New Works in the Field

The many meanings of “women’s empowerment”: a history of the “women in development” movement

Editors’ Note: Joanne Meyerowitz examines the history of the “women in development” movement, based on material in her recent book, A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit (Princeton University Press, 2021).

Today “empowering women” is a ubiquitous buzz phrase in both the policy and philanthropy of global development. The UN, World Health Organization, World Bank, Peace Corps, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) all tout programs that position women’s empowerment as central to economic growth and the reduction of poverty. Private foundations and NGOs do much the same. A simple Google search of the phrase “empowering women and girls” will lead you to the websites of the Gates Foundation, World Vision, Plan International, CARE, Save the Children, and the plainly named Women and Girls’ Empowerment Initiative, among many others.

How did they reach this consensus? In the 1950s and 1960s, global development programs—both public and private—usually ignored women, who were often seen as backwards drags on economic progress. Modernization projects built dams, bridges, factories, and airports; the “green revolution” introduced high-yield seeds; and “community development” tried to foster grassroots participation in village politics. All of them focused on men as planners, leaders, workers, and beneficiaries. Men were considered the key breadwinners in need of training and employment. They were also seen as more likely to turn to violence and revolution (or, in the Cold War mentality, to communism), and therefore more in need of programs to mollify their discontent.

Women were eligible for emergency “relief”—that is, for rescue—but rarely for “development.” When postwar development programs did address women and girls, they positioned them primarily as mothers and future mothers who needed to upgrade their hygiene, nutrition, and childrearing skills—and also to curtail their fertility. 

As I show in my new book, A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit, the critical change came in the 1970s. In a major reassessment, development experts—including Mahbub ul Haq, Dudley Seers, Barbara Ward, and many others—rejected the trickle-down economics that had dominated their field. They no longer assumed that a nation’s economic growth would eventually reach the poor. For a variety of reasons, they were nudged to the left, at least for a decade. They were moved by the failures of previous development programs and also by the radical social movements of the 1960s, African socialists, European social democrats, and religious idealists, all of whom addressed poverty as an evil and pointed to global inequality. As they repudiated trickle-down theories, they began to focus less on GNP as the measure of success and more on anti-poverty campaigns that directly addressed the people they called “the poorest of the poor.” 

At the same time, a new international “women in development” movement reimagined poor women as economic actors, not solely as mothers. In this emerging movement, impoverished women were now seen, in the lingo of the day, as potential “income generators.” The new focus on women as income earners came about in part because of the growing emphasis on poverty, where women were clearly among the poorest of the poor. But it also grew out of the feminist movement that insisted that women were more than mothers and placed faith in income-earning as a route to gender equity.

A book published in 1970 helped usher the women’s movement into the global circles of development experts. Ester Boserup’s Woman’s Role in Economic Development made the case that existing development programs were harming women. In areas where women had traditionally engaged in agriculture and marketing, especially in Africa and Asia, economic development had provided training, machinery, and wage labor to men only, and thus, she wrote, undermined the traditional productive roles of women, “enhancing the prestige of men” and “lowering the status of women.” Boserup already had clout: she was a prominent Danish economist who had worked extensively with the United Nations. Her book became the Bible—the oft-cited foundational source—for the women in development (WID) movement.

The new approach reached into US politics in 1973. In the Foreign Assistance Act passed that year, Congress made three significant changes. First, it reoriented US foreign aid away from large-scale, top-down construction projects and toward on-the-ground, local programs that directly reached the poor. Second, the 1973 act endorsed the women in development movement.  The act’s Percy Amendment resulted from a concerted lobbying effort by liberal feminists within the US government who were influenced by Boserup’s thesis that economic development had harmed women. It mandated that US foreign assistance work to integrate women into their national economies. The phrase “national economies” is important here. Women were cast not as mothers but as economic actors.

