Between a Trade War and a Sex Scandal (Part 1 of 2)

By: Micky Lee, Suffolk University

This is a two-part series that discusses how gender can be used as a lens to connect events that occur in different spaces. Two such events are the ongoing China-U.S. trade war and the sex scandal of Jeffrey Epstein. In this part, I first argue that what we call financial crises are conflicts between spatialities and temporalities in the context of how money is understood. I use the case study of trade war to show that objective economic figures obscure the gendered labour in Chinese manufacturing which has prevented a global economic recession from happening.

A feminist intervention is much needed in finance not because it can prevent a financial crisis from happening, but because it shows how wrong mainstream economic thoughts are about financial crisis. In mainstream economic thoughts, a financial crisis can be measured and hopefully predicted and prevented. In these thoughts, crises are irrational moments in a rational economy. Once sanity is restored through economic measures and policy changes, the economy will resume normalcy. A functioning economy is measured by, among many indices, low unemployment rate, high confidence in consumer spending, and rallying stock prices. However, these indices do not reflect how the majority of the world populations experience money in the daily lives. These indices are rather meaningless to women of colour without a college education in the U.S., guest workers in wealthy countries, and homeless people in almost every country. What these populations get to spend depends on how much cash is in the pocket rather than the figure in the saving account, credit cards limits, or stock portfolio performance.

A feminist intervention in finance thus takes into account how people experience and understand finance through interacting with money technologies in a specific time and space. Money is not an abstraction, but is represented in different money forms. To the majority of the world population, money is cash—most likely banknotes and coins in the local currency. Cash is the most reliable form of money: one can be certain that one has money when there is cash in the pocket. Cash is also of the present: sacking away cash under a mattress is a bad idea because value represented on banknotes does not grow with time, instead the value deteriorates. During hyperinflation, bearers of cash hurry to convert it to commodities such as precious metal or even food. Cash also ties bearers to a locality: local currency is mostly circulated within a country’s border (with the exception of Euro). To sum up, most populations experience money form that ties to the present and a specific locality.

Other money technologies such as cheques, credit cards, bonds, stocks, and so on have other temporalities and spatialities. However, only a minority of the world population has experiences in interacting with a wide range of money technologies. Among this minority, only a tiny fraction has the power to define for the majority how that experience should be. Those who have the power to define how money technologies can be experienced can also define how space and time can be experienced. This sense of space and time, however, conflicts with that experienced by the majority of the world population whose primary experience with money is cash. For example, loans are tied to the future than the present because borrowers have to pay an interest as well as repay the loans; loans foreclose the future for the borrowers, bounding them to how they should spend money of the present. But to populations whose sense of money is tied to the present, a loan appears to be free cash of the present. Subprime mortgage that catered to borrowers who have bad credits was blamed for the 2008-9 global financial crisis.

I argued in Bubbles and Machines (2019) that a political economic feminist perspective can reveal the temporal and spatial nature of money technologies. Feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock (1983) has long argued that women’s lived experience reveals the real working of capitalism. For example, women’s reproductive work at home such as cooking and children rearing produce use value to society. But these activities are devalued in patriarchy as evident by women being expected to perform duties for free and domestic helpers being paid poorly.

A masculine economy instead believes the stock market is the source of value production through betting and hedging future value in the financial markets. Activities of buying and selling stocks appear to create wealth. Stock owners can buy cheaply and sell dearly. However, the wealth generated by the financial markets is only money of the present from the perspective of stock owners. This wealth is produced through the exploitation of labour of the past and the continual exploitation of the same labour of the future.

These conflictual temporalities and spatialities are best illustrated at private households, factories, and farms. First, the devaluation of women’s reproductive labour ushers women to sell their labour in the labour market. It is well documented that governments and corporations promote neoliberal economic agenda by asking women to sell their labour in the formal labour markets. This is as true in audiovisual manufacturing in Mexico’s Special Economic Zones as garment manufacturing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Second, the betting and hedging of future value of commodities in the stock market straitjacket the current value of commodities and thus the value of labour that goes into commodity production. How much a coffee beans farmer makes has much more to do with prices on the futures market than the labour invested in the crop and the labour. To reveal these conflicts of spatialities and temporalities, gender can be used as a vantage point to illuminate how these conflicts will lead to a financial crisis.

Gendered labour has been used to smoothen the conflicts of temporalities and spatialities. As mentioned, women are ushered to work outside home to make extra cash for the family and the country. However, there will be a point where gendered labour can no longer smoothen the conflicts at which point a financial crisis will occur. For example, households with subprime mortgage may find that the extra income generated by women is no longer sufficient to repay the loans. In this case, the family has no choice but to foreclose the house, annihilating previous loan repayments. When enough households had difficulties to pay for the mortgage, this led to the 2008-9 financial crisis.

