Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 35 Nos. 4

Introduction: Repositioning Feminisms in Gender and Development

Published on 1 October 2004

This IDS Bulletin reflects on the contested relationship between feminism and development, and the challenges for reasserting feminist engagement with development as a political project. It arises from a workshop held at the Institute of Development Studies and the University of Sussex in July 2003.

Centred on how to “reposition” gender and development, the workshop debates pointed to the politics of discourse as a key element in social transformation. Participants explored how, after initial struggles to develop new concepts and languages for understanding women’s position in developing societies, feminist phrases came to be filled with new meanings as they were taken up into development policy and practice. Discussions turned on the ambiguous fruits of these struggles and their implications for feminist engagement with development.

One of the most foundational of these concepts, “gender”, has served both as an organising principle and a rallying call. Researchers have used it to generate insights into the relational dimensions of planned intervention that development policy and practice had ignored. Activists and advocates have used it to frame a set of demands and to challenge, and reframe, assumptions. Lessons learnt from particular places have been turned into sloganised generalities: ‘women are the poorest of the poor’, ‘women do most of the work in African agriculture’, ‘educating girls leads to economic development’ … and so on. Some have been used as Trojan Horses to open up debates and advocate positions. Others have become popular preconceptions, useful as a kind of catchy shorthand to capture the policy limelight. Others take the shape of feminist fables, cautionary tales told with educative intent. And still others gain the status of myths, stories whose potency rests in their resonance with deep-rooted convictions (cf. Sorel 1941). Women appear in these representations as abject victims, the passive subject of development’s rescue, and splendid heroines, whose unsung virtues and whose contributions to development need to be heeded.

In many ways, the generalisations that are now part of the currency of gender and development represent a success story. Originating in the discourses of a minority of politically motivated advocates for gender change, they are now taken for granted and espoused by people occupying many different spaces in a multitude of development institutions. But the extent of change in women’s lives does not match this discursive landslide. For many gender and development advocates, it appears that the more women and poverty are equated in development discourse, the more many women experience entrenched poverty; the more gender is mainstreamed, the less we find effective gender equality policies within key policy spaces and documents. Represented to technocrats and policymakers in the form of tools, frameworks and mechanisms, “gender” appears as neutralised of political intent. Diluted, denatured, depoliticised, included everywhere as an afterthought, “gender” has become something everyone knows that they are supposed to do something about. One bureaucrat summed it up: ‘when it comes to “gender”, everyone sighs’.

There has been no shortage of reflexive engagement within gender and development research, writing and activism (Kabeer 1994; Goetz 1997; Miller and Razavi 1998). The collection edited by Cecile Jackson and Ruth Pearson (1998), Feminist Visions of Development, critically reflected on changing orthodoxies, and on issues of positionality and representation. A growing and increasingly sophisticated literature exists on the experience of gender mainstreaming (for example, Macdonald 2003; Rai 2003; Kabeer 2003). Our aim in convening the workshop on which this IDS Bulletin was based was to engage with these debates through a particular lens, that of the narratives that gender and development had done much to popularise. This introduction draws on workshop debates to situate the articles in this collection in broader perspective.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) Introduction: Repositioning Feminisms in Gender and Development

Cite this publication

Cornwall, A., Harrison, E. and Whitehead, A. (2004) Introduction: Repositioning Feminisms in Gender and Development. IDS Bulletin 35(4): 1-10


Honorary Associate

Elizabeth Harrison
Ann Whitehead

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies
IDS, volume 36, issue 1


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