Keep the lan­guage of misog­y­nist mythol­ogy out of eco­nomics

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

The econ­omy, ac­cord­ing to a news­pa­per head­line, is

“at a menopausal mo­ment”. The deputy gov­er­nor of the Bank of Eng­land, for­mer Gold­man Sachs banker

Ben Broad­bent, has been quoted as com­par­ing the cur­rent slump in pro­duc­tiv­ity to a sim­i­lar, and much de­bated, spell of stag­na­tion in the late years of Queen Vic­to­ria’s reign. This pe­riod was iden­ti­fied in 1952 by the econ­o­mist Henry Phelps Brown as “the cli­mac­teric of the 1890s”. Broad­bent, asked to ex­plain what was meant by a “cli­mac­teric”, said that it was a bi­o­log­i­cal word mean­ing “menopausal, but can ap­ply to both gen­ders … it means you’re past your peak, you’re no longer po­tent”.

And with that Mr Broad­bent, to use an­other bod­ily metaphor, fell flat on his face. Any­one equipped with ba­sic com­mon sense, leave alone in pos­ses­sion of a prom­i­nent po­si­tion in pub­lic life, ought to be ashamed of the claim that the menopause means that a woman is over the hill and lacks “po­tency”. Such ideas are, plain and sim­ple, misog­y­nist myths.

Mr Broad­bent’s botched at­tempt to ex­plain an idea from eco­nomic his­tory also sends out wor­ry­ing sig­nals about the sort of lan­guage and dis­course felt to be ac­cept­able at the Bank of Eng­land – not, it might be added, an in­sti­tu­tion es­pe­cially cel­e­brated for its nur­tur­ing and pro­mo­tion of women. He apol­o­gised quickly. But his ill-cho­sen words act as a grim re­minder of the per­va­sive­ness of lan­guage that ob­jec­ti­fies and be­lit­tles women, par­tic­u­larly older women. The as­so­ci­a­tion of the bod­ies of post­menopausal women with a lack of value is de­press­ingly com­mon, but there is some­thing es­pe­cially chill­ing about ex­tend­ing this tired old equiv­a­lence to eco­nomic the­ory.

Mr Broad­bent’s ex­pla­na­tion did not even rep­re­sent an ac­cu­rate def­i­ni­tion of “the cli­mac­teric”. It is true that the word can, in some med­i­cal con­texts, be used as a syn­onym for the menopause, or, in­deed, to in­di­cate a man’s di­min­ish­ing phys­i­cal strength after a cer­tain age. But it has much more gen­er­ally been ap­plied to any crit­i­cal stage in hu­man life; a point when a per­son is es­pe­cially li­able to changes in health or for­tune. (It de­rives, ul­ti­mately, from the an­cient Greek word kli­max, mean­ing lad­der.) In the early modern pe­riod, th­ese cru­cial mo­ments were of­ten re­garded as com­ing along ev­ery seven years. In the ded­i­ca­tory sec­tion at the start of his trans­la­tion of Vir­gil, for ex­am­ple, John Dry­den wrote, “I be­gan this work in my Grand Cly­mac­terique” – that is, at the age of 63, felt to be an es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant year (and by no means de­not­ing a col­lapse of pro­duc­tiv­ity). In Phelps Brown’s orig­i­nal ar­ti­cle, in­deed, the lan­guage is schol­arly and neu­tral; there is no sug­ges­tion of the 1890s econ­omy hav­ing been a “menopausal mo­ment”. In­stead, he soberly re­ferred to a “check on the eco­nomic progress of the coun­try”.

Mr Broad­bent, after this uned­i­fy­ing mo­ment has passed, should con­cen­trate on di­ag­nos­ing the state of the econ­omy. He can leave women’s bod­ies out of it.

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