Meet the naked academic who is rewriting women—and their bodies—into economic history

Dr Bateman on stage at the Cambridge Junction in January 2019 .
Dr Bateman on stage at the Cambridge Junction in January 2019 .
Image: Jean-Luc Benazet
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In March 2018, Victoria Bateman walked into the gala dinner at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society in Brighton, the largest gathering of economists in the UK. Amid the formal business attire, Bateman stood out; she was completely naked, except for some jewelry fitting for a gala event. Across her chest she had written “RES,” the acronym used by the society, and across her stomach “PECT.”

That day, the message to her peers was a demand for respect for women and their place in economics. This was not the beginning, nor would it be the end, of Bateman using her body to help deliver a message.

“Women and women’s bodies are the elephant in the room in the economics profession,” says Bateman, an economist and lecturer at the University of Cambridge. “This is what’s being ignored.”

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There are vast consequences for this omission, she says. One of the most fundamental questions in economics is: Why are some countries rich and others poor? Years have been dedicated to understanding this mystery of relative prosperity. In her new book, The Sex Factor: How Women Made the West Rich (Polity), Bateman revisits economic history through feminist eyes. In the book, which is a short, accessible, and thought-provoking work, Bateman asserts that the missing piece to the growth puzzle lies in understanding the role women, their bodies, and freedoms played in creating prosperity.

The lack of recognition for the ways women helped create economic wealth is not just a historical error; the deep roots of gender inequality obviously influence the world today. “As I thought about concepts of freedom, I saw how freedom had grown out of a time when it was white men pushing for freedom,” Bateman says. “So the idea of a woman having freedom over her body was not something that seemed to be embedded in this idea of individual freedom.”

And so, women’s bodies are still a battleground, she states. The fight can be seen in tighter restrictions on abortions and attacks on Planned Parenthood in the US, as well as the recent expansion of the global gag rule by Donald Trump, which limits access to abortion and related reproductive health services in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the often unpaid labor of women, including having and raising children, doing housework, and caring for the young and old, are the bedrock of society and economic growth, but are sidelined from the formal economy. This excludes women from fully reaping the rewards. In the UK, for example, the Office for National Statistics said the British economy would have been £1.24 trillion larger in 2016 if unpaid housework was included in GDP calculations. That’s the equivalent of 63% of the UK’s GDP that year, the agency said, having previously estimated that women do 60% more housework than men.

Quartz spoke to Bateman in London about how ensuring women have freedom over their bodies is the key to economic prosperity, and how she’s used her own body to make this point. The conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Quartz: What is the traditional economic history of how the West got rich?

Bateman: The story of how the West grew rich is such a male story. It is all these famous male figures that are cast in bronze statues at the center of Manchester and Birmingham and other industrial cities in the UK. It’s James Watt, it’s Richard Arkwright, it’s Isaac Newton—the scientists, the engineers, the cotton industrialists and so on.

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Image: Quartz/Eshe Nelson

There is a debate within economic history at the moment as to whether what was driving the innovative activity of these types of male figures was a top-down development of scientific institutions like the Royal Society that then diffuse their ideas out to entrepreneurs and craftspeople, or whether it was more bottom-up. Whether it was because Britain was a high-wage economy and that stimulated entrepreneurs to develop machines. Either way, it’s a very male view of the Industrial Revolution. Those scientific institutions excluded women. That high-wage economy was a British male phenomenon; if you were an immigrant worker, if you were a female worker, you were not part of the high-wage economy.

What is missing from this explanation?

It struck me increasingly that when you looked at men’s lives in Europe compared with other parts of the world the differences weren’t as marked as when you looked at women’s lives in Europe compared to the rest of the world. I knew from my own family history, that women had been heavily involved in the production side of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, before that, it was also quite normal for women to work because they were not getting married until they were in their mid-20s. This was borne out when I turned to the history books. One of the most well-established things in British population history is from 1500, when our data start, right through to the Industrial Revolution, the average age that women got married was 25 to 26.

Why did you decide to focus this book on everyday women, rather than highlight a few extraordinary entrepreneurs, which tends to be how we normally think about history?

The economy is the outcome of the efforts on the ground of millions and millions of different people. When combined, the relative freedom that the everyday woman had to make choices about work and having family had a powerful effect on the economy. Women got married at 25 or 26 rather than as children, which meant the typical family was smaller. That affected population pressures in the economy. Slower population growth enabled the British economy to support a higher wage. In turn this then created more incentives for mechanization because employers couldn’t rely on cheap labor. Smaller households also meant families could better afford to apprentice their children, so you have the development of the skill base.

And in this period up to the Industrial Revolution, what enabled women to marry older in Britain?

There’s debate in economic history as to when this higher age of marriage first got rooted. We know it was definitely there in the 1500s, but the data before that is very patchy. And so one popular argument is the Black Death and the ensuing labor scarcity created more job opportunities for women. Ultimately, it is women being able to access the labor markets, which gave them financial independence.

But then the trend reverses. You write that by the end of the Industrial Revolution only one in five women were working, according to official records. What happened?

The Industrial Revolution was a new technological wave. Women were crucial for sowing the seeds of that wave. They created the incentives for technological change, the savings, the skills base, and the entrepreneurship. But when that feeds through to the economy, women don’t get paid back in return.

