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Feminism and development theory : a critical overview


01 / 1993

This paper presents a feminist contribution to the current debate on transcending the impasse in radical development studies. The critical review of contemporary feminist theories of development presented here argues that their application to the situation of women in Third World societies has not only proved deeply problematical theoretically, but in the case of the Liberal Feminist (WID)school, proved inimical to the welfare of most Third World women in its policy applications by the development bureaucracy. While the Socialist/Marxist feminist positions avoid the cruder reductionism of the WID writings, and explicitely criticise the Capitalist development model, they are limited by the use of conceptual categories derived from the Western Capitalist experience; categories which also mask the diverse and changing realities of women inside these societies. Specifically, the poorly developed, theorisation of race and ethnicity is a major problem. The adoption of an over-mechanistic approach to Capitalist development by some of these writers further compounds the relative lack of attention to women’s complex processes of resistance to the development process within Feminist approaches to development more generally. In this sense feminist criticisms not only highlight the deficiencies of malestream development frameworks, but can simultaneously reproduce them in particular ways.

A crucial stage in a reconstructed theoretical and political agenda must be the creation of situations where marginalised groups of women can articulate their own development experiences. We would thus better placed to delineate commonalities and differences; to do otherwise would be theoretically premature. As a way of splitting open this task, an immediate theoretical and political priority should be the development of perspectives from the global margins; from the poorest women in Third World societies, located as they are at the intersection of the axes of international subordination. The DAWN network correctly argue that the experiences lived by the poorest women in Third World societies in their struggle to attain basic survival provide "The clearest lens for an understanding of the development process" (DAWN, 1987, IO). The contruction of such a ’bottom-up’ perspective could indeed transform this marginalised ’otherness’ into the beginnings of a feminist theory of development, for, rather than about, Third World women.

Palabras claves

mujer, sociología



A useful overview of the history of feminist thinking on approaches to the improvement of the position of women in development processes. The author comments on the "Women in development" approach which targets the integration of women into the formal (economic and political)sectors as well as the socialist feminist approaches, followed by the post-modern feminist perspective which emphasizes differences rather than common suffering. These comments make it clear that the feminist movement is far from united when it comes to the question how to tackle the supposedly universal perception of women that the mere fact of being a woman means to be subordinated. The question which is hardly touched on is whether all women in the world world define their position primarily in those terms.


Occasional Paper Series N° 7.




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