The Maternal Gift Economy – An Alternative Economic Model by Genevieve Vaughan

Reproduced from:

Statement on the Gift Economy 2010
Published by International Museum of Women

The Maternal Gift Economy
An Alternative Economic Model
Genevieve Vaughan

Our current economic system is based on exchange, most frequently the exchange of money for goods or services. Author and researcher Genevieve Vaughan says that this model is inherently patriarchal, and suggests that an alternative economic model based on giving should be considered when thinking about how to recover from the global financial crisis.


The recent financial crisis has shown the deep sickness of our economic system. Though billions of dollars were spent on palliative measures, no radically different approaches have been considered. I believe that the answer to the question of why women have been oppressed for centuries is also the answer to the question of what is wrong with the present economic system. In order to get to this answer we need to connect the dots in a radically different way. We can begin by considering the direct giving of goods and services to satisfy needs as an alternative economic system–a gift economy based on maternal care. This gift economy already coexists (though often invisibly) in our society with the more dominant economy based on exchange: the “giving in order to receive an equivalent” approach. The gift economy and the exchange economy diverge in a very elementary way in everyday life, but they also have divergent consequences on our relationships and our psychologies.


The logic of the gift economy contrasts in many ways with the logic of the exchange economy. It bridges the gap between one person and another and values the other, creating positive relationships. Exchange, by requiring an equivalent, cancels the gift; it is ego oriented, self-validating and places people in competition with each other. The gift economy calls for the person who receives the gift to be creative in how they use the service and/or pass it on, while the exchange economy diverts attention away from the receiver onto the object, and treats the other as means for acquiring it. Giving/receiving is mostly qualitative and directs attention to needs; exchange is mostly quantitative and requires equations and measurement. Giving/receiving produces interdependence and trust, while exchange produces adversarial behavior, mistrust and the illusion of independence.


In infancy everyone experiences being the recipient of unilateral giving, because young children can’t live without maternal care, no matter who is doing the mothering–whether women or men, birth mothers or aunts, whole villages, or even paid caregivers. Though the quality and the specifics of the care may change according to who provides it, if the child survives the care must have been adequate. Society usually allocates the job of mothering to the birth mother, and female gender is usually socially constructed to encourage and ensure that women perform this maternal role. The binary gender construction in the West requires that from very early on in order to be ‘male’, boys renounce identification with the mother and therefore also with the ‘female’ gift economy, upon which their lives depend. They are trained away from their maternal identities when they are most vulnerable, and are encouraged to construct their gender identity around an adult model of independence, power and ego orientation. The renunciation of the maternal identity and gift economy is a false and problematic necessity imposed on males, for which females are expected to compensate by giving even more.


The logic of the exchange economy cancels gifts and creates a non-nurturing system. Although it may seem “neutral,” the market system is actually gendered to favor men because it negates, devalues and disguises the maternal gift economy while exploiting and dominating gifts of all kinds.

In fact, the gift economy actually nurtures the market. On the surface, the exchange economy is based on the equivalent values of the products exchanged. At a deeper level, it is motivated by the extraction of free gifts. It is these gifts that make up profit, whether they come from the free resources of Mother Earth, the uncounted and unrecognized work of housewives and mothers, or from the “surplus value” that flows to the capitalist from the unpaid portion of the labor of workers of both genders. Many women in Capitalism have found themselves ill at ease with the requirements and values of their positions because they have not altogether renounced the need-directed maternal economy. Those who cannot or do not want to give up their place in the system can work to shift values and practices from within. Those who are relegated outside the system can begin to understand and affirm the political significance of their own gift giving work.


The exchange economy is deeply threatened by the possibility of a gift economy and tries to prevent it. In fact, in abundance, gift-giving would be easy, even delightful and people would not need to submit to working within power hierarchies. Instead, they could simply provide for each other according to an adult elaboration of the model of the mothering economy. This is what has happened in many indigenous societies and is one of the reasons European Capitalism has tried so brutally to eliminate or colonize them.

The market system promises abundance but actually channels the hidden gifts of the many to the few in power, thereby creating the scarcity that it needs in order to maintain leverage and control. Maternal gift-giving is made difficult, even self-sacrificial, by the imposition of a general context of scarcity.

When too much abundance threatens the system, scarcity can also be created by wasting wealth, for example by destroying it in war. Recent financial bubbles have also had the function of creating scarcity through waste of wealth: It is easier to control an impoverished population than a wealthy one. Even global warming can serve this purpose. The destruction of our natural ecological riches wastes the gifts of the Earth and interrupts the passing on of gifts, making all of the mothering done by past generations meaningless.


The two logics of gift and exchange influence us psychologically without our knowing it. They have echoes at many levels. Justice as payment for crime is an exchange-based concept, while restorative justice is gift-based. The values of Patriarchy and Capitalism coincide–independence, power, competition for domination. The power of the Patriarchal Capitalist system comes from its parasitic hold on the maternal gifts of the many and its ability to redirect them towards itself. It follows that feminism should oppose Capitalism.

At present the way to address the problem of poverty seems to be the assimilation of more gifts and givers into the market. However, the market is not the long-term solution; it is the problem. By accessing and affirming the values of the maternal gift economy, women and men can transition away from Patriarchal Capitalism and eventually dismantle the market non-violently, turning the culture in a new and healthier direction.

There are many recent gift economy initiatives. Some have been made possible by the new abundance of resources available on the internet. Unfortunately much of this work remains Patriarchal, because the connection with mothering is not recognized. I believe that until economies are understood as gendered and gender is understood as economic, we will not be able to create any mode of distribution or production that really works for the good of all. Connecting economics with a wider view of life can show us the path towards satisfying human and planetary needs, instead of nurturing Patriarchal Capitalism.

Genevieve Vaughan is an independent researcher. She was the founder of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, which was in operation from 1987-2005. Her first book, “For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange” was published in 1997. It and her other books and many articles are available for free on her Web site,

The Maternal Roots of The Gift Economy Conference
April 25-27, 2015 – Rome, Italy
Published on Mar 23, 2016


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