Some Thoughts About Women’s Empowerment

by Serene Khader on February 8, 2018

A Valentine’s Day ad appeared in my feed today, suggesting that I give the meaningful gift of “sponsoring a girl.” Though getting such an ad on Valentine’s Day was a new one for me, these types of ads are nothing new. During the holidays, I saw ads suggesting I buy a poor woman jute to make baskets, a goat, and even, as Rafia Zakaria wryly remarked on at the end of last year, a chicken. Fifteen years ago it would have been a cell phone.

Why does it seem so obvious to so many that earning an independent income will lead to, or just is, women’s empowerment? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the origins and persistence of that association.

I’m not asking why it seems that earning more money will improve the lives of poor women. The answer to that question is, I think relatively straightforward. If poverty is conceptualized as a lack of money, then it is easy to see why more money seems like the solution. (However logically sound this line of reasoning may be, it is unclear that income usually improves poor women’s lives; often, as Sylvia Chant points out in her important work on the feminization of responsibility) making an income often just means more hours of exhausting and unrewarded work—but more about this below)

I’m also not asking why women’s entrepreneurship seems like a good thing in general. Narratives about the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps have tremendous power, at least over Americans—whether the contexts they are analyzing are domestic and international. A body of feminist literature also suggests another reason, in addition to capitalist ideology, that women earning an independent income seems desirable. The cultural ideal of the economically self-sufficient individual is androcentric. It frames what is possible and desirable for human beings in general in terms of what is possible for those who do not have care work socially assigned to them.

Important as this feminist literature is, what I want to know is why it has been so easy to convince Northern audiences that income generation empowers women. Many representations of women as farmers and small business owners treat income-focused development interventions as feminist. And it’s not just pop cultural representations; it’s not uncommon to find international development organizations whose entire women’s empowerment agenda is about income generation—often, though decreasingly so in recent years, through microcredit. Feminism is opposition to sexist oppression, so the implication of the empowerment language seems to be that gender relations are improved by income generation.

But why would this be? I’ve been thinking the answer has to do with underlying assumptions about the causes of sexist oppression, especially the oppression of “other” women.

One line of thought that would make sense of the view that income could reduce sexist oppression takes women’s male partners to be a cause, or at least major source of reinforcement of, sexist oppression. Women who live in nuclear households with men on whom they are utterly financially dependent are vulnerable. This vulnerability is to both abuse and deprivation. Data suggest that women and girls receive lesser shares of household resources than men.

There is certainly truth to this line of thought. But it is worth noting that even if economic dependency causes the vulnerability, it is unclear that income will eliminate it. As Chant’s work on the feminization of responsibility I mentioned above shows, income often causes men to increase their personal expenditures and contribute less to the household, leaving women’s bargaining position unchanged. The classic example of this is the recasting of children’s school fees as something women are responsible for.

But this line of thinking is not just empirically questionable; I think it also misses the role other factors play in causing sexist oppression in the global South. The gender division of labor, and the genuine need for household and caring labor to be performed, are not reducible to the actions of individual men. Without supports for the socially necessary labor that women perform, we can expect a common result of income focused interventions—in the North and the South—to be exhaustion rather than empowerment.

To put the point more bluntly, a key cause of women’s oppression is a system that depends on uncompensated labor from women, and the idea that income through additional public sphere labor is empowerment misses this.

I also think there’s another view about the causes of sexist oppression lurking in the background of the view that income is empowerment. To get at it, we need to pay attention to what are touted as the most important by-products of income-focused interventions. These include self-esteem, critical thinking—and something that has been loftily described as the ability to control or transform one’s destiny.

I think the idea that women’s entrepreneurship constitutes their empowerment appeals to the underlying view, widespread in the West and North, that “other” women are oppressed by customs, traditions, and cultures. (This view about the cause of “other” women’s oppression, and its deep flaws, has been theorized at length in transnational feminist scholarship.)

The idea that women become empowered by being able to think critically, to see themselves as distinct from their families, and to liberate themselves from a socially pre-determined future seems plausible if the background assumption that “other” women are oppressed by custom and culture.

