Academic journal article Genders

The Gender of Money

Academic journal article Genders

The Gender of Money

Article excerpt

Woman's complexion is more humid than man's. [The nature] of the humid receives an impression easily but retains it poorly. The humid is readily mobile, and thus women are unconstant and always seeking something new. Hence when she is engaged in the act under one man, if it were possible she would like at the same time to be under another.

--Albertus Magnus

What is so uncertain as something that rolls away? It is appropriate that money is round because it never stays in one place.


[1] What is the gender of money? Depending on the audience, such a question might elicit blank stares or furrowed brows. The tacit assumption of neoclassical economics, for example, is that money--just like the field of economics itself--is genderless. However, a growing number of feminist economists have challenged the field's claims to scientific objectivity. Their work exposes the sexist and heterosexist assumptions of neoclassical economics and its foundational myths. Even its metaphors are gendered--"homo economicus" serving as one of the most readily recognizable examples (Ferber and Nelson; Barkar and Kuiper).

[2] From the perspective of literary theory, Jean-Joseph Goux examines money more specifically, and his findings suggest that money is male as well. While we generally think of the "general equivalent" in relation to money, Goux argues that "general equivalents" are also selected in other domains, including semiotics and psychoanalysis. That is, an object, a subject or an action is placed in a position of privilege (a "general equivalent") and all other objects, subjects and actions are measured in relation to it (for ease, I will call these "secondary signs"). The Father, for example, becomes the general equivalent of subjects, the phallus, the general equivalent of objects and the spoken word the general equivalent of expression. According to Goux, the selection of the general equivalent is always gendered, although how this is so may be less obvious in the case of money and language than it is in the case of the phallus or the Father. Regardless of the register, however, the general equivalent enjoys a position of privilege and idealization, one that transforms it into an active agent, the measurer of all things. Secondary signs are placed in a passive position; they are measured and their differences are subsumed by the authority of the general equivalent. What is more, the general equivalent enjoys a stable position. That which is being measured, however, is marked by instability. Secondary signs can change or be exchanged without unsettling the authority of the general equivalent. Goux reads in this hierarchy of values an inheritance of Aristotelian theories of gender as transmitted through texts such as On the Generation of Animals and Physics. According to Aristotle, men play the active role in procreation, providing the form. Women, on the other hand, are passive receptacles who provide the chaotic matter of generation, which lacks form without the imprint of a man. In Aristotle's theory, just as in economics, man serves as the model--the measurement--whereas women are the secondary signs that are measured and subsumed by this hierarchy. In short, then, we might think of general equivalents as masculine and secondary signs as feminine.

[3] The selection of the general equivalent is always obscure, always shadowy. Indeed, it must be in order for the general equivalent to maintain its idealized position. Examining the genesis of the general equivalent is one way to demystify its privileged status and to disclose gender's role in the construction of hierarchies of value. In terms of money in particular, the Middle Ages serve as a uniquely productive site for mounting such a challenge. During this period money usually was personified as a woman. This is not to suggest that one will not find male personifications of money in the Middle Ages. For example, money is male in the poem "Du denier et de la brebis" ("The Coin and the Sheep"), which I will discuss later in this essay. …

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