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Gendering The Making of Modern Finance?

by Adrienne Roberts on November 12, 2015
Debating the Making of Modern Finance

Samuel Knafo’s The Making of Modern Finance is a thoroughly compelling historically-grounded interrogation of liberal financial governance. I should qualify straight away that I am no expert on financial governance, the gold standard or the history of central banking. Nonetheless, there was much for me to take away from this book, which sheds important light on the centrality of state power, for instance, in creating and securing liberal financial governance. For Knafo, however, the point is not simply that states play a role in securing ‘free’ markets – an assumption that is now axiomatic for many critical thinkers – but that state action is driven by historically specific social struggles that may or may not actually support liberal rhetoric about market freedom (or market discipline).

KnafoKnafo’s historicist vantage point allows him to locate the discourses and practices of liberal financial governance within a wide range of socio-economic relations. In order to understand the motivations behind the introduction of the gold standard, for example, Knafo explores transformations related to: the move from an agrarian to an industrial economy; the shifting balance of class power (away from landed interests) in Parliament and within society more broadly; the development of an international system of states, colonisation and empire; and the rise of marginalism and neoclassical economics. This is an impressive – and far from exhaustive – list of complex and at times contradictory social processes that Knafo carefully links to the politics of financial governance.

From the vantage point of feminist political economy, the tradition within which I work, the social relations of gender are also important in shaping the broader social, economic and political contexts within which finance and financial governance are embedded. While gender does not figure prominently in Knafo’s analysis, there were a number of places where openings were provided to think about the ways in which gender might shape one’s relationship to finance and money. For instance, the issue of coin clipping was raised several times, as the relative ease of shaving the edges off silver coins (compared to milled gold coins) resulted in a dramatic decline in quality. Between 1686 and 1696, the weight of silver in these coins fell from 85 to 45 percent of their full mint weight. This led to a crisis as people stopped accepting silver coins and an intense debate broke out regarding whether the solution was to devalue the currency or to engage in a full recoinage in order to protect the supposedly inherent value of silver coins.

dangerousKnafo’s discussion of this debate, which resulted in the Great Recoinage of 1696, centers on the impact this had in undermining the role of the mint in securing ‘sound money’, since the recoinage ultimately failed to restore the value of silver coins. Yet, there is also a gender narrative that could be recovered here as it has been well documented that women were as likely as men – or, as some argue, even more likely than men – to engage in coin clipping. Like all financial frauds, the practice of shaving metal off the edges of coins is inextricably tied to the social markers of gender and class. Women’s participation in this practice was conditioned by their relation with the market and with silver, which, as Knafo points out, was associated with daily transactions, whereas gold was associated with mercantile activities.

The punishment meted out by the state was also highly gendered. Counterfeiting money and coining were both considered to be High Treason, and while men who committed these crimes were subjected to hanging, in the eighteenth century, women were burned at the stake. This punishment was legitimised by the crowd at executions. According to one account, Barbara Spencer, who, in 1721, was the first woman to be strangled and burnt for coining ‘was very desirous of praying, and complained of the dirt and stones thrown by the mob behind her, which prevented her thinking sedately on futurity. One time she was beat quite down by them’.

While there were relatively large numbers of women engaged in this sort of activity, the same could not be said for women’s participation in credit-based fraud, not least because the granting of credit involved its own gendered assumptions regarding credibility. As Marieke De Goede points out in her post-structuralist reading of the history of gendered finance, ‘the historical notion of credit carries a gendered dimension: the reputation and authority that underlies credibility distinctly belong to the gentleman – the only recognised autonomous subject’.

Knafo’s account raises interesting questions, then, about the position of women within broader class struggles regarding finance and money. Questions could also be raised about the ways in which the move from bimetallism to monometallism affected the daily lives of women.

bank-of-england-logoThere are numerous other examples that could be raised. For instance, it would be interesting to interrogate the gendered nature of the Bank of England. Despite being nicknamed ‘the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’, the Bank has never had a female governor, and I think it is safe to assume that few, if any, women worked for the Bank in its early years. Nonetheless, women made up an estimated 12 percent of original subscribers to the Bank of England Stock. A brief look at the list of individual names in the index to original subscribers and their status/occupation describes most of them as ‘widows’ or ‘spinsters’. It would be interesting to know more about these women and the ways in which gender structures shaped their investment practices. It would also be interesting to know about the extent to which women within society more broadly participated in the historically specifically struggles over financial governance, in the Bank and elsewhere.

These questions should not be interpreted as a critique of The Making of Modern Finance, whose contributions to the field of IPE have been rightfully recognised and celebrated. Rather, they were prompted by a close reading of a book that is self-reflexive about its methodology and the political nature of the knowledge it produces. Indeed, they directly follow Knafo’s own recognition of the ways in which our theoretical assumptions, epistemologies and methods always shape our interpretation of history.

As a feminist scholar, I am interested in identifying and analysing gender power relations, which necessarily involves questioning the places where gender is notable by its absence. From this perspective, ‘masculinism’, which Spike Peterson describes as the operation of gender as a meaning system in ways that privilege those traits associated with masculinity (credibility, autonomy, rationality, etc.), is a part of the broader landscape within which finance operates. So too is the solidification of the gendered division of labour that came with the rise of industrial production, the concentration of political power in the hands of men with the rise of the international system of states, the mobilisation of particular groups of women and gender narratives in the service of colonialism and empire and the ontological privileging of ‘rational economic man’ through neoclassical economics. In other words, gender is part of the complex and contradictory historical conditions under which the gold standard and techniques of liberal financial governance emerged.

Adrienne Roberts
Adrienne Roberts is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her work, which focuses on feminist political economy, social reproduction, debt and finance, has been published in journals that include the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Critical Sociology and Global Society. She is co-editor of the Handbook of the International Political Economy of Gender (forthcoming with Edward Elgar) and co-editor of the Rowman & Littlefield International book series ‘Global Political Economies of Gender and Sexuality’.
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