of The Gift Economy

Forgiving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange
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Articles and Essays by Genevieve Vaughan

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angela miles
Women’s Giving
Feminist Transformation and Human Welfare

Genevieve Vaughan’s (1997) theorizing of the gift paradigm provides essential support for feminists who know intuitively that the political, spiritual, economic, and environmental are connected and who are struggling to bring these together in our practice and in the world we want to build. The recognition that giving is an alternative paradigm to exchange and not just a different type of behaviour, is incredibly important.1

Understanding that giving relations (with each other and nature) are both the fullest expression of our humanity/spirituality and our greatest wealth reveals the self evident but currently hidden truth that economic relationships are human and social relationships. It allows us to know deeply and confidently that our world is a whole and that holistic politics, visions, and practices are both crucial and possible. So it invites, encourages, even requires, that each of us open ourselves to elements that have not hitherto been a feature of our work. This provides im- portant ground for transformative feminists working in different communities around different issues to identify and build connections among our struggles in a way that deepens and broadens all our politics.

My sense is that the rich array of feminists all over the world who are drawn to the gift paradigm are attracted by just this promise of dialogue and solidarity across what have tended to be the spiritual, political, and economic solitudes of our movement. Here, we find longed for space to articulate the spiritual elements in our political and economic struggles and the political and economic elements of our spiritual struggles. In this way the International Feminist Network for a Gift Economy offers the vital opportunity for diverse transformative feminists to strategize and work together while retaining the autonomy and diversity of our practice.

The Network at this stage is essentially an e-list of individual Indigenous and non-Indigenous feminists from all regions with enormously varied priorities and histories, engaged with a broad range of issues at local, national, regional, and/or global levels. Many, though not all participants in the Gift Economy Network have met and dialogued with each other at conferences dedicated to exploring the gift paradigm and related matriarchal paradigms2 and many have presented together and individually in other contexts.3 For instance, the “Position Statement for a Peaceful World” which follows this article was presented at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2002. The diversity of participants and the rich variety of their work and relationships to the gift paradigm are evident in Il Dono/The Gift: A Feminist Analysis, a collection edited by Genevieve Vaughan (2004).

The articles gathered in this new book are based on presentations at the second international conference on the gift economy held in Las Vegas in 2004. Indig- enous and non-Indigenous feminists from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America shared information about important, hugely diverse struggles that illuminate and are illuminated by the gift paradigm. A powerful implicit theme was the common conviction expressed eloquently by Marta Benavides, that the way we move forward must be a central part of our Network’s discussion and reflection:

We must ... consciously and intentionally be the future in the here and now.... There is a qualitative difference between being a revolutionary to being the revolution itself. We must manifest it. There is a difference between building and constructing, defending and struggling for peace, and being peace. (page 315 in this volume)

The extensive testimony at this gathering to the practical relevance of the gift paradigm and our evident consensus on the importance of means as well as ends is exciting to me. It shows that when Linda Christiansen-Ruffman and others at the gathering speak of strengthening the feminist movement, they/we are looking for far more than mere alliances, or mere mutual agree- ment to collectively prioritize one issue at a time. We are not looking for a common political line or proposing a political orthodoxy. Rather we are seeking relationships, networks, and strategizing that connect us in the fullest most integrative sense.4 Such relationships are only possible among those who share a critical and visionary perspective that is broad and deep enough to speak to all our struggles and move them all forward. The gift paradigm provides that perspective. It is clear from the articles gathered here that no one is going to drop what they are doing to work with the gift paradigm. Instead, this paradigm will allow each of us to more completely realize the potential of our specific and varied ongoing work.

In the rest of this article I will briefly outline a few of the most immediate ways I believe theorizing the gift contributes to my own understanding and, I think, to transformative feminism generally in Canada and globally.

