Literature Review: A Development Perspective Of Feminism In Modern History

Published: 2023/07/04 Number of words: 2406


To contextualise development approaches towards women’s empowerment, this chapter will construct a definition of empowerment based on the notion of ‘power’ and how the different ways of understanding this concept have influenced each shift in feminist development discourse. The work of Michael Foucault regarding the different modes of power can be deemed the intrinsic link between feminist theoretical concepts. According to Foucault (1982), where there is power there is resistance, which provides the foundations for feminist approaches to resist the patriarchal development process.

The first dominant understanding of power within the social sciences is power as ‘power over’, that is, where a subject – whether singularly or collectively – has power over another. ‘Power over’ can be exerted overtly through physical coercion, or covertly through psychological manipulation. The latter can be exercised with subtlety; for example, psychological processes can influence in such a way as to restrict the options perceived or can lead someone to perceive the desired option as being their own desire. ‘Power over’ can often result in internalised oppression, as such in a dominant society where groups of people are systematically denied power and influence, they will internalise the messages they receive about their supposed roles and come to believe such messages to be true (Rowlands, 1998). Rowlands (1998) further identifies that when this ‘internalised oppression’ becomes embedded into society, the effects are mistaken for reality. To add context, a woman who becomes the subject of violence when expressing her own opinions may start to withhold her opinions and eventually come to believe she has no opinions of her own. This covert escalation of ‘power over’ then removes the need to overtly exert power.


Power as ‘power over’ is relevant to the first liberal feminist critique to the development process. ‘Women in Development’ (WID) emerged in the 1970s to oppose the current thinking that women were particularly recessive to the development process (Boserup, 1970). During this time, development was primarily based on economic growth with little attention paid to broader concepts, and the modernisation theory dominated development thinking. In turn, women were ignored as agents of social change. Modernisation was based upon the ideology that once economies have grown, the demand for equality would become more pronounced and families could embrace an egalitarian structure. Essentially, the status of women would catch up to that of men, as the Global South would catch up to the Global North (Greig, Hulme & Turner, 2007). From this view, achieving modernity coincided with feminist subordination by creating a power struggle between the product of modernisation and feminine traditionalism.

To resist the perception that women are recessive to the development process, WID theorists advocated that women are an untapped economic resource for development. Major institutions such as United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations (UN), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Bank came under scrutiny for their male-biased aid programmes and pressure was placed on US policy makers with the aim to increase women’s participation into the existing patriarchal structure. As a result, the 1973 Percy Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act required USAID’s development programmes to ‘integrate women into the national economies of foreign countries’ fuelling the “axiomatic assumption that women’s lives would improve once they had been integrated into the development process” (Koczerberski, 1998:396).

Despite WID advocates successfully influencing political strategy, in reality the approach became a tool for high-ranking misogynists in the development sector to address emerging concerns in their favour. Influenced by the capitalist nature of modernisation, particularly in the US, hegemonic development actors decided on a narrative that described poverty alleviation and basic needs as the main focus areas for women’s development, paying no attention to unequal access to resources (Kabeer, 1995). Despite the attempt by WID advocates to empower women financially, the approach failed to change the ‘power over’ narrative, and women continued to be internally oppressed through stereotypical and customary expectations being held over them by men, with little focus on realigning gendered power relations (Connell, 1987; Razavi & Miller, 1995).

WID gained global recognition for its attempt to challenge the central tenets of modernisation. This led to an emergence of research on women in developing countries, most notably the work of Esther Boserup on ‘Women’s Role in Economic Development’ (1970). Boserup (1970) identified how modernisation affected significant changes in gender relations, particularly by the sexual division of labour in Sub-Saharan Africa. Boserup criticised colonial and post-colonial agricultural policies for facilitating male monopoly and undermining the traditional role of women in farming (Razavi & Miller, 1995). Her research indicated that prior to Western influence, African men and women were equal counterparts and women’s access to resources “could not be dismissed as a ‘Western’ or ‘feminist’ import” (Jaquette, 1990:59). Boserup’s research cemented the WID ideology that women were not passive recipients of the modernised ‘welfare approach’, but rather active contributors to economic development, identifying a link between capitalism and power as ‘power over’.

Criticisms of WID began to emerge as despite its efforts, the approach failed to challenge the core principles of the modernisation theory and rather highlighted that women had not benefited from it. The introduction of women into development programming created a bias between skilled Western women who were introduced as WID experts, and Third World women who were left to play a secondary role in the framework (Koczberski, 1998).

Approaching feminist development through an economic lens created a linear view on women’s priorities, and Western feminists were criticised for generalising the Third World woman as a singular, monolithic other with a believed shared oppression (Mohanty, 2003). WID postulated the need for a shift in how gender needs and interests are strategically addressed, not only by acknowledging the differences between men and women, but also the differences between Western women and Third World women. As a result, ‘Gender and Development’ arose as the next dominant feminist trend, shifting the focus in theory from a needs-based to a rights-based approach, and power as ‘power over’ became something not only relevant to one sex exerting power over another, but a concept that existed amongst a multitude of identities such as gender, class and race.