And so we see quite a sizable decline in women’s participation in the labor force throughout the Industrial Revolution. By the late 19th century, we have the roots of the idea of the male breadwinner model. That then becomes the middle-class ideal, and we then get the cult of domesticity.

So women become secluded in the home and have all these unpaid caring responsibilities. How does that affect economies today?

There was an International Labour Organization (ILO) report out last year that showed that globally 75% of unpaid care is provided by women. They estimated it’s the equivalent of 2 billion women working full time, for nothing. The ILO says the way in which unpaid care is seen as women’s responsibility is one of the big impediments to women entering the workplace and being able to achieve equality within the workplace.

In the book you write:

Equality in the market cannot be achieved until there is equality within the home; but equality within the home will not be achieved until there is equality in the market. The two types of inequalities are mutually reinforcing.

If they are bound together, how do we escape that?

The very first thing you have to make sure is that every woman has the freedom to control her own body. Looking across the world today, estimates published in the Lancet medical journal show that 44% of pregnancies globally are unintended. 1 And so there is a lot of reproductive and caring labor going on that women have not signed up for. In a sense it’s imposed upon them simply because they lack access to reliable birth control methods. We can’t underestimate the risk of poverty that comes alongside an unplanned pregnancy. It affects the ability for women to make the most of the labor market. And then that creates a vicious circle where you have inequality in terms of unpaid labor responsibilities leading to inequality in the workplace. And then women are expected to do unpaid caring responsibilities because they are paid less.

A notable portion of your book is dedicated to another freedom, that of women to monetize their bodies, or sex work.

They say that sex is the oldest trade. But some feminists see the buying and selling of sex as a bad thing. It’s seen as the ultimate example of the way in which the market exploits women; that women in desperate circumstances are left with nothing to sell but their bodies.

My view is that we need to look at the here and now, and that women should be free to monetize their body or their brain. It is intellectually elitist and hypocritical for feminists to say otherwise. We should be thinking more about the effect of society on women, the way we judge women who monetize their body and the stigma and the marginalization that they experience.

Which can make sex work less safe.

It means that women who are monetizing their bodies in that way can’t rely on the same basic market supports and protections that you have in any other job. The UK is pushing for the Nordic model, which involves criminalizing the buyers of sex. As economists, we know what that will do to the wages and the exposure of poverty that sex workers face. In the US, the FOSTA and SESTA legislations are closing down the bank accounts and websites of sex workers. Sex workers have been protesting that they are losing their financial independence and the ability to screen their clients online for their own safety.

I think “my body, my choice” should be at the heart of feminism. It shouldn’t just apply to birth-control rights.

The problem, of course, is that there is exploitation in sex markets.

The way that you solve that is not by saying to the woman who has gotten to the last resort and is out looking for a client that she can’t do that. What we should be doing is widening opportunities for women, rather than closing them down. If you’re concerned about women being pushed into sex work because of poverty, then tackle poverty.

When did you start the naked protests?

The first time I actually protested naked was in 2016 immediately after the Brexit referendum with “Brexit Leaves Britain Naked.” I’ve been using my body in art before that. It was really just taking it off the gallery wall and putting it in a public place. It was solidarity for my academic colleagues; at least a quarter of them are from the EU.

But I had already decided before that to use my body to do a naked protest. I’d been invited to a women in art event as a prestigious institution in London. I wanted to play with this idea that women’s bodies are seen as sinful and shameful. I fundamentally believe that so many of the restrictions on women’s freedom globally— whether it’s restrictions on their ability to work or the kinds of things they can work at, their ability to travel, or whether it’s violent practices, such as female genital mutilation or more historically foot binding—are rooted in the idea women’s bodies are sinful. There’s the idea that a woman’s value rests on being very modest about her body. And that the state of society’s responsibility therefore is to protect women, to protect them from the rest of society, to protect them from having their respect undermined by their bodies being on show.

Why take the naked protest to a room of economists?

At the time there was growing talk about sexism in economics, but this isn’t just about on the face of it how many women there are in economics and the harassment and the sexism. It’s also more deeply about the types of assumptions and questions we ask as economists. It’s about the way that we reflect on our economy, the stories we tell ourselves of how the West grew rich, the way we think about poverty and yet ignore women’s freedom over their bodies, and the monetization of women’s bodies. And yet, as economists, we’re not really getting involved in listening to sex workers and fighting for them to have the same market supports as women doing any other kind of job.

How was it received?

I always do it in a very non-disruptive way. I just behave normally and pick up a glass of champagne and chat to people. After about 15 to 20 minutes, I was removed. They brought in probably the most senior female economist involved in the Royal Economic Society to speak to me in a separate room. And she came down on me like a ton of bricks. She said that I was setting a bad example for women in economics, that it was un-feminist, that I was objectifying myself by using my body.

How do you deal with the online abuse in reaction to your naked protests?

Sometimes I look at it from an academic point of view, because what I’m trying to do is to reveal this darkness in society—the way, as a society, we judge women based on their bodies, jump to conclusions, divide women up into bodies versus brains. The way in which our respect hangs on our bodily modesty. And so I see it as a potential big dataset of tens of thousands of comments to my various appearances, naked videos, art, and so on that one day could be mine. It’s a much more engaging way of me learning from society, actually. I think until my naked portrait went on display in 2014, my eyes were not open to issues surrounding women’s bodies.

The other thing I do is if it’s a particularly bad time, I play the Ella Fitzgerald song “They all laughed.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.