From a materialist feminist perspective, financial crisis is not an one-off event, an insane moment in a rational economy. Instead, financial crises are perpetual and ongoing; they are inevitable in the co-existence of multiple economies, each with its own spatiality and temporality. To show how different economies co-exist and how gendered labour has smoothened the conflicts, I will illustrate in the following how two current political economic events that appear to take place in a different temporality and plurality are in fact connected by an exploitation of women’s labour in the global economy. The first event is the ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. The second event is the suicide of alleged sex trafficker and former financier, Jeffrey Epstein. In the news, these two events belong to different sections: business and economy news care about trade war while soft news and gossip columns care about the sex scandal. Both events appear to occur in different spaces that do not intersect with each other, a gender lens will however show the connection between both events, thus illustrating that gender matters in a trade war and finance matters in a sex scandal.

U.S.-China trade war

Donald Trump ran on an “America First” political platform, one of his major policies was to balance trade between the U.S. and other large economies. China was singled out as the chief offender that exports too much and imports too little. The trade deficit that U.S. had with China in 2018 was $378.6 billion.[1] President Trump described that the deficit is unfair to the U.S.; it hurts the U.S. economy and its workers (“Read the full transcript,” 2016). To tilt the table to favour the U.S., he asked U.S. companies, such as Apple Computer, to close their overseas operations and move them home. To pressure companies to do so, Trump imposed tariffs on imports from China, hoping it will make consumers favour American-made goods. Some economists speculated that the trade war will hurt the U.S. (White, 2019), others believe it will hurt China (Carter, 2018). Most however believe that the trade war will slow down the global economy, and may even lead to a recession (“Trade wars are pushing the global economy,” 2019).

Gender has been missing in the discussion of the trade war. Imports and exports figures do not tell how women’s labour has been exploited in the global economy. While women factory workers receive a wage for the labour that they had paid forward in the past, they have also paid forward their labour to avoid a global economy from slowing down. In other words, women’s labour is exploited twice: first by paying forward their labour in a factory that only pays them after they work; second by producing potential exchange value that will only be realised in the future through consumption.

From the trade figures, it seems that Chinese workers, among them many are women, have done much to prevent the global economy from slowing down. If gender is taken into account in the trade war discussion, we will see that Chinese factory workers—many of them women—produce value by manufacturing goods, in particular “light” consumer products (such as bedding, sports and entertainment equipment, and plastics) for exports to the U.S.. In contrast, U.S. exports much fewer “light” consumer goods to China but “heavy” industrial goods such as aircraft, machinery, electrical machinery, and vehicles. These goods are produced in plants that are more populated by men factory workers. A scrutiny of the trade figures also shows that the U.S. has a trade surplus in exporting high-valued services, such as intellectual property, to China. Such immaterial goods are usually produced by highly-paid engineers, who are overwhelmingly men. In contrast, China does not export much intellectual property to the U.S. Taking gender into account, we will see that the exchange value resulted from labour performed by one single woman factory worker in China is very insignificant when compared to that performed by one single male engineer in the U.S.

However, the accumulated labour performed by women factory workers in China overwhelms that by male engineers in the U.S. The unbalanced accumulation resulted in the trade war. Gendered labour has then played an important role in starting the war. In China, a large number of women factory workers pay forward their labour to ensure the smooth running of the global economy. The goods that they produce, such as clothing and household electric goods, are however of low values. The production process to produce such consumer goods is repetitive and boring. The workers do not learn skills through the production of “light” consumer goods. Factories that produce these goods can also be easily moved to Southeast Asia where governments offer even lower wages to factory owners. Women’s labour, once again, is devalued and deemed flexible in the global economy.

In contrast, the male workers in the U.S. produce goods and services that require a lot of technical skills. Not only are these skills harder to find in other countries, but this know-how knowledge is often protected by intellectual property laws. These male workers’ jobs are much more protected and are more likely to tie to a single locale, such as major cities in the U.S. At times of recession, women workers in China will be more adversely affected. When consumer demand drops, women’s labour is deemed redundant.

I have shown that analysis about trade war rarely takes gender into consideration even though women’s labour has prevented a global economic recession from occurring. In the following, I discuss a sex scandal in which gender is in the foreground while finance capital is pushed to the background. Nonetheless, gender will connect a trade war and a sex scandal because gendered labour and gendered representation both reinforce the exercise of patriarchal power.


[1] “The People’s Republic of China”. Office of the United States Trade Representative.


Hartsock, N. (1983). Money, sex, and power: Toward a feminist historical materialism. New York: Longman.

Lee, M. (2019). Bubbles and machines: Gender, information and financial crises. London: University of Westminster Press.

Read the full transcript of Donald Trump’s jobs speech. (2016, June 28). Fortune. Retrieved from

White, M. C. (2019, October 22). Top economists blame Trump’s protectionist policies for global “stagnation”. NBC News. Retrieved from

Carter, J. (2018, October 9). Trade war escalation will hit China harder than the US, IMF says. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from

Trade wars are pushing the global economy to the brink. (2019, October 4). Financial Times. Retrieved from

Micky Lee is an associate professor of media studies at Suffolk University, Boston. Her latest books are Alphabet: The Becoming of Google (Routledge) and Bubbles and Machines: Gender, Information and Financial Crises (University of Westminster Press). Bubbles and Machines can be downloaded for free at this link.

Featured image: “onells_837909” by glocalproject.