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Irene Tinker's World Bank keynote on women and land

Here at Global Sistergoods (, we are lucky to to have Irene Tinker as an advisor and mentor. Irene is a true women & development trailblazer, a scholar/activist who has written extensively and founded the International Center for Research on Women (, among her many accomplishments. She also has hilarious stories. (If you ever meet her, ask her about the time she was on a sinking ship, literally.) Irene spoke last month at the World Bank as a follow up to the publication of the Gender and Agriculture Sourcebook (

I think the Sourcebook is required reading for anyone interested in women, agriculture and development policy. Excerpts from Irene’s keynote address are below; you can read the address in its entirety here. Irene gives a wonderful overview of the history of studying women in economic development (and I needn’t remind you, she was there!) and just as important: the history of the global women’s movement. Irene’s observations about terminology, specifically, how “women in development” became “gender in development” are priceless. She asserts that “gender mainstreaming” in development, which we commonly understand as including women in the conversation, has actually impeded the global womens’ movement. Irene rightly calls for our attention to be drawn back to women, that women must not only be included in the conversation, but that they must also be in positions of of political power.

By the way, the Rural Development Institute ( is one of our partners. Check them out!

Keynote Address, International Expert Consultation
March 16th 2009
MC2-800, World Bank

…40 years ago you would never have had this conference in the Bank. First of all, there were almost no women allowed inside in those days; it would have been if you had a meeting, absolutely the reverse – there would have been two women, like there are about 3 men in the audience, and everybody else would be male. Furthermore, in those days, the economic gurus used to say “well of course women aren’t farmers.” If you look at some of the earlier classics on economic development, the only role that women had – according to people like Walt Rostow – is they were so conservative because they were religious and keep them out of the way. It was just incredible how little the economists knew about women or women’s roles. Furthermore, they also knew that the household was headed by a benevolent patriarch who always knew the best for all of the members of the family…

…Now you go to the 80s and we begin to look at the tremendous amount of time budgets that were out there …Women didn’t have any kind of leisure. Men had the leisure. So when you had projects for literacy and the men said “oh – the women aren’t interested in literacy, they don’t come,” it’s only because the women were working so hard they had no time. So you had a lot of misunderstanding of why women were supposed to be lazy or uninterested simply because the men didn’t understand that women, as today, have at least two jobs – the one earning money or growing food and the one taking care of the family.

…One of the things that was so important that happened in the 80s – as a result not only of the 1975 Women’s Conference but also the 1980 Conference in Copenhagen and the 1985 one in Nairobi – was the global women’s movement began to really expand. It was not just a movement by women of the North, it was very much taken up – if not preceded in many cases – by women organizing in the South, and it was getting extremely strong. One of the important things that happened was the challenge of this idea that the household is a single unit and that men know best, because it is very clear in many cases that the men are interested in patriarchal control and they use the women and the children as part of the control and are not necessarily interested in the welfare or the interest of those women. One of the other things that has come up, though, is the increase in nuclear family has made that patriarchal control much stronger. That when you had families living together or near each other there was a lot of family control for the best of the family, where it actually protected women. So we find that as families become more distant or as the families begin to disintegrate there is much more patriarchal control and, as a result, much more domestic violence.

…One of the things that always has surprised me – and I have tried to, in fact, research it – is why, about in the early 1980s, the word “‘women’ in development” suddenly became “gender.” In my mind, as a political scientist, I felt that this was, first of all, a definite attempt to undercut the political control of the women’s movement. You will never have a gender movement. And I think there are two reasons that this happened. One is that there was a very strong influence in those days by the socialist feminists, primarily in Europe, who were still convinced that the most important organizing factor was class, not gender. Therefore, they argued that you had to have class and that was more important. So you don’t want to talk about women because they are members of all the classes, which is true, and therefore they can’t organize across classes. And there are still some people who may argue that. But in fact now, I think, that we feel that there is more commonality among women that go across class than there is within the classes, because in every class women are still not exactly equal. But it does vary, and class is still important. But the socialists used the term gender and it seemed to resonate, in my mind, with a lot of the men in the economic development community who were uncomfortable either with the term sex or women and were also uncomfortable with the growing women’s movement. So from my point of view, I think the term gender was an attempt to undercut the political power of the women’s movement.

I think it has been – particularly in application – a very misunderstood word – it can’t be translated most people don’t understand it, as I say it is used for “women” and then it gets confused so we have its continuation in the 1990s, when it was decided, some how or another, that you have to have gender mainstreaming. Well, if gender is used correctly it means men and women mainstreaming, but what does that mean? It has no meaning at all. But what it means if you say “women” – which is what people think of as the word – it means you put women into everything and it’s a great idea.


pvariel's picture

Thanks for this piece

Your concluding paragraph said it all. Yes, