This article does not take the usual form of a political or academic intervention. It is an essay in intellectual autobiography. Such an effort is, of course, different from the history of ideas—the recounting of ‘debates’ and descriptions of other theorists’ trajectories—which constitutes one of the staples of social-science writing. The task of writing intellectual autobiography, at least for me, was a difficult, even a frightening one. It calls for distance and the need to be ‘self’ reflective—requirements quite different from other sorts of writing. The origins of this for-me-unusual project were as follows. I am a member of the editorial collective of the Canadian journal Studies in Political Economy. In the context of discussing a special issue on ‘Feminism and Political Economy’,footnote1 the members of the journal’s Board began to reflect on the ways in which feminist theory and feminist politics had affected our work, particularly that which did not explicitly speak of gender or make use of obviously feminist conceptualizations. The reflections that follow were prompted by that discussion, but then quickly took on a life of their own.

I sat down to write with a certain sense of righteous indignation. That quickly turned—in the process of thinking in order to write—to reflection on how I actually had arrived at the notion of ‘permeable Fordism’ that I had used in studying Canadian political economy. This was not something which I had myself completely understood before undertaking this exercise. So in the end, there was a fair amount of self-discovery involved in what had begun as mere explication. But the final discovery was about the process of writing itself. While there was one story that I could, and did, tell in detail, there were also several others that might have been told. Indeed the major lesson of the whole enterprise has been the reminder of the fragility of both discovery and self-discovery. I am indebted to those of the spe community whose provocation and support pushed me to doing more than I might have done if I did not have to account to them both in person and in my own head.

My most recent work on Canada, as almost everything else I have written about my own country, does not pay much attention to women or appear to make use of feminist theory. My essay ‘Canada’s Permeable Fordism’ was about the big questions tackled by the big boys: development strategies, the state, capital and labour, comparative political economy.footnote2 This contrasts, of course, with some of my writing about European politics, which focuses on gender relations and which explicitly examines the role of women’s agency in social movements and as creators and clients of social policies. Someone, observing the bifurcation, might conclude that should I address one set of questions and mobilize one set of concepts for thinking about gender relations, and another set for thinking about Canadian political economy. Yet my response to such an observation is to reject it vehemently.footnote3

I will argue here that it would have been impossible to think the concepts of ‘permeable Fordism’ or ‘societal paradigm’ as I did if I had not already had a long-standing encounter with feminism and feminist theory. I used the French Regulation approach because it facilitated the integration of that encounter, although I had to develop my own conceptualization of the societal paradigm to do so. The Regulation approach allowed me to show how and why Canada’s Fordism—which I labelled ‘permeable Fordism’—differed from the models of development constituted after 1945 in other countries of the advanced capitalist world. Secondly, by elaborating the concept of ‘societal paradigm’ I could argue that part of the difference was due to political practices and meanings—the societal paradigm—organized around a nationalist collective identity embedded in the postwar institutions of federalism.footnote4

Two general propositions about political economy followed from thinking about Canada in this way. The first, derived directly from the Regulationists, was that any understanding of a social formation depends upon an analysis that moves back and forth between analytic abstractions like the regime of accumulation or hegemonic bloc, and the historical specificities of social relations institutionalized through struggle over the mode of regulation and the societal paradigm.footnote5 The second proposition was that those specificities were contingent upon a tangle of practices and meanings which constituted a system of representation of collective identities, both in the realm of production through the mode of regulation, and beyond production in the societal paradigm. This second assertion follows directly from my own encounter with feminism; and so my approach to Canadian political economy—that is, the big questions tackled by the big boys—is profoundly shaped by, and is a reflection of that encounter.

I do not want to suggest that I am alone in experiencing this trajectory. Other women and men with a strong political and conceptual commitment to feminism are also rethinking the received ways of doing political economy.footnote6 This means they are doing more than simply ‘adding the women in’. They are also doing something other than studying women, or theorizing patriarchy, or searching for the articulation of sex and class. They are, rather, tackling the implications of one of the oldest institutions of the women’s movement, that ‘women are made, not born’. A wide reading of this insight compels us to think not only about the social construction of gender relations but also about the ways in which all social relations are constructed. This insight, I will argue here, also forces us to develop analytical perspectives that are cognizant of agency in human history, and which are, therefore, empowering. Although I will tell this story from the perspective of my own biography, I do not think it is by any means exceptional.

There are ways, however, in which my story is different, because the women’s movement and the feminist theory out of which my own thinking developed owe more—from the beginning—to the controversies of the French Left than to those of Canada. This is a biographical accident, but one which, given the influence of some French feminist thought in North America in the 1980s, is now more widely shared.