Gender and the Gift

In patriarchal misogynist societies around the world transformative feminists do not base women’s claims to equality, autonomy, and humanity simply on our similarity to men. We challenge not only women’s exclusion from humanity, but the dominance of male-associated values and the androcentric definition of humanity itself. The Third World feminist network, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), expressed this eloquently in an influential (later published) document they issued in preparation for one of the United Nations World Congresses on Women:5

The women’s movement ... at its deepest is not an effort to play “catch up” with the competitive, aggressive, “dog-eat-dog” spirit of the dominant system. It is, rather, an attempt to convert men and the system to the sense of responsibility and nurturance, openness, and rejection of hierarchy that are part of our vision. (Sen and Grown 1987: 72-73)

This spirit is evident, also, in the following feminist response to the Royal Commission Report on the Status of Women in Canada (1970):

Our goal must be to obtain full human status for women in every area of human activity. And this is not to accept the present “human activity” realm of the male. Values in the male realm today are firmly rooted in the evils of power, dominance and oppression. We must look for a broader and deeper definition of human life. (Dorothy 1971: 3)

These transformative feminist challenges involve affirming women and women- associated work and values while resisting gender as a structure of hierarchy. The vision of a less fragmented and less “male” world in which characteristics, con- cerns, and values associated with women are the defining human values has been at the heart of transformative feminist practice in all regions for many decades. The following quotations from U.S. feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (1979) and Indian feminist Vandana Shiva (1989) are just two eloquent articulations of this common feminist project:

We refuse to remain on the margins of society, and we refuse to enter that society on its own terms.... The human values that women were assigned to preserve [must] become the organizing principles of society. The vi- sion that is implicit in feminism [is] a society organized around human needs.... There are no human alternatives. The Market, with its financial abstractions, deformed science, and obsession with dead things must be pushed back to the margins. And the “womanly” values of community and caring must rise to the center as the only human principles. (Ehrenreich and English 1979: 342)

The recovery of the feminine principle allows a transcendence and trans- formation of patriarchal foundations of maldevelopment. It allows a redefi- nition of growth and productivity as categories linked to the production, not the destruction of life. It is thus simultaneously an ecological and a feminist political project which legitimizes the way of knowing and being that creates wealth by enhancing life and diversity, and which delegitimises the knowledge and practice of the culture of death as the basis for capital accumulation. (Shiva 1989: 13)

Affirming (female) gender against gender is a “contradiction” that many of us have necessarily been prepared to live with. I have written elsewhere that this is not a static linear contradiction, but a dialectical contradiction from which creative new possibilities emerge (Miles 1996). Still, we have not found words to adequately capture the substance of the human process we are engaged in. The project of “feminizing the world” can be misread as retaining the very gender definition of qualities and priorities we wish to generalize/humanize. The gift paradigm helps us in this quandary by theoretically clarifying how and why the feminist affirmation of women- associated characteristics, concerns, work, and values is a human struggle to move beyond a gendered world.

The gift paradigm shows us that giving is the defining quality/activity of all hu- man beings, male and female; exchange behaviours and ways of being and seeing are departures from the human. “Masculation” is the term coined by Genevieve Vaughan (2004) for the process by which males in patriarchy were originally, and are still socialized away from giving into exchange behaviours and learn to base their claim of masculinity on their distance from their mothers and from giving. The female gender is, then, the residual human. Patriarchal dominance is at its root the dominance of exchange over giving. Even in modern urban contexts where women move also in the public world of exchange and market and have learned to see the world largely through the dominant exchange lens, they/we remain associated with and are necessarily still more grounded in giving. So we can see that when women affirm our experience, values, and responsibilities as formative of our struggle, we are affirming the human. In the non-patriarchal world we aspire to men will not be masculated; their maleness will be lived through and not against their giving human qualities.

“New Socialist Man” and the Gift

Understanding human beings as essentially giving creatures helps us see that we need not concern ourselves with the classic Left project of creating “new socialist man,” that is, new human beings capable of living in a world without individual- ism, competition, or profit. Even today and even in the heart of hyper-capitalist globally dominant neo-liberalism we all feel best—most human, vibrant and alive—when we are giving and receiving in a human way. We don’t need to be made human, we just need to be allowed to be human. So our challenge is to create a world in which we can be fully ourselves, not a world where we can be something else. The awareness that in our struggle we are working with our humanity and not against it is a significant shift of awareness for me. I find it a far more hopeful scenario.

