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Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac, The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality

Johanna Gautier Morin
p. 99-104
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Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac, The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality, English translation by Juliette Rogers, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2023, 344 pages, 978-067427179-1

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Crédits : Harvard University Press

1In South Korea, where the law recognizes only consanguinity, heterosexual marriage, and adoption as family ties, there is a growing trend, especially among women, to adopt a friend (Jung, 2023). This phenomenon reflects a desire to adapt family structures to evolving social practices. The queering of the social norm goes beyond changes in sensibilities and forms of love within contemporary societies—it is also a subversion of the capital order disciplined in the private sphere by the law. The feminist literature has long argued for a redefinition of the economic concept of “value” to integrate unpaid domestic labor and reproductive labor in the conceptualization of the production of wealth (Waring, 1988; Vogel, 2008; Federici, 2012; Toupin, 2018). More recently, the proliferation of studies on the rise of global inequalities has normalized the idea that capital now yields more than labor for wealth accumulation (Piketty, 2014; Milanovic, 2016). But the two approaches rarely intersect, despite alarming reports that the gender wealth gap is growing faster than the income gap (Kent, 2021). The work of Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac engages with this important silence in contemporary literature.

2The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality discusses the gender dynamics of wealth and capital within heterosexual families. The general finding is that in lower socioeconomic classes, financial problems are primarily associated with women, while in affluent circles, especially among the ultra-wealthy, capital remains overwhelmingly controlled by men. This underscores the central role of wealth inequality in contemporary capitalism, surpassing income inequality. In the twenty-first century, familial economic capital has regained importance in shaping the social status of individuals. It influences access to housing, property ownership, entrepreneurship, credit, and supplementary income. Despite advances in gender equality in legal rights, men continue to accumulate more wealth than women. The focus on wealth, rather than just income, stresses the importance of examining family wealth and its transmission (13).

3Focusing on the French society and the French legal system, the two authors have worked in the field for twenty years to study the intergenerational transmission of family businesses and family real estate strategies. They have synthesized and enriched their findings with family monographs, the wealth surveys of the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), and ethnographic studies of marital separation and inheritance (9). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital as accumulated resources that yield social benefits, their theoretical approach goes further, integrating an intersectional perspective that recognizes the intertwined nature of class and gender inequalities in capital accumulation and wealth reproduction (14). One of the main contributions of the book is methodological: the authors focus on two moments of rupture or bifurcation in the economic life of a family, that is, the division of assets between spouses after a divorce and the distribution of inheritance among heirs after a death. These two family events are the business capital of the wealth management and legal professions, which have the exorbitant privilege of intervening at every stage of the process to divide assets amicably within a pre-existing context of gendered economic inequalities.

4Contrary to the “grand narrative of the modern family” in the 1980s, idealized as the realm for “emotionally and economically disinterested relationships” (20), Bessière and Gollac revert to a more classical definition of the family as an economic institution responsible for generating, distributing, overseeing, and valuing wealth and capital through various economic arrangements (Chapter 1). They highlight how the reproduction and transmission of wealth within the family has become a bigger determining factor in societies where the welfare state fails increasingly to support the most vulnerable communities in coping with frequent economic crises, rising unemployment, and the demands for flexibility and adaptability in the gig economy (on the philosophical origins of this phenomenon, see Stiegler, 2019). On the other hand, they show how financial investments in children’s education and access to home ownership are more frequently borne by families due to the weakening wage system and the real estate crisis (21-23). The rise of independent professions and self-employment combined with familial wealth also underscores the growing importance of inheritance and familial economic support in the new economy (24). To understand the particularly critical context in which this return of the family as a source of security and economic leverage is taking place, the reader will be interested in placing this book in perspective with the wealth of recent literature on the evolution of wage work (see, for example, Benanav, 2020).

5The book illustrates how heteronormative families not only reinforce social class boundaries but also exacerbate gender disparities, with familial reproductive strategies particularly disadvantageous for women (Chapter 2). The authors use Bourdieu’s concept of social reproduction to describe the mechanisms that perpetuate hierarchical social structures over time (42). A key aspect discussed here is the privileging of male heirs over their female counterparts. Based on their empirical research on farming and entrepreneurship, Bessière and Gollac highlight the prevalent pattern in which sons predominantly inherit family businesses, independent profession status, and tangible assets such as real estate and land, while daughters often receive cash bequests (43-50). These findings stand in stark contrast to the constitutional guarantee of legal equality, particularly with regard to inheritance laws in France.

6In the third and in the fourth chapter, the authors brilliantly explore the fabric of this paradox behind “the closed doors of the notaire’s or lawyer’s office,” where clients and their counsel make arrangements “in the shadow of the law” (83). Their fieldwork shows how conservative the notarial and wealth management professions are, based on their sociological proximity to their wealthy clients: “they are all people with property who share a common interest in the preservation of wealth over time and its transfer in the family” (87). Moreover, they note the increasing use by these professionals of a legal technique designed to circumvent formal equality in law: reversed accounting (108). In theory, the division of property between divorced spouses or bereaved siblings should be straightforward, involving inventory, valuation, calculation of shares, division of property, and, if necessary, compensation for inequalities. In reality, however, the process is reversed. While financial assets have fixed values, notaries are free to value real estate and professional assets themselves, “in the shadow of the market” (111).