Why income would cause these byproducts remains somewhat mysterious. But the idea that capitalism causes reduction in adherence to tradition has a long history in the West, as Naila Kabeer notes in her important intellectual history of women and development. Kabeer notes that modernization theorists thought that a nice byproduct of capitalism was that it would shake up the existing social order; social roles used to be assigned by custom, but now they would be allocated according to efficiency. But it’s unclear either that the division of labor caused by women’s double shift is economically inefficient. And more importantly, the fact that a division of labor is different from the one that preceded it does not mean it is more gender just.

The idea that income will empower women in the South has become a commonplace—so obvious that it needs no justification. The pop cultural images associated with it have been incredibly seductive. But I think it’s got its diagnosis of the causes of the oppression of women in the global South wrong.

{ 26 comments }

1

Omega Centauri 02.08.18 at 9:26 pm

But certainly if a woman (or a man/boy as well) has no source of support, one common way of dealing with that is to sell sex, or join a more traditional criminal enterprise. This even applies in Western developed socities, especially when dealing with runaway children. If nothing else, having other options for making enough to meet one’s basic needs, should provide a means for avoiding this fate. I suspect you are thinking of women who are part of an established family, which means there is a provider, and some sort of duties associated with their position in the family. But that isn’t always the case. And we’ve seen in the case of failed states where millions can be thrown into the sort of desperate poverty which forces people into choices that would otherwise have been unthinkable.

2

David Collett 02.08.18 at 9:26 pm

That was excellent. Thank you.

I’d never thought about it that way, but now I realise it is a huge blindspot for me.

Thanks again.

3

Los Angeles 02.08.18 at 10:59 pm

There are fundamental shifts occurring in our society and most dominantly positive is how women are taking back their power. This is not an ego-based takeover of the dominant masculinity of our traditional MO, no. It is a shift towards unity, compassion. kindness and care for our planet. The day when mothers say “my son will not go to war”, is the day we will see peace. We welcome the shift as we need that balance in our society. Just like in any transition, things might take a step backwards before moving two forward. Trust the process and know we are heading to a better future.
Cheers

4

L2P 02.08.18 at 11:40 pm

“Why income would cause these byproducts remains somewhat mysterious. “

Why is it mysterious? Most people’s experience is that having income is empowering and freeing. The existence of alimony, for instance, vastly improves the ability of women to leave bad marriages. Having a job makes it much, much easier to leave an abusive relationship. Why wouldn’t a source of income be the same for women who otherwise are economically dependent on men?

5

M Caswell 02.09.18 at 12:15 am

Maybe the mischief lies one step back, in the assumption that “empowerment” is the sum of all goods for a human being.

6

L.M. Dorsey 02.09.18 at 1:41 am

Why does it seem so obvious to so many that earning an independent income will lead to, or just is, women’s empowerment?

It’s related, I suspect, by way of some occult geneology, to the long, unquiet demise of what in 1976 Godfrey Hodgson called the postwar’s “Ideology of the Liberal Consensus”, which held, among other things: “that American capitalism was a revolutionary force for social change, that economic growth was supremely good because it obviated the need for redistribution and social conflict, that class had no place in American politics.”

Why “politics”, when simple “prosperity” will do the trick? Just ensure endless growth. Obviously.

The contemporary faith is not identical to the earlier one, of course. But making allowances for certain neo-liberal transvaluations, it does seem, at least to my ear, to rhyme.

7

Joe 02.09.18 at 2:24 am

+1 to David Collett’s comment.

It does seem by the end that the post’s target shifts from lofty expectations of women *earning* an income (and hence in reality often doing a “double shift”) to the expectations of what results from women simply having income. I would be interested to know more about how straight cash transfers compare in this analysis.

8

F. Foundling 02.09.18 at 3:12 am

@OP
>The cultural ideal of the economically self-sufficient individual is androcentric. It frames what is possible and desirable for human beings in general in terms of what is possible for those who do not have care work socially assigned to them.

Well, I’d say that the number-one prerequisite for not having other people ‘socially assign’ things to you is to be economically self-sufficient. Because then you can refuse to be socially assigned things. It may not always turn out to be *enough*, but it’s a prerequisite. By the same logic, one might claim that considering freedom and empowerment in general to be desirable for women is ‘androcentric’, because they are currently more easy to achieve for men.