Women’s Leadership and the Gift

The gift paradigm also provides critical theoretical support for the feminist knowl- edge, gained from decades of political observation and experience, that women are playing a leading role in the struggle for change in all areas. Feminists have noted that women make up the majority of grassroots activists in the economic South and North—in their communities and in local and global campaigns and movements against poverty and mining, for the environment, for the Commons, for land, for human and community rights, health, peace, education, democracy, food security, and water among many others (Seager 1993; Marcos 1997; Mies 1998; Maathai 2004; Ackerley 2005). Women are disproportionately commit- ted to the thankless long-term tasks of building relationships, knowledge and organizations with the capacity to confront power. And women have proven less likely to be sidetracked from long-term aims by offers of jobs or profit sharing or deals with colonizers (Brownhill 2006).

The central, even leading role of women remains largely unacknowledged except by feminists who have explained it in various social and structural terms. These include, for instance, women’s more immediate responsibility for sustaining individual and communal life; their greater vulnerability to the harms of “devel- opment” and neo-liberal globalization; their necessarily less complete separation from nature and the body, their ultimate outsider status and consequent lack of access to the benefits of deals and power sharing (O’Brien 1981; Hartsock 1983; Aptheker 1990; Smith 1990; Agarwal 1992; Mies 1998; Collins 2000; Burack 2001; Higgs 2004). All these are obviously important factors that help explain women’s leading activism. The gift paradigm takes us further by more fully reveal- ing the deeper meaning and significance of this activism.

When we theorize giving as a different paradigm from exchange, giving becomes visible and we can see that at the deepest level, our movement is not simply about fairer exchange, less—or even no—exploitation, or more equality of condition, respect, and status; it is about creating a giving society and economy. The organic connections among all our many and varied issues and campaigns become clear and the underlying logic of the most progressive expressions of the feminist move- ment in all these areas is illuminated. We have new ways of thinking about and articulating our long-term dream of a world where women, women’s work, and nature are valued. We have a new grasp of these as quintessential gifts and giving relationships; a more adequate understanding of women’s reluctance to pursue or accept market measures of value for these things; and a deeper theoretical un- derstanding of their human and political significance as central fields of struggle in our movement toward a giving society, economy, and world.

Women’s Consciousness, Women’s Liberation, and the Gift

Feminists worldwide are questioning everything, especially the models that are presented to us as the most advanced and the best for women. In the two thirds/ majority world feminists have for decades now been documenting and resisting the negative impacts of “development” on whole communities, especially the poor and the Indigenous, particularly women and children (Anand 19836; Dakar 1982; Sen and Grown 1987; Tauli-Corpuz 1993; Tauli-Corpuz 2000). In the “developed” world feminist radicals have, since the 1970s, been drawing on their own experi- ence to de-mystify false promises of “modernization” and “development” (Boston Women’s Health Collective 1973). Indigenous feminists in their resistance in all regions are re-discovering, defending, and sharing the non-patriarchal traditional knowledge surviving (to greater or lesser degree) in their communities and among their peoples (Trask 1984; Allen 1986).

The gift paradigm strengthens us in all these stands inside and outside our communities. For instance, it exposes the continuity in the historical and current colonization of women, nature, land, and labour (Miles 2001). It also clearly shows that the modern urban educated “equal” woman isn’t so advanced. Far from providing a model for women’s progress, she is at risk of becoming purely a creature of exchange and forgetting she is a woman. This leaves her vulnerable to the domesticating mystification that her conditional privileges are the pinnacle of freedom for women everywhere (Rich 1986; Standing 2006-07).

Theorizing the gift helps feminists resist this false and divisive model of “lib- eration” which masks women’s shared oppression and common strengths and undermines women’s potential for mutual identification and solidarity across our hugely diverse circumstances. Seeing “giving” counters the male-identified ethnocentric, even racist, belief in the backwardness of “other” women that traps many well-meaning “liberated” women in the economic North in patronizing attitudes that render them incapable of respectful participation, and therefore acceptance, in the global feminist movement. The clear theoretical articulation of an alternative gift-based vision of women’s liberation and future human soci- ety also strengthens in important ways the recognition, acceptance, and practice of “third world,” marginal and Indigenous women’s leadership. For traditional women-identification that persists more among these groups, and the holistic knowledge surviving in Indigenous communities are important and defining strengths. In a feminist movement that is seeking giving alternatives to exchange rather than escape from giving, remaining women’s sub-cultures and matriarchal Indigenous cultures are honoured as essential precursors of a more human future, not dismissed as vestiges of the past.

