Why Retire the 'Feminization of Poverty' Construct?
33 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2012
Date Written: 2001
The "feminization of poverty" concept should be retired, if it has not already been so. It should be retired, even though the concept has been extremely powerful as a discursive construct. In a phrase, the idea captured a seemingly universal phenomenon, inspired theoretical research into the nexus between women and poverty, and summoned coalitions of women by marking an agenda for, and among, women across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and nationality. In short, it has been a war cry, demanding and framing analyses of women's poverty, and justifying and inspiring women's collective action. Nevertheless, the feminization of poverty construct should be retired because its definition is unclear and its meaning seems only partially accurate -- capturing the dynamics of poverty in some communities but not others.
Specifically, the concept fails to adequately capture the dynamics at work in the creation and the maintenance of people, both women and men, in poverty. This is so particularly where poverty is the norm for both women and men, as it is in many U.S. communities of color and other national and sub-altern communities. Further, the feminization of poverty construct, by inadequately reflecting the gender dynamics of poverty in these communities, may also unnecessarily strain the intra-community coalitions of men and women of multiple sexualities whose survival may be more intimately and immediately tied to and dependent on each other. Moreover, because the construct relies on essentialized understandings of men and women, it may erase the experiences of and hinder coalition building with those "who transgress gender, moving through the categories of 'woman' and 'man'."
Ultimately, the feminization of poverty concept should be retired because it may have served its purpose. This purpose is not to describe the existence of a recent but universal phenomenon but to spawn the research, debate, and investigation that has generated alternative notions and frameworks for understanding the lived experiences and conditions of all people in poverty. One of these notions or frameworks is simply the idea and reality of "gendered poverty." The notion of gendered poverty recognizes that gender relations are deeply embedded in the operation of market systems and other economic structures and that poverty itself is deeply gendered. In other words, it summarizes research confirming that men and women often come to poverty through different processes, are maintained in poverty in different ways, and experience poverty differently. Additionally, these gendered processes reflect and reinscribe the notion that gender is intransitive, reproducing current gender and sex roles that limit individuals and groups.
Unlike the discursive feminization of poverty construct, the notion of gendered poverty lacks some of the flare, moral indignation, and outrage that propelled women into coalitions (based on a sense of common experience) and inspired substantial research into the lives of poor women. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the notion of gendered poverty fails to capture the fact that even where women are not poorer than men, they tend to be more vulnerable to poverty than men. In addition, the notion of gendered poverty does not, on its face, take into consideration the intersections of race, citizenship, and other conditions, which might deeply affect and be affected by various economic processes.
Nevertheless, the notion of gendered poverty informs research into the nature of poverty and market relations as they relate to women and men, respectively and specifically. It also appears much more amenable to attachments. So, for instance, one might talk about racialized gendered oppression, gendered racial poverty, racialized transgendered poverty, or racialized gendered imperialism. Further, it potentially facilitates a broader range of coalitions, including coalitions of women, men, and transgendered people. Ultimately, however, neither a feminization of poverty nor a gendered poverty approach captures the range of subordinating structures that shape poverty. Therefore, an approach that seeks to understand the multidimensional nature of poverty and promotes anti-essentialist, anti-subordination principles and practices might better unravel the ties that bind people in poverty and be more inclusive, permitting shared agendas for building coalitions.
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