By Holizki, Alexis
Women & Environments International Magazine , No. 64/65
FOR-GIVING: A FEMINIST CRITICISM OF EXCHANGE Genevieve Vaughan Austin, TX: Plain View Press, 1997. 454 pp. $27.95
In the same way that we can learn from Marx without being strict Marxists or let postmodernism inform our actions without being devotees of Foucault, Genevieve Vaughan's gifteconomy paradigm contains some provocative ideas for feminists. However, it does this without for a moment being a plausible theory around which to organize.
Vaughan, in her book For-Giving and through her organization, Feminists for a Gift Economy, promotes the idea that it is not just capitalism that is patriarchal but so are exchange-based economies. She proposes that such economies be replaced by a system based on unselfish giving, in the pattern of how mothers act towards their children. In addition to being a philanthropist and oil heiress, Vaughan is also a linguist. It is hardly surprising then that her, language provides the example of a domain in which giving without expectation of reciprocity already takes place: "We receive words and sentences free from other people and give them to others without payment. Language gives us an experience of nurturing each other in abundance, which we no longer have, or do not yet have, on the material plane."
Though at times dry and packed with obscure linguistic jargon, For-Giving succeeds in presenting Vaughan's theory of a gift economy to a diverse audience. One of the book's most accessible points is its discussion of women's experiences of giving without receiving. Vaughan explains that the current capitalist system relies on women's free and unacknowledged gift labour in order to remain profitable. She also mentions that this gender-based exploitation is replicated on the global scale with the workers of the South giving their labour to the North at wage levels much below their actual value.
At this point Vaughan's theory begins to weaken. In addition to the problems she creates by referring to exploited labour as a "gift" even slavery is a gift, if a forced one, in Vaughan's view, her proposal to replace contemporary globalized capitalism with a gift economy is impractical at best. She offers no incentive (beyond reconnecting with their mothers) for men and other beneficiaries of the current system to change their behaviour; and she fails to explain who will do the "giving" of the worst and most dangerous jobs with no compensation. …