Anti-Globalization and the Gift

Feminists have long known that using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of well-being is a lie. For GDP measures only the value of market transactions and fails to take account of environmental and social destruction (Waring 1988; Shiva 1989; Isla 2007). Growth in GDP today comes mainly from enclosure and appropriation, that is, drawing non-market goods, services, land, resources, and labour into the market as new profit opportunities for the few—making these, at the same time and with devastating consequences, less available to the many. Neo-liberal globalization is the triumph of minority forces that benefit from this economic growth at the expense of the majority of the world’s people and the environment (Miles 2001). Feminists have resisted this process of theft and de- struction by insisting that the market cannot be the only measure of value, and by naming the harm and protecting the wealth that GDP discounts. This refusal of capitalist market measures is the ground on which we and other anti-globalization actors have attempted to exempt some areas (water, education, health, etc.) from pervasive and intensifying commodification, win more equal terms of trade, place limits on the environmental and social damage caused by essentially destructive forms of production, and protect people from the worst effects of enclosure and appropriation of common wealth.

The gift paradigm provides support for much more radical challenge and alternatives. Theorizing the gift goes beyond insisting that there is value outside the market, to showing that this is the only true wealth. For it demonstrates how exchange, the market, and trade (even fair trade) are parasitical on the gift, require and enforce scarcity, in their very essence interrupt our human relationships, reduce the wealth we can give each other and the abundance which could be ours. With this perspective, our aim is no longer merely to limit the damage of the market but to refuse the market itself and all commodification as we work toward our vision of a fully human future. This feminism resonates with and draws deeply on Indigenous relational and holistic worldviews and Indigenous and third world feminist leadership against colonization and neo-liberal globalization.

Women’s Welfare and the Gift in Canada

Still, feminists need to deal in market and exchange contexts in our crucial struggle for money for women and children’s immediate survival. I’d like to close by sharing one case where we in Canada are drawing on gift theorizing to deepen our demands and articulate them in terms of an alternative paradigm. We have overwhelming testimony from other articles in this book (Ana Isla, Claudia von Werlhof, Maria Jiminez, Linda Christiansen-Ruffman) that in this period, triumphant neo-liberalism is spreading poverty, violence, desperation, and destitution everywhere. Certainly this is true in Canada where social support and social services are being undermined at a great rate (Armstrong et al. 2004). It seems to many of us here that, at this time, the women’s movement to be worthy of its name, has to make the fate of the most economically vulnerable women a central and pressing issue.

As part of this commitment about twenty women gathered in September 2004 in Pictou, Nova Scotia, representing national groups from across Canada and grassroots groups from the Atlantic region. We began by sharing our many and varied experiences campaigning against women’s poverty and for economic sup- port, social services, and labour rights for women. The notion of a basic income or annual general income (or as we preferred to call it, “guaranteed livable income”)

Feminist Statement on Guaranteed Living Income7

Pictou, Nova Scotia, Sept 18-20, 2004

For millennia women’s work, along with the free gifts of nature, has provided most of the true wealth of our communities. Women’s work has been central to individual and collective survival. In all our diverse communities women can be seen to work on the principle that everybody is entitled to economic and physical security and autonomy and a fair share of the common wealth.

Women in every community, context and racial group are still denied our rightful political power over the economics governing these communities and our world. To paraphrase “A Women’s Creed,” for thousands of years men have had power without responsibility while women have responsibility without power. This situation must change.

Feminists insist that all activities of government and business in our nation(s) and our diverse communities should be assessed in the light of the prime value of sustain- ing life and the social priorities of universal entitlement, human security, autonomy, and common wealth. These must become the central priorities in social life and in public policy.

We refuse to accept market measures of wealth. They make invisible the important caring work in every society. They ignore the well-being of people and the planet, deny the value of women’s work, and define the collective wealth of our social programs and public institutions as “costs” which cannot be borne. They undermine social connections and capacities and currency.

We reject policies that sacrifice collective wealth and individual security in the interests of profit for transnational corporations.

Women in Canada expect full and generous provision for all people’s basic needs from the common wealth. Social and collective provision for sustaining life must be generous and secure in Canada and must be delivered through national mechanisms appropriately influenced and controlled by the women of our many specific com- munities.

