Great Antidote Archive: Sarah Skwire on Pro-Market Literature and Feminism

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Juliette Sellgren and Sarah Skwire

Literature people and women hate liberty, right? Nope. Sarah Skwire and Juliette Sellgren are here to set the record straight. 
By Christy Lynn

Great Antidote host Juliette Sellgren is on vacation this month so we’ve been revisiting the archives. I’d like to share Sarah Skwire on Pro Market Literature and Feminism recorded in May of 2020 -- before the Great Antidote had come to live at AdamSmithWorks. Sarah Skwire is a Senior Research Fellow at Liberty Fund and a frequent contributor to AdamSmithWorks.

Sellgren begins with asking, “What is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?” Skwire, whose own daughters are just a little younger than Sellgren, gives two answers: 

  1. Never underestimate what younger individuals already know and have taught yourselves (often on YouTube!)
  2. The importance of knowing history. With nods to Battlestar Galactica and Peter Pan, Skwire tells listeners that all of this has happened before and all of it will happen again. If you can understand that you’ll be less surprised, less frightened, and have more control over your decisions. 
The two big topics are thinking about why so many people think of literature as biased against markets and capitalism and why there seems to be a bias for state intervention from many modern women and feminists. 

Pro-Market Literature

Sellgren notes that not only is Skwire the first woman guest on her podcast (the second is Andrea O'Sullivan on Bitcoin), she’s also the first English PhD (as far as I can tell, there has not yet been a second guest with a PhD in English). Sellgren asks about this bias, how true it is and where it comes from. Skwire points to a few different things: 

  1. The (understandable) tendency to only read a narrow set of works
  2. Bad googling habits

Western literature doesn’t necessarily have a bias but many of the texts that people read to think about economics in literature do. William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” don’t portray markets or capitalism in a good light and when those are the texts people read, share, discuss, and research it’s going to effect people’s perceptions. When readers feel limited in time or uncertain, they are more likely to reach for well-known works instead of Shakespeare's sonnets or Dicken's Bleak House. She talks about this at greater length in her 2012 essay for CatoUnbound, "Bonfire of the Clichés."

For economists in particular she suggests reading Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty and Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.

Key Quote
The encounter with literature is about both those things, right? It's about turning to a novel or a poem to understand what that novel or that poem or that play is telling us about the world that it knows…Another way equally important to interact with a literary work is to say, what does this work, tell me about where I am and about what I, what questions I have and about what my life is like, right?...
When you encounter work of literature and a really good work of literature is going to invite you to do all of those things all at the same time. Um, that's, that's how people can spend an entire life on one play <laugh> right. Or, or one novel, or, you know, a, a series of small poems by, by one poet because they just keep, they keep opening up and they keep opening up.

A more recent essay by Skwire that also touches on some of these ideas in "A Seat at the Table, but Only One," a part of the Liberty Matters essay series, "Remember the Ladies: The Fight for Equality among the Genders."

Women and the State 

In the second part of the podcast, Sellgren and Skwire shift the focus to how governments can and do harm women. Skwire talks about the discrimination against women in the early history of the labor movement, labor market restrictions on women, the tax code penalties to secondary income earners (usually women), occupational licensing, and voting rights. Many of these topics are also discussed in Skwire’s essay for Learn Liberty, “How the State Became the American Woman’s Real Enemy.” 

Skwire and Sellgren also discuss early advocates of women’s rights like Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fell.

And of course there are many more recommendations for things to watch like the Netflix series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, books by Edna Ferber, and Dorothy Whipple’s novel High Wages.

Key Quote
Oh, if I had an explanation for the attractions of communism, I would be making a lot more money than I do now. I can't, I can't explain it. I can give you a couple of potential antidotes or at least counter narratives for people to consider when they make these arguments about capitalism being dangerous and destructive for women. 

You can see much more of Skwire's writing at the Online Library of Liberty's Reading Room.

To learn more about the Great Antidote podcast, visit "Introducing The Great Antidote Podcast with Juliette Sellgren"