Woman’s Role in Economic Development by Ester Boserup

While Boserup outlines a number of interesting dynamics in terms of the impact of development on women in poor countries, and her book is worth reading simply due to the fact that it made such an academic splash at the time of its release (1970), there are a number of problems with her analysis.

One of these problems is the use of sweeping statements about entire continents based on evidence from only one place, or sometimes based simply on her own assumptions.  Even more disconcerting, though, is that in the end her entire thesis implodes on itself.  She subscribes to a model of modernization theory in which the less capitalist and the more agrarian a society is, the more “primitive” and “backward” and bad for women it is—while at the same time making the general point that modernization and capitalism have had a negative impact on the status of women in these so-called “backward” societies.

Yet I find it problematic to call a society backward and primitive and point to the status of women in that society, and then say that even though modernization has a negative impact on women it still makes these societies more “advanced” (at least, in her framework where the empowerment of women should be a sign of “advancement).

In short, her work would be much stronger if she, first of all, discussed the issue of class, which is enormously important when discussing economic “development.” Second of all, I think she should have ditched the modernization theory framework by acknowledging that it is simply an economic version of previous models of Western cultural and racial supremacy.

In other words, she seems to make very valid points about the negative effects of capitalism on non-capitalist societies, but at the same time seems to assert that this process is an inevitable part of a mythical economic evolution, in much the same way that colonialists saw non-Westerners, especially Africans, as being on a lower rung of the cultural or racial evolutionary ladder in past centuries.  In the end, this sort of condescending tone distracts from the valid points that she makes.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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