9

steven t johnson 02.09.18 at 5:29 am

The most obvious solutions inspired by these thoughts are 1) requiring husbands to pay wives a minimum wage or better, depending on contract negotiations 2) getting divorced and leaving the kids with the husbands 3) not having children, ever 4) crash program for parthenogenesis 5) genocide of the North 6) making husbands do the housework as well as women do, even (especially?) if this requires horsewhipping and 7) marriages comprised of a woman and a wife, just as the Goddess intended.

Personally I would think that maybe a sane society would socialize child care to a much greater extent. But then I am a bad person.

Perhaps the determined refusal to contemplate such evil is why the “North” tends to restrict itself to incomes to women, inasmuch as the other solutions listed above may not be solutions.

10

derrida derider 02.09.18 at 6:26 am

I think this is nonsense. Of course giving a woman her own economic resources doesn’t automatically solve gender oppression. Of course some men will lash out in response to their loss of power, asserting “traditional values”. But it remains a powerful step towards more equal power because poor or rich country, traditional or modern society, money talks (actually, as Dylan sang, “Money doesn’t talk – it swears”).

If nothing else, the prospect of daughters being economically valuable will eventually transform attitudes to having sons versus daughters.

11

Neville Morley 02.09.18 at 8:38 am

Thank you. Tangential to your contemporary focus, but similar assumptions persist in discussions of the pre-modern household (e.g. attempts at bringing women’s role to the fore rapidly segues into account of their economic, entrepreneurial role with neglect of caring responsibilities) – or perhaps enduring stereotypes of historical poverty continue to influence modern perceptions…

12

John Quiggin 02.09.18 at 11:38 am

It would be great to have a full post on women and microcredit.

13

Z 02.09.18 at 12:39 pm

[T]he idea that capitalism causes reduction in adherence to tradition has a long history in the West. [M]odernization theorists thought that a nice byproduct of capitalism was that it would shake up the existing social order; social roles used to be assigned by custom, but now they would be allocated according to efficiency. […] The idea that income will empower women in the South has become a commonplace—so obvious that it needs no justification.

I think this is an important observation. It might be tempting at first (especially from an Anglo-American point of view) to believe that procedural liberal democracy, free market capitalism and what we may think of (when we are intellectually careless) as a “modern” distribution of gender roles should come together, but the actual historical record, especially in the recent period, paints a much more nuanced picture.

As for the empowerment question, it seems to me that what empowers most individuals – what has the most direct impact on their “ability to control or transform one’s destiny” to quote from the OP – is education. Possibly, though, the “education to empowerment” link can be subjected to the same line of critique as the “income to empowerment” link is in the OP. I would be curious to know what people more knowledgeable than me (starting with our new host) think about this.

14

engels 02.09.18 at 1:00 pm

I don’t understand the argument that even if women’s income rises relative to men’s, men can maintain the same bargaining power in a family by spending more of their own income on themselves. Can anyone explain it?

15

Serene Khader 02.09.18 at 4:07 pm

Very briefly:

The claim that income will lead to women exiting relationships does not seem to be empirically substantiated in a number of contexts, and Sylvia Chant’s work I linked to in the post is a great place to start looking at the data.

To answer your question about why women don’t have the bargaining power to exit or demand equal household shares, there are a number of possible hypotheses–most of which highlight the fact that, as long as a person’s fallback position outside of the relationship is worse than their position in it, there are strong incentives to maintain in their relationship (Amartya Sen’s old essay on cooperative conflicts offers a longer discussion of this dynamic). The care needs of children and other dependents make it such that women’s fallback position upon exit is typically worse, and also explains why women don’t just spend money on themselves.

@John Quiggin Thanks for the women and microcredit idea. I’ll be happy to do one at some point!

16

Serene Khader 02.09.18 at 4:17 pm

@Joe I don’t think there’s much data on unconditional cash transfers, but most conditional cash transfers directed at women impose labor on them, too–often labor associated with ensuring certain child welfare outcomes.

The issue of getting an income without “earning” one in the formal economy also comes up in another way in the women’s empowerment literature; in cases where women transfer loans to their husbands or simply have very minimal involvement in running the businesses begun with loans. Kabeer’s study on this found that some incomes describable as empowerment remained in spite of this (though I’m skeptical and have written a skeptical academic article).

