By: C. Rose Widmann
February 24th, 2022
This article is from our Winter 2022 Magazine Issue. Read the full magazine here.
In September 2019, toy company Hasbro attempted to make the game of Monopoly more equitable between the sexes. The resulting product was Ms. Monopoly: The First Game Where Women Make More Than Men. While it is clearly an effort to equalize the sexes and address the wage gap between women and men—which is 82 cents to the dollar in 2021, according to economist Tom Spiggle at Forbes—it misses the mark entirely.
Journalist and author Mary Pilon reported for The Guardian that the original game we know as Monopoly was invented by a woman who never got credit for her invention. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie created The Landlord’s Game in 1903, received the patent for it, published it with the Economic Game Company in New York and enjoyed sharing the game with others.
Then the game found its way into the hands of Charles Darrow, who made some cosmetic adjustments before submitting it to Parker Brothers (later incorporated into Hasbro). Parker Brothers and Hasbro denied Magie’s involvement with the game and continue to do so today. Pilon details the history of the game of Monopoly in her 2015 book, “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game.?
According to Pilon, Magie received $500 for the patent rights to her game but no royalties. Since being sold to Parker Brothers/Hasbro, it has sold billions of copies, generating millions of dollars in sales. Magie sold two more original games to Parker Brothers, neither of which received much acclaim. Her story went untold for decades until it was dug up in the 1970s by Ralph Anspach, creator of the Anti-Monopoly game. Anspach was researching the history of Monopoly in order to win the trademark infringement case Parker Brothers made against him.
According to The Guardian, it took ten years to settle the case, but Anspach won the ability to produce his game as well as the naming rights for Anti-Monopoly. His defense included the discovery that Magie had made two rule sets in the original patent, and that the second set of rules set a precedent for his game.
The two rule sets stemmed from a desire to teach both sides of monopolism. In one set, all players were rewarded when wealth was created through anti-monopolist strategies. Conversely, the other set of rules was pro-monopolist and encouraged financial ruin of other players—how it is commonly played today. The first set of rules was excluded in the version of the game Darrow sold to Parker Brothers, and the game was rebranded.
Magie’s story is almost completely absent from the new Ms. Monopoly, which seems odd, given that the story of Magie’s creation of the game has been public knowledge for almost 50 years. However, there is a small blurb on the Ms. Monopoly rules insert that tells half the story: “Elizabeth Magie–a writer, artist, inventor, and feminist–was one of the pioneers of land-grabbing games! In 1904, she received a patent for The Landlord’s Game, which was meant to educate people about the dangers of wealth concentration.”
While that concession by Hasbro is mostly true, it leaves out the fact that Magie invented Monopoly and was robbed of the royalties by a man. This is much more of an educational opportunity for young players, but it is probably too on the nose for a company that has a hard time admitting that they were historically in the wrong.
When asked by Pilon, a Hasbro spokesperson quoted Darrow as the inventor of the game in 1935 (which has been publicly disproven) and Magie as no more than an earlier game inventor who made contributions to the genre.
Ms. Monopoly gives the clear message that it is attempting to justify and correct wrongs against women, but it falls short by not acknowledging the injustices done to the game’s creator. Additionally, it contains a list of problematic elements that range from questionable imagery to blatant pandering that in no way speaks to the values of modern feminism.
Looking at the game’s contents, it’s easy to see that the creators began with good intentions. The property spaces have been replaced with patents that all were invented by women, and the houses and hotels have been replaced by business headquarters in an attempt to step away from the stereotype of women being household bodies.
The game immediately reverses any progressiveness earned once the patent spaces are examined on the board. Some spaces are chosen well: fire escapes, space station batteries and stem-cell isolation are all incredible contributions to the fields of engineering and science. But the most expensive patent in the game (occupied by Boardwalk in regular Monopoly) is for chocolate chip cookies.
Other disappointing inclusions are leak-proof diapers, modern shapewear and the hairbrush. The edgeless beauty sponge occupies a patent spot worth 220 Monopoly dollars, while home security systems and illusion transmitters occupy spaces only worth 140 Monopoly dollars.
Many of the game’s included inventions are essential to everyday life and should not be discounted when only 16% of patents are created by teams with women on them, according to Sara Reardon at Nature. But, there are plenty of other inventions that would have been much more inspiring to include in a game aimed at children and young adults.
One example is the submarine telescope and lamp patented by Sarah Mather in 1845. Kevlar, which makes up bulletproof vests and other protective coverings, was patented by Stephanie Louise Kwolek in 1966. Even Geobond, a binding material used on modern roofs, was patented by Patricia Billings in 1997 and could have been a better inclusion than the paper shopping bag. The mentioned use of patents that represent house, home and beauty just because they are recognizable shows that stereotypes are almost impossible to leave behind.
Ms. Monopoly continues to play to a stereotype of modern women. On the cover of the game, Ms. Monopoly is holding a coffee mug. The metal playing pieces are a jet, a cup (clearly a wine glass), a watch, a notebook and pen and a barbell. The game also includes a white top hat with the description, “Mr. Monopoly isn’t the only one who can rock a top hat. And that white sure makes a statement!”
The rest of the descriptions of the pieces are reminiscent of overly optimistic Instagram blurbs under #girlboss. The glass gives the cheerful note to “put your energy into empowering others, and your glass will always be half full!” The barbell’s description merely reads, “Love my mornings at the gym!” Every single token is punctuated with an exclamation, reminiscent of chirpy social media posts, except for the description of the watch, which reads, “Don’t you agree it’s time for some change?”
