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.