‘Gender and Development’ (GAD) emerged in the midst of the ‘UN Decade for Women’ between 1976 and 1985 and demonstrated a shift from feminising to engendering development. The difference between WID and GAD was evident in the transition from an economic perspective to one that incorporated issues such as human rights, gender-based violence and the need to “interrogate women and men as gendered beings” (McIlwaine & Datta, 2003:369). GAD initiated an analysis framework to establish the differences between the central issues of women’s experiences, interests and marginalisation, parallel to the examination of male gender identities and interests (Pearson, 2005).

Molyneux (1989) conceptualised the gender interests of men and women as ‘practical’ gender interests and ‘strategic’ gender interests in order to deconstruct a general notion of gender issues. For women, Molyneux distinguished the two types of interests as follows: strategic interests typically translated into the “desire for resources, services and infrastructure to support their role in reproductive activities” and practical interests correspond to “changes and investments required to address women’s disadvantage in terms of poverty and deprivation” (Molyneux, 1989; Molyneux, 1993:161). By means of this distinction, Moser (1989) provided a guide to ‘Gender Planning in the Third World’ to address the contrast in realities between men and women. Moser identified the triple role of women, whose responsibilities formed as 1) productive (income-generating) 2) reproductive (unpaid domestic) and 3) community management. Despite the expectation that women should simultaneously balance all three, any acknowledgement of their responsibilities beyond those that are reproductive remained invisible. In contrast, the role of men is consistently valued either directly through paid remuneration or indirectly through status and political power. Furthermore, the GAD framework brought the role of Third World women to the forefront of development thinking and elucidated the importance of no longer viewing their role as invisible. The concept of ‘gender planning’ demonstrated a noticeable shift in feminist theory and enabled a people-centred approach to gendered development.

The constructionist approach of GAD introduced a comprehensive perspective to female oppression that took into account the whole of the political, economic and social organisation of society (Aguinaga et al. n.d.). Due to the growing acceptance of diversities between women and the demand to tackle all forms of oppression, the challenge became not only of reconciliation but also interpretation between the different constituencies of the Global North and South (McIlwaine and Datta, 2003). In her research into the politics of transnational feminist praxis, Nagar (2002) accentuated the failure of elitist language used in Western feminist discourse to engage with fieldworkers in the Global South. The need for simultaneously accessible theoretical languages that adhere to multiple audiences is critical to address the key challenges with transnational feminist praxis. Thus, although the GAD approach attempted to address the strategic and practical needs of Third World women, the discourse it used to do so became alienating for those working towards gender equality in the South (McIlwaine and Datta, 2003).

A representation of Third World realities from a Western perspective was maintained throughout the GAD framework. Chandra Mohanty‘s ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ synopsized the tendency for Western scholars to portray Third World women as a monolithic other characterised on the basis of a shared oppression (2006). The generalisation that emerged from Mohanty’s research was that women of the Global South are assumed to be sexually constrained, uneducated, victimised, ignorant to their own subjugation and bound by traditionalism; and in turn Western women became implicitly defined as modernised, educated and in control. Mohanty challenged the assumption that Third World women constitute a unified group and criticized the GAD approach for its failure to recognise the diversity of experiences of women in the Global South, emphasising that not all women in the developing world are equally powerless.

During the late 1980s, the need to differentiate among women was growing and the perspective of poor and oppressed women provided a “unique and powerful vantage point” to examine the effects of development programmes and strategies (Sen and Grown, 1987: 23). For this reason, a network of female scholars, researchers and activists from the Global South formed ‘Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era’ (DAWN) to champion the views of women and overcome poverty and gender injustices. The foundation of DAWN’s principles is the belief that women should attain freedom from all inequalities, not just gender-specific, and acknowledge the intertwined oppression of race, class and national asymmetries that impact their experiences as women (Sen and Grown, 1987). This shift in thinking is arguably the most notable and changes how power is to be conceptualised.

DAWN incorporates the idea that one’s power can be used to give power to another, which changes the notion of power from being a result to a layered process. Foucault conceptualised power as relational, therefore, to understand empowerment it is essential to reinterpret power; shifting away from a singular interpretation of power as ‘power over’ and moving towards power as ‘power to’, ‘power with’ and ‘power from within’ (Rowlands, 1998).

As defined by Rowlands (1995), empowerment that occurs from ‘power to’ enables access to a full range of human abilities and potential, empowerment that occurs from ‘power with’ enables others to achieve what they could not achieve alone, and empowerment that occurs ‘power from within’ (arguably the most empowering) is self-generated and arises from the recognition that “one is not helpless, not the source of one’s own problems, that one is restricted in part by structures outside oneself” (Townsend et al., 1998:30). Such interpretations further intertwine Foucault to feminist theorists through a mutual dislike of institutional structures that centralise power, however Foucault fell short with the absence of gender in his analysis of power relations, which led to a conflict between his work and contemporary development feminists. For the latter, empowerment is a way of undoing negative social constructions that are interconnected under the umbrella of gender power relations at personal, collective and institutional levels (Lips, 1991).


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Townsend, B. and Twombly, S., 1998. A Feminist Critique of Organizational Change in the Community College. New Directions for Community Colleges, 1998(102), pp.77-85.

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