7It seems to be in the interest of both legal professionals and their male clients to undervalue physical assets in order to avoid the burden of taxation (Chapter 5). The reputation of legal professionals is based on their ability to offer their clients the best optimization schemes, despite the legal role of notaires as tax collectors for the state, which the authors call the “notaire’s paradox”: “As agents of the state, notaires are effectively charged with gathering taxes, and because part of their remuneration is proportional to the value of the possessions cited in the legal documents they prepare, they have no obvious interest in underestimating them. But in practice, a significant proportion of their advising activity consists of tax optimization for their wealthiest clientele. Notaires’ advisory brochures are full of recommendations for minimizing inheritance taxes” (140). However, the incentive for notaries and lawyers to advise their clients on estate optimization remains very high and mainly benefits wealthy or ultra-wealthy clients (143). Inequalities in access to information, tax optimization strategies and wealth management practices exacerbate class-based disparities between client groups, as well as gender-based economic disparities within families. Even at the highest levels of wealth, men overwhelmingly control financial management, with women often unaware of the family’s economic situation. The apparent complexity in wealth management serves to perpetuate ignorance, especially among women, making it difficult for them to assert their rights to family wealth (152-153).

8These dynamics could be the result of professions that have degenerated due to excessive monopolistic privileges, but Bessière and Gollac demonstrate that the public judiciary system, which is predominantly staffed by women, also participates in perpetuating discriminatory practices against women (Chapter 6). They argue that biases exhibited by family court judges are ideological, evidenced by a tendency to view women with suspicion in divorce cases when there is a significant income disparity between spouses (170-172). Additionally, they noted a prevalent rhetoric that attributes women’s decision to withdraw from the workplace to personal choice, overlooking their substantial contributions to domestic and caregiving responsibilities (167-169). The authors conclude that judicial interventions in divorce settlements often fail to mitigate the economic disadvantages faced by women, regardless of their social status (185).

9In the particular case of divorced women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, uneven co-parenting responsibilities, in the absence of capital, lead to financially devastating situations (Chapter 7). Women head eight out of ten single-parent households, 11 per cent of them have only full-time jobs, and 34 per cent of these families live below the poverty line, compared with 14 per cent of other household types (189-190). This blatant discrimination is reinforced by a legal system that indexes child support to the father’s income (194), naturalizes the burden of childcare for women (195-200), and does not condemn fathers’ failure to support their children financially (203-205).

10By depicting the respective roles of conservative gender dynamics perpetuated by the hetero-patriarchal family, the intervention of independent professions that act as gatekeepers of the capitalist order and morality within families during periods of great emotional fragility, and finally the role of public authorities that reinforce inequalities not necessarily in the letter of the law but in its application, Bessière and Gollac provide keys to understanding the impact of growing economic inequalities on women at a time when discourses of emancipation tend to suggest a possible reduction of these inequalities. The work of Melinda Cooper on the social conservatism of free-market neoliberals had shown that neoliberal policymakers had relied on the strengthening of family ties and solidarities to compensate for their dismantling of the welfare state since the 1980s (Cooper, 2019). But Bessière and Gollac go further, showing the systematicity of the link between gender inequalities and class inequalities, since the reproduction of both social orders depends on the accumulation of wealth by men and the impoverishment of women.

11Their book is very welcome at a time when academic research is multiplying publications on neoliberalism, new histories of capitalism, tax avoidance, and global inequalities, but generally lacks intersectional approaches to analyzing socio-economic problems. The Gender of Capital opens up new methodological venues for revising these issues, although its main contributions are not easily transferable to other contexts without deprovincializing the nationally oriented Bourdieusian apparatus and the specificities of the French legal system and social hierarchies. Nevertheless, one cannot help but applaud the irreversible breakdown of disciplinary barriers that Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac undertake in the study of inequalities and capitalism. Let us hope that this kind of gender-sensitive approach becomes a systematic reflex in future histories of capitalism.

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Bibliographie

Benanav, Aaron. 2020. Automation and the Future of Work. London: Verso Books.

Cooper, Melinda. 2019. Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Federici, Silvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Brooklyn: Common Notions/PM Press.

Jung, Hawon. 2023. The South Korean Woman Who Adopted Her Best Friend. Aljazeera, December 2. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/12/2/the-south-korean-woman-who-adopted-her-best-friend [retrieved 16/03/2024].

Kent, Ana H. 2021. Gender Wealth Gaps in the U.S. and Benefits of Closing Them. Open Vault, Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis’ Blog, September 29. https://www.stlouisfed.org/open-vault/2021/september/gender-wealth-gaps-us-benefits-of-closing-them [retrieved 16/03/2024].

Milanovic, Branko. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Stiegler, Barbara. 2019. « Il faut s’adapter » : sur un nouvel impératif politique. Paris: Gallimard.

Toupin, Louise. 2018. Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement, 1972-77. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Vogel, Lise. 2008. Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism: Domestic-Labour Debate. Historical Materialism, 16(4): 237-243.

Waring, Marilyn. 1988. If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. London: Macmillan.

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Johanna Gautier Morin, « Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac, The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality »Œconomia, 14-1 | 2024, 99-104.

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Johanna Gautier Morin, « Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac, The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality »Œconomia [En ligne], 14-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/oeconomia/17109 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/oeconomia.17109

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Johanna Gautier Morin

Postdoctoral Fellow, European University Institute. johanna.gautier@eui.eu

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