Husbandry: a Feminist Reclamation of Men's Responsibility to Care
To stop the economy’s advance towards greed and destruction, we need new metaphors and images that inspire a radically different alternative.
Husbandry: a Feminist Reclamation of Men's Responsibility to Care
Post-card rendering of The Angelus by Jean François Millet. Credit:
By Julie A. Nelson /

What do you see in your mind’s eye when you hear the word ‘care’? If you search for images on Google you’ll get lots of pictures of white mothers snuggling with their babies. You’ll also see photos of a female caregiver’s hands intertwined with those of an elderly person, and images that show two hands holding a young plant that symbolizes Earth.

If you Google ‘economics’ instead, you’ll get lots of pictures of piles of cash, or representations of math and data. Google ‘business’ and you’ll see white men in suits, often pointing to graphs and charts. You’ll also get photos of some hands, but now they’re holding data devices or engaged in power handshakes, male-to-male.

Ethics, at their most powerful, originate and resonate with metaphors, images, myths, and narratives that describe who we are and who we should be as people. Images of care convey an ethic of warm concern, of diligently looking after the most vulnerable. Those that come with the ‘economy’ and ‘business’ point to pretty much the opposite.  We imagine that economies are technical and cool, and that the business world is driven by an ethos of striving for wealth and power. We also tend to gender these realms, associating women with care and men with competition.

But if you’re like me, you want to make the economy work in the service of the things that we care about, like human and planetary well-being. That’s tough if we imagine that people in their economic lives are solely self-interested and motivated by monetary rewards. It’s also problematic if people think that men, if they want to be caring, have to compromise their masculine gender identity.

If you try to combine ‘economy’ and ‘care’ using images found on Google, no cogent narrative emerges. A man in a suit sitting on a pile of money…while holding a baby? A woman in nursing scrubs sitting with an elderly person…while engaged in a power handshake? Those images don’t work.

How did we come to see things this way? And how can we get past it?

I blame my own profession—economics—for encouraging us to separate economics and care in this way. Long ago, in an attempt to seem more ‘scientific,’ economists decided to treat the world of business and commerce as though it were a machine. They posited that actors in the economic world were rational, detached from each other, and primarily self-interested. Everything was made to seem as mathematical as possible so that economists could feel like physicists when they did their analyses. They didn’t observe ‘economic man’ or businesses that were geared only towards profit-maximization: they inventedthem.

In the process, economists forgot that economic actors are human beings with emotions, social connections, and responsibilities to others. They ignored the fact that businesses and markets are social organizations that rely just as much on trust and cooperation as on computation and competition. They deliberately excluded anything associated with softness or femininity from consideration. And then they encouraged others to see the world only through the fictions they created. This was a terrible mistake.

Now we are reaping the consequences of these mistakes. The ‘incentivized’ CEO who cares only about personal, short-term monetary gain is the Frankenstein’s Monster of my profession.  We all suffer when businesses don’t treat their suppliers, communities and customers with any care. Employees’ desire to engage in work declines when they’re treated as mere cogs in the wheel. Our economies plunder the world’s natural resources. The arms trade, growing inequality, discrimination, and soul-deadening consumerism—these are all the results of an uncaring economy.

Feminist economists—a group in which I count myself—have done excellent work in recent years to highlight the contribution of ‘care work’  to the economy. But this literature has focused primarily on unpaid (or low-paid) work in childcare, health and education, and primarily on work by women. It has tacitly let stand the idea that the rest of the economy—the huge, corporate-dominated, still mostly male-dominated, economy—is outside the realm of care.

So, if we want to create economies that preserve and enhance our societies as well as protecting the Earth and future generations, we need new metaphors, images, myths, and stories. We need new images that combine care and economics. But what might they be?

Particularly as an antidote to the image of the ‘incentivized’ CEO, I propose that we recover and reclaim the old English word ‘husbandry,’ and the images and attitudes that go with it. It may seem odd for a feminist to champion ‘husbandry,’ given the many feminist writings about the oppressive potential of traditional husband-wife relationships, but I want to use the term in its economic sense.

Originating in agrarian and pastoral societies, ‘to husband’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as‘To till (the ground), to dress or tend (trees and plants), to manage as a husbandman; to cultivate.’

Picture yeoman farmers who carefully nurture the growth of their crops, tilling and weeding and protecting them. Or shepherds who watch over their sheep, making sure that they are safe and fed and watered. Or the nomads who tend their cattle in the Serengeti. Tell yourself a story about how such people call their dog or horse by name, or how they know the challenges of drought and flood intimately, the lore concerning breeding and protection, and the shape of the surrounding landscape.

The image of ‘good husbandry’ is useful because it joins together what are usually seen as opposites: ‘husbandry’ is both clearly recognizable as sitting within the realm of economic production and as deeply engaged with carefulness and concern. I’ve chosen a word with masculine gender connotations deliberately: we don’t have a problem associating women with care, but we do lack images that illustrate care with a masculine face. Popularizing the ideal of husbandry could help to even up the balance.

Most of us don’t live in agrarian societies anymore, yet there are plenty of opportunities for us to practice the attitudes and values of good husbandry. Businesses are ‘husbanded’ when they are carefully maintained and cultivated—tended with an intimate knowledge of their inner workings and their dependence on the environment.

Although the ‘fiduciary duty’ of corporate managers is often misinterpreted in terms of maximizing profits for the shareholders, it actually means far more. It means that leaders are entrusted with the management of the company, for the good of all, on both financial and nonfinancial matters. The idea of business husbandry is not particularly novel: the notion that responsible leaders should shepherd their businesses for the good of all involved has a long and dignified history. It’s the story of the incentivized CEO that is the relative upstart.

Natural resources are carefully ‘husbanded’ when they are protected and preserved for the use of future generations. Consider what the Merriam Webster dictionary lists as antonyms for ‘to husband:’ to ‘blow, dissipate, fritter (away), lavish, misspend, run through, squander, throw away, waste.’ We have been doing all of these things with our precious ecological heritage.

While I’ve deliberately emphasized the masculine connotations of ‘husbandry’ in order to highlight the necessary elements of care that are lacking in popular images of men, two caveats are in order.  The first is that the managing and tending of farms, businesses, organizations, and communities are jobs for everyone, regardless of their gender identity. The second is that male care is also needed in the home.  Another Oxford English Dictionary definition of “husbandry” is “the administration and management of a household; domestic Economy”—a definition that is cross-referenced to a nearly identical one for “housewifery.”

Because we need all hands on deck to deal with the mess that we’ve created, caring can’t be confined to any one gender or any one sphere of society. If we’re to stop the economy’s advance towards greed, robotic work and ecological destruction, then we have to work on our minds to develop the metaphors and images that can inspire care as a universal practice. And then we need to get to work with our hands and hearts to create sort of economy in which we, the world, and future generations can flourish.

This article is based on a longer essay, Husbandry: A Feminist Reclamation of Masculine Responsibility for Care, that was published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics.

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute, and a dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen School. She is the author of Economics for Humans and many other books and articles which examine the relationship of economics to feminism, ecology and ethics. 

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Husbandry: a Feminist Reclamation of Men's Responsibility to Care