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Which Path to Power? Politics or Economics?


It is as important to have justice in economic life as elsewhere. But a long habit of thinking the law is somehow above economics has led some to be truly blind to the realities women face.


I was invited to participate in a debate at the World Bank in DC this week. It was hosted by the Women, Business, and the Law group and the National Democratic Institute. The question was: “Women’s Empowerment: Political or Economic Development First?”

I was uncomfortable with the basic proposition. Indeed, I hate it when this question comes up in other venues, in part because I believe it poses a false dichotomy. But I also suspect that whenever someone asks this question, they really intend to assert the hegemony of public sector people over the domain of women’s empowerment. I think some people in both government and civil society feel threatened by the upswing of activity in the economic domain. Maybe they worry about the loss of budgets and jobs, but actually I think they are mostly appalled by a challenge to deeply held prejudices and long ago school lessons. They don’t like seeing money dirty up what they see as a “pure” fight over rights. And they really don’t like seeing the big corporations getting involved.

I think many people in leadership positions within international development today went to university under an era typified by deep mistrust of the market, especially corporations. International development was more inclined to blame poverty on the private sector than to think about ways of harnessing the market to uplift the poor. Gender studies, in particular, had a dualistic approach over most of the last fifty years: you were either a liberal feminist, in which case you were all about working through the law, or you were a Marxist feminist, in which case you were all about overthrowing capitalism. Neither would even consider that the private sector had a role to play as anything but the movement bogeyman. All this was characterized, in my opinion, by a myopic historical view (plumped up with a good bit of nostalgia) in which the evils of the world were presumed to have begun with the modern economy.

The women’s economic empowerment movement has grown up, very recently, in the gap between dualisms of academic feminism. The engagement of international development with the private sector, as partners, is also new. So, perhaps it is no surprise that the idea of empowering women through the market doesn’t fit in people’s mental categories. Indeed, the mission is still anathema to some.

I came into this debate thinking I was to give one five-minute statement on behalf of economic empowerment. I was also told there would be a vote after the debate, so I needed to make this an argument for the economic empowerment side. When time is that tight, I always write my speech so I can be sure of finishing in the slot allowed. So, I drafted this:

“The first formal legal codes appeared in the ancient Middle East, made possible by a new technology—writing. Script had been devised specifically to track economic transactions. This new technology had already laid the foundations of what we would now call ‘the financial system’ before anybody thought to write laws with it—or poetry or scripture. Scribes were a special priestly class who guarded their new skill jealously—and the temples were often overseers of both production and exchange, in addition to keeping records. The first laws were likely to have been hard copy versions of religious commandments or traditional customs.

Those first laws codified the ownership of women by men in one of three arrangements, marriage, slavery, and prostitution. Women had almost no economic or political standing of their own under any of these classifications and they were subject to violent punishment if they stepped outside their bounds. Women were seldom allowed to learn writing, just as they were seldom allowed to own property, participate in law-making, or even worship equally with men.

Law, money, religion, knowledge technology, sexuality, and violence were tightly intertwined and clamped down in a way that has kept the lid on women for 5,000 years. Today, there is nowhere on the planet where all the threads of that original system do not still pull tightly together. When you engage on the ground in real time, you learn very quickly that no one factor can be resolved without having another tie you in knots. There is simply no practical way to pull out one of these threads without attending to the others.

So, the whole exercise of saying one is important and the others are not seems absurdly abstract to me. And, after years of working in this space and often partnering with corporations, I have never once heard anyone in the private sector suggest that economic empowerment should be pursued to the exclusion of political and legal rights. Never.

So I think we need to ask ourselves why this false dichotomy is persistently set up by people on the public sector side and try to discern what interest is served by presenting the situation in this ungrounded way. In my experience, the question is posed by people who do not think the private sector should be allowed to engage with the issue. These folks believe the political sector owns this domain and, by posing this question, they are asserting their power over it.

We don’t have time for turf wars. Since industrialization, there have been a series of discrete moments, ‘windows’ that opened for a few years in which progress could be made on behalf of women. And then, every time, the window would shut. Right now, we are looking through the largest, most breathtaking possibility for change women have ever seen. But if past is prologue, even this window will eventually slam down. We should not waste this opportunity arguing about who’s on top.”

The economy, the law, the church, the family, and the schools have built up the gender divide over thousands of years. It will take all of us to bring it down. There is no moral justification for trying to divide our efforts in favor of one faction’s desire for status. So, I entreat you to vote for a balanced approach grounded by practical, material realities, instead of a polarizing abstraction, by casting yours for economic empowerment.”

It was too complex an ending because, really, I didn’t want anyone voting either way.


Economic programs are often criticized for being “individualistic” solutions. Yet female political leaders are also often said to be “out for themselves.” In both political and economic life, there are times when individuals must step forward, but it is impossible to be successful in either domain without the support of many others. So, the “individualistic” versus “collectivistic” polarity is also, in my view, a false distinction, drawn from the thinking of the past and best left behind.


You can imagine my relief when I was introduced to the rest of the debate team and discovered that they, too, were conflicted by the same problem: none of them thought it was productive to think of women’s empowerment as a choice between two inadequate alternatives. We all heartily agreed that the evidence today points to going after both political and economic power at the same time.

Our private agreement, however, did create a sense of uncertainty as we walked into a room full of people expecting us to slug it out. What were we going to say?

Fortunately, we were rescued by a brilliant moderator. Joanne Levine is not only a multilingual, award-winning journalist, she is also a foreign policy expert. She had crafted a series of questions (which she did not show us in advance) that pulled out the best points on each side, but also allowed us to show that we all really thought the polarity was artificial. Shari Bryan and Sandra Pepera are leaders at NDI now, but they each have long, distinguished, and very “hands on” experiences working on the political side of economic development. My partner on the economics argument, Irene Kahn, Director-General of the International Development Law Organization, was actually the one who was the most uncomfortable with the dichotomy between law and politics.

We were able to sketch out for people the many points of overlap between legal and economic empowerment. We emphasized that, at the ground level, it is not possible or advisable to try and separate the two, but instead important to devise a strategy that encompasses both. At the end, I was able to recast my little five-minute statement, from oppositional challenge to an articulation of our shared belief in the merits of both kinds of effort and in the desirability of a multi-pronged approach.

Afterward, I had lunch with the organizers and the debate team. It was a lovely end to a very good experience.

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