, trinkets, perfumes, body sauces, and odd shiny objects in my house than a Turkish bazaar, and you’d think I co-habitated with a nest of ferrets.

But somewhere deep in my troglodyte brain I began to wonder why the original spice trade developed as it did. Meaning, the movement of goods themselves between markets isn’t as surprising as the types of goods that were traded. I propose that the development of civilization and the cross-pollenization between East and West was the result of items that women, not men, demanded, and generations of men were desperate to oblige.

Students of history know that the original trade routes ran somewhat haphazardly from China and Southeast Asia west through the Middle East, Egypt/northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and ultimately into Europe. The route loosely followed Roman conquest until at least the spread of Islam in the 7th century, but Arab traders were quick to pick up the slack and dominated much of it until the beginnings of conquest of the New World in the early 15th century (European traders had no interest in paying the tariffs associated with doing business with the Ottoman Turks so there was great incentive to find another place to exploit.  In fact, the word “tariff” is derived from the Arabic word “tar if”).

But it’s not the route itself that is so significant. The items carried from Asia and the Middle East to the Mediterranean and Europe could typically be viewed as scarce or luxury goods: spices, incense, hemp, drugs, opium, ebony, silk, jewelry, and fine textiles.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that since the route was so long and dangerous (bandits, disease, unfriendly governments or even un-friendlier rebellions, etc.), traders assessed their risk and decided to only carry goods that were easily transportable (bags of spice rather than massive stone carvings) and had a significant price markup to justify the risk.

While that is all well and good textbook economics, if men played a more dominant role in most societies than women for most of human history, why the hell would men care about spices, jewelry, or textiles? In other words, if male priorities were given first thought by traders, would it not have made more sense to carry new weapons, explosives, liquors, prostitutes, or sports scores?

I answer that all of the items carried by the traders were based upon men’s desire to woo, please, or apologize to their women. Besides money itself, nothing says I love you better than fine silk, jewelry, or expensive perfume. It was and is our desperation to please or ask forgiveness that directly led to a trade route that lasted almost 1600 years.

Of course, adopting this theory makes history much messier.

Rome falls not because of internal decay and infighting, but because it could not protect its womens’ shiny things from pillage by various flavors of Goth.

The Dark Ages were so named not because of political instability and muck, but because few women received any shiny or stinky things for nearly 400 years.

Likewise, if you believed at one time that the Crusades were merely a land-grab by the Church and European nobles for purely economic gain, you must now acknowledge that medieval women must have exhorted their men to leave and go right to the Middle Eastern source for their precious goods, rather than relying on a middleman some months later. It’s certainly much easier to catch all the sales if you live right in Jerusalem rather than Rome.

Either way, in my view it is clear that we must always look for the sub-history below the surface before we pronounce judgment upon the people of any era. After all, who could blame men for trying so hard to please their women that they had to build at least two civilizations to do it?

Now what should I bring home to apologize for writing this article?

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