And third, the act instructed USAID to work more closely with private agencies. US government development programs, the law stated, “should be carried out to the maximum extent possible through the private sector, including… voluntary agencies.” The law codified a longstanding preference among both liberals and conservatives for a mixed economy, involving the private sector in government programs. In response, USAID quickly established new grants that funneled funds for foreign aid through philanthropic organizations. In search of money, older NGOs, such as CARE and Catholic Relief Services, moved “beyond charity” as one book title put it, shifting their rhetoric and their grant applications from humanitarian relief to longer-term anti-poverty economic development.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, foreign assistance was under attack, from the right for wasting money, and from the left for abetting the military, coercing villagers, and supporting authoritarian regimes. Some non-profit organizations, especially those on the left, refused government money. But many others could not resist the lure of the new grants. With the promise of funding for anti-poverty development and women’s work, various organizations in the US turned their attention to indigent women overseas and applied for government grants.  

Over the course of the 1970s, to give just one example, the National Council of Negro Women, an advocacy organization, won $1.7 million in USAID grants. It came to its WID projects with a sense of solidarity with Black women across the globe, with a belief that its anti-poverty projects in the US South could be replicated in rural Africa, and from a search for money to sustain the organization. Its projects included a skills training center for women in Togo and a project in Swaziland to help women earn income by raising pigs.

In the 1970s, the WID projects funded by the US government tended to support economic development without critiquing it. They asked for women to have the kinds of training, technology, credit, and employment that had previously gone to men. Third World and left feminists, more often scholars than practitioners, crafted a more radical variant of WID that called for structural changes in the gender systems that kept women subordinate and the economic systems that put the global South at permanent disadvantage.

In the 1980s, the WID movement, in its various forms, encountered a different political climate. Within the US government and in the NGOs it funded, WID advocates retrofitted their programs to accommodate the growing neoliberal preference for encouraging the private sector, small business, and “the magic of the marketplace” in the global South. NGOs now positioned poor women as “entrepreneurs” in the informal economy and offered them minuscule loans, or microcredit, intended to build tiny businesses. USAID joined in with its own projects, such as the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Program, which offered loans to impoverished women in rural Bangladesh. With its faith in capital investment, even at the smallest scale, microcredit promised to expand the market’s inclusion, shrink the role of the state, and train poor women in the fiscal discipline of borrowing, investing, and repaying. 

The rise of microcredit came with a new twist in the politics of gender. In the early calls for loans for women, WID supporters claimed that women deserved the same access to credit that men had. But the arguments soon went further. By the 1980s, women were portrayed as better investments than men. They saved money, cared for their children, and repaid their loans, while men allegedly wasted their income on alcohol, tobacco, and prostitutes. As one report on “poverty lending” described it, “men more than women squander disposable cash.” Poor women of the global South had become the deserving poor.

It was in the 1980s that WID advocates began to describe their work as “empowerment.” On the left, empowerment often referred to organizing and collective action, and in the liberal mainstream of the WID movement, it often stood in for individualized self-improvement and self-confidence. The word was (and is) fuzzy enough to have multiple meanings.

In addition to government agencies and NGOs, “women’s empowerment” today is taken up by US corporations hoping for good public relations and sometimes also hoping to cleanse their reputations of the taint of exploited labor and ill-gotten gains. (For one such corporate program, see Goldman Sachs’ “10,000 Women.”) In its current incarnations, “empowering women” still tends to refer to women and girls overseas more than women and girls within the US, and it still sidelines men. Promotional materials for NGOs and “corporate social responsibility” routinely feature photos from the global South of girls at school and smiling women in colorful clothes, often producing goods by hand, with unmistakable overtones of wealthier (mostly white) people rescuing poorer women and girls (of color). 

“Empowering women” now encompasses everything from education and employment to healthcare, microcredit, leadership, and self-esteem. And it raises critical questions. Is empowerment the same thing as social justice and substantive equality? What kinds of employment might count as empowering, and what kinds might simply reinscribe hierarchy and exploitation? Can debt, which is credit by another name, actually end poverty? Does empowerment require deeper structural changes in the global economy and gender relations? And is it helpful to cast women as the virtuous poor and thereby write off half the population as selfish slackers and spendthrifts?

Questions aside (and I could pose more), empowering women and girls is big business, with billions invested. Like everything else, it has a history, which helps explain how it came to prominence today. For more on that history, you’re invited to read my book, A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit (Princeton University Press, 2021).

-Joanne Meyerowitz

Joanne Meyerowitz is Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.  She is a former editor of the Journal of American History and a past president of the Organization of American Historians. This post is based on material from her most recent book, A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit (Princeton University Press, 2021).

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