However, according to the orthodoxy, it’s important that the income be “earned” because the new sense of capacity is supposed to promote self-esteem, etc.

17

engels 02.09.18 at 6:22 pm

Interesting, thanks. I guess the way I was thinking of it was that raising women’s earning potential gives them a stronger fallback position outside the relationship (albeit still worse than men’s) which means you’d expect them to have greater bargaining within it (albeit still less than men’s) but I’ll have to read more about it.

I agree very much with the general point that becoming a wage labourer isn’t emancipation.

18

Collin Street 02.09.18 at 8:49 pm

I don’t understand the argument that even if women’s income rises relative to men’s, men can maintain the same bargaining power in a family by spending more of their own income on themselves. Can anyone explain it?

It’s not something I’d thought about, but: Unless the woman’s income is entirely capable of reliably supporting her and her children in all likely circumstances, stable lifestyle reliability requires buy-in from somebody else. That being the case, it doesn’t matter whether that buy-in is 90% or 10%, the control exerciseable is the same either way.

19

F. Foundling 02.09.18 at 10:51 pm

@15
>as long as a person’s fallback position outside of the relationship is worse than their position in it, there are strong incentives to maintain in their relationship

Undoubtedly, but the more income one has, the better this fallback position will be, and thus the less bad one’s position in the relationship will need to get in order to seem worse than the fallback position. Actual exiting is bound to be a rare and extreme decision, but the more people are aware of it as a real albeit remote possibility, the more balanced the power relations will be. Apart from that, a culture needs a lot of time to change even when the economic preconditions exist. Yet it is a change that has (to a degree) happened, so we know it can happen; and it has co-occurred with society’s opening more possibilities for women to survive and flourish as individual actors outside of marriages.

All of this, however, is realistic only if poverty in general is substantially alleviated at the same time; for women in dire economic circumstances in the Global South, gender equality can’t be much of a realistic priority. To make a more blatantly brocialist statement – I’m afraid that any efforts to increase substantially gender equality in a slum are bound to have very limited effects; to achieve anything substantial, one will need to get the people (women *and* men) out of the slum first.

@6
>making husbands do the housework as well as women do

That doesn’t seem quite as utopian as the others to me. But I still do agree that the only real solution to care-related gender disparity in the North as well the South is:

>socialize child care to a much greater extent

20

Sebastian H 02.10.18 at 12:02 am

“The claim that income will lead to women exiting relationships does not seem to be empirically substantiated in a number of contexts”

That is overstating the claim. The claim is that increasing income gives women more freedom to exit relationships if they should want to. The problem seems to be that you are couching the question as “does increased income (relative to ones partner) completely solve everything bad done to women”. The answer there is clearly no. But if the question is “does increased income increase the woman’s power to decide what happens in the relationship” the answer seems to be a pretty resounding yes.

Exiting isn’t the only possible resolution either. Often increased income gives a woman more power to bargain for better treatment IN the relationship.

21

J-D 02.10.18 at 9:25 am

I think the idea that women’s entrepreneurship constitutes their empowerment appeals to the underlying view, widespread in the West and North, that “other” women are oppressed by customs, traditions, and cultures. (This view about the cause of “other” women’s oppression, and its deep flaws, has been theorized at length in transnational feminist scholarship.)

Then I may be about to expose my gross ignorance of this scholarship, an ignorance which I therefore begin by acknowledging.

In my ignorance, it seems to me that most people–maybe all people, and certainly not just female people–are oppressed by customs, traditions, and cultures; although it would a huge mistake to ignore the fact that people are oppressed in this way to hugely varying extents, it would also be a huge mistake to suppose that this kind of oppression has been eliminated from the West/North. Following on from that thought–

The idea that women become empowered by being able to think critically, to see themselves as distinct from their families, and to liberate themselves from a socially pre-determined future seems plausible if the background assumption that “other” women are oppressed by custom and culture.