We expect all people’s full and dignified participation in society including full individual and social sharing of the work and responsibility of sustaining life that has so far been gendered. Men must share equally in this work within and beyond monetary measures.

We expect our rightful share of the wealth we have created. Women’s work must be recognized and valued both within and beyond monetary measures. We expect sustained and expanding collective provision for people’s needs. Women demand an indexed guaranteed living income for all individual residents set at a level to enable comfortable living.

for all emerged as an important and positive way to respond to criminal decreases in welfare and the government’s sharply diminishing resource commitments to women. We liked what we felt was the potential of this demand to shift the idea of poverty alleviation out of a charity frame and make women’s demands general social demands. In this period of harsh government cutbacks we also welcomed the fact that this demand achieves this reframing without in any way absolving government of responsibility for individual and community well-being. Yet we were concerned that basic income has never been articulated in feminist terms. As it is generally conceptualized, it leaves women’s disproportionate unpaid work invisible and does not contribute to a shift in this burden (Standing 2006-07). From these discussions we drafted a “Feminist Statement on Guaranteed Living Income,” known as the “Pictou Statement,” in which we (1) challenge poverty through an affirmation of the wealth women create and distribute, not in exchange terms but according to people’s needs; and (2) demand that the whole of society adopt these gift principles. This Statement [see box] is just one specific example of the ways a gift perspective can deepen even struggles for money and more par- ticipation in the market in crucial transformative and feminist ways. Participants in the International Feminist Network for a Gift Economy share a myriad of such instances in their gatherings, their e-list, and their publications. Readers are invited to join the Network and share your reflections and experience.

Angela Miles is Professor of Adult Education and Community Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She is committed to building and studying autonomous women’s local and global activism and its genesis and significance in the current period of neo-liberal globalization. She is a founding member of Toronto Women for a Just and Healthy Planet, the Feminist Party of Canada, the Antigonish Women’s Association and is a member of the editorial board of Canadian Woman Stud- ies/les cahiers de la femme. Her publications include, Integrative Feminisms: Building Global Visions (Routledge 1996) and the co-edited collection Feminist Politics, Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges (Inanna/Zed 2004).


For sources, publications and information on the gift paradigm see http://www.gift- economy.com/.

These conferences include “A Radically Different World is Possible: The Gift Economy Inside and Outside of Patriarchal Capitalism” November 13-14, 2004, Las Vegas, Nevada; “Societies of Peace, Past, Present, Future,” Second World Congress of Ma- triarchal Studies, September 29-October 2, 2005, San Marcos, Texas. 3 For instance, at World and Regional Social Forums in Porto Alegre (2002, 2003, 2004), Mumbai 2005, Mali 2006, Nairobi 2007; the International Interdisciplinary Congress on Women in Upsala 1999, Kampala 2002, Seoul 2005; European ATTAK Graz, Austria 2003; Semiotics Conferences in Finland, France, Italy and the U.S.A.; The Other Economic Summit (TOES); the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE); the National Women’s Studies Association in the USA.; the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association and the Canadian Woman Studies Association, 2003; the UK and Ireland Women’s Studies Association, Dublin 2004; “Spirit Matters: Wisdom Traditions and the “Great Work,” Toronto 2004; American Association of Anthropology 2006; International Peace Research Association Calgary, Canada 2006; International Women’s Peace Conference Dallas, U.S.A. 2006.

I use the term “integrative” feminisms and feminists to refer to feminisms seeking deep transformation with integrative/holistic practice that addresses the whole world and understands the integration of race, class, colonial, and patriarchal structures of power (Miles 1996).

A version of this statement was later published by Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) as Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions: Third World Women’s Perspectives (Sen and Grown 1987).

While published by ISIS in 1983, this document was first written and circulated in 1980.

First published with an explanatory introduction and list of those present in Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme’s special issue on “Benefiting Women? Women’s Labour Rights?” 23 (3,4) (Spring/Summer 2004).


Ackerley, B. A. 2005. “Women’s Human Rights Activists as Political Theorists.” Feminist Politics, Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges. Eds. L. Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. H. McFadden. Toronto/London: Inanna Publications/Zed Books. 285-312.

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