There is a need for change in the tabletop game industry’s approach to women (both in the games and as audiences); many of the attempts made with Ms. Monopoly are pandering at best and tone deaf at worst. “Rather than model the discrimination faced by women in the workplace or investigate what might improve working conditions, Ms. Monopoly has created a surface-level fantasy world where women succeed merely by virtue of being women, and where all players are incentivized to be women in order to win,” said Eric Thurm for The New York Times.
And that’s only looking critically at the attempts the game makes on behalf of feminism. The game makes no attempts at intersectionality, ignoring opportunities to interact with racial bias, women’s involvement in climate change or their participation in historical social movements, to name a few.
“Ms. Monopoly is white, and the problems described in the game are disproportionately those affecting young professionals in monogamous, heterosexual relationships. The chance cards in Ms. Monopoly include such universal opportunities for women as getting 100,000 subscribers for your podcast, or winning a baseball championship because you threw ‘like a girl,’” said Thurm.
Some would argue that ignoring any sort of political mention is a good thing, given the current world tensions and the game’s target audience of children. When the game came out, social media was divided in opinion. Some said that the game was sanitized and too politically correct; others said it was good enough for kids to enjoy.
Then rumors began that the “get out of jail free” cards contained references to the #MeToo movement. Some internet users went as far as to suggest that the use of jail cards in the game will encourage young women to think that falsifying sexual assault claims is a way to profit—ignoring that the game is marketed to ages eight and older.
Ms. Monopoly makes it clear that the only agenda the game has is to celebrate capitalism from a female’s perspective—a paradoxical notion. The root of feminism is to correct inequalities, and unfortunately, capitalism profits off of them. In the fantasy world of Ms. Monopoly, any woman can succeed as long as she’s paid more than men from the outset, handed lucky rewards by chance and community chest cards and has invested in patents like leak-proof diapers and modern shapewear.
While there are real life women, many of whom are self-made, who have climbed into the upper echelons of modern money, even their contributions to society are ignored. The Geobond invention was left off of the invention cards, probably because roofing materials were assumed to be too boring or obscure for children, but Diane Hendricks has climbed to the top of Forbes’ self-made female billionaire list as the CEO and co-founder of ABC supply, a wholesale distributor of roofing, siding and windows.
Even if the game passes over self-made female business professionals, the door was opened (and ignored) for real-world examples of investment management and entrepreneurship. Jennifer Marcontell was chosen as one of the 2021 Top Women Wealth Advisors by Forbes. She is a wealth advisor for Edward Jones and pursued a career in wealth management after experiencing discrimination in an appointment for her own wealth management two decades ago.
Virgil Kahl, also included in the Top Women Wealth Advisors list, has spoken about the discrimination she’s faced: “Women sometimes have a problem where they might be the smartest in the room, but they don’t have the confidence that they need to press forward. What I’m finding now is that myself and other female advisors have formed bonds with each other. The ‘old boys’ network still exists, but now there’s a woman’s network and we need to support each other.”
Thinking back to Magie’s second set of rules, creating a scenario that encourages networking, community growth and profit wouldn’t have been a bad choice to include. If the intent is to manipulate capitalism for female gain, why not provide an outlet to start up a nonprofit, develop the community, or make long-term investments? If Hasbro can bend the rules to create a satirical “Socialist Monopoly” along with several other gag Monopoly versions, why not build one that actually works in favor of feminism or provides a realistic role model to young women and girls?
While it is important to have strong female characters on the market, it’s unclear whether Ms. Monopoly can be considered a good role model. She’s a self-made investment guru with a desire “To support up-and-coming entrepreneurs — especially women!” according to the game manual. This suggests that she is financially independent from her uncle, the infamous face of regular Monopoly. There’s no other information given about the character besides the descriptions of her relationship with the objects used for the game tokens. No inventions of her own, no education details, not even a name besides “Ms. Monopoly.”
This begs several questions: why was there so little follow-through on what could have been a capital opportunity for Hasbro to establish a new character in their game and toy universe? And what endears this essentially empty character to young women and girls?
Rather than pandering to stereotypes and playing right into a hypocritical corner by ignoring Magie as the creator of Monopoly, Hasbro could have done more in the game than just give players who decide to play as women more money. Ahead of the release of the game, Hasbro gave out financial awards to three young female inventors. However, they failed to include in the game any information about the inventions they funded or provide any resources for young women and girls looking to make their own contributions to the field of invention.
Pilon weighed in on the controversial game for The New Yorker, and included a quote Magie gave to the press after a failed attempt to gain publicity for women’s inequality: “We are not machines. Girls have minds, desires, hopes, and ambition.” Ms. Monopoly may have missed the mark, but other game developers can learn from these mistakes and create games that actually engage with young women and girls’ minds and imaginations.
C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a first-year M.A. student in arts & cultural management at Michigan State University and a graduate assistant at The Cube. This is their second semester with The Current; their earlier article “Creating Something Out Of Nothing […]” inspired further interviews on creativity during COVID, produced as a selection for the 2021 CAL CREATE Grants (going live Fall 2021). When not writing grant proposals or playing Planetside 2, C is competing for both the MSU club fencing and club gymnastics teams. IG: @C.rosewidmann