Why income would cause these byproducts remains somewhat mysterious. But the idea that capitalism causes reduction in adherence to tradition has a long history in the West, as Naila Kabeer notes in her important intellectual history of women and development. Kabeer notes that modernization theorists thought that a nice byproduct of capitalism was that it would shake up the existing social order; social roles used to be assigned by custom, but now they would be allocated according to efficiency. But it’s unclear either that the division of labor caused by women’s double shift is economically inefficient. And more importantly, the fact that a division of labor is different from the one that preceded it does not mean it is more gender just.

–it seems to me that it’s the same kind of huge mistake to suppose that capitalism eliminates this kind of oppression; for capitalism has its own customs and traditions, and capitalism itself is a tradition and a culture, and people are also oppressed, to varying extents, by capitalist customs, traditions, and cultures. If there is a traditional capitalist custom of allocating roles according to efficiency (I write ‘if’ because I am not sufficiently confident that I understand the assertion sufficiently clearly), that traditional custom can oppress people just as others can.

22

Sumana Harihareswara 02.10.18 at 12:21 pm

Professor Khader, I’ve been reading Crooked Timber (and very occasionally guest posting) for like a decade and this is exactly the kind of thought-provoking boost to my understanding and my discipline of intellectual rigor that I love in CT. And I’m a woman and an entrepreneur and — though my marriage is wonderfully supportive — you’ve helped me think in a new way about the frustrating conflict between my business and my carework commitments can be. Thank you!

23

J-D 02.11.18 at 9:53 am

F. Foundling

>The cultural ideal of the economically self-sufficient individual is androcentric. It frames what is possible and desirable for human beings in general in terms of what is possible for those who do not have care work socially assigned to them.

Well, I’d say that the number-one prerequisite for not having other people ‘socially assign’ things to you is to be economically self-sufficient. Because then you can refuse to be socially assigned things.

I doubt that the best strategy for moving towards a situation in which men do as much of the caring work as women is for women to refuse do any more caring work than men do; and recommending it as a strategy seems to me to come perilously close to blaming the victim. If somebody reasons that women only get lumbered with the caring work because they allow men to lumber them with the caring work, and they can change the situation just by refusing to be lumbered, it could be a way of absolving men from any responsibility for change.

24

Kiwanda 02.11.18 at 4:24 pm

It’s surprising that so often and so generally, spending time with your children is regarded as a burden that fathers must be “horsewhipped” to do, that mothers get “lumbered with”. This seems to reflect the attitude that the *real* thing to do in life is make money, and anything that gets in the way of that is an imposition. Many people, even men, find childcare a source of pleasure and satisfaction. I know that to be true where I am, I don’t see why it couldn’t be true around the world. The problem is not the childcare, it’s the “social assignments”.

25

J-D 02.12.18 at 10:11 am

Kiwanda
That’s all true, but …

There are many activities which people find deeply rewarding and for which they are nevertheless financially compensated. Just because you find your work fulfilling is not a justification for underpaying you. And the work of caring for children and other dependents does not become any less necessary when the people who are doing it find it less rewarding and more demanding, as they sometimes do. It’s not the only example of work that people find rewarding when they want to do it, but which people also get lumbered with even when they’d rather not.

In human societies where money did not even exist, the work of caring for children and other dependents still got done (and I imagine that the people doing it found it rewarding and demanding to roughly the same extent that people in our society find it rewarding and demanding), and that’s worth remembering, but it doesn’t change our society into a moneyless one.

26

TM 02.12.18 at 10:17 am

“During the holidays, I saw ads suggesting I buy a poor woman jute to make baskets, a goat, and even, as Rafia Zakaria wryly remarked on at the end of last year, a chicken.”

I don’t know about the aid organizations being criticized by Zakaria and Khader. Perhaps they really promote the simplistic concept of “empowerment through income” that Khader caricatures, or maybe they use these simplistic talking points for fund raising, but it does sound like a caricature to me. As an example for the goat and chicken, Heifer International has been offering animals to poor families for generations. “Heifer distributes animals, along with agricultural and values-based training, to families in need around the world as a means of providing self-sufficiency. Recipients must agree to “pass on the gift” by sharing animal offspring, as well as the skills and knowledge of animal husbandry and agricultural training with other impoverished families.” By all means, look closely and critically but don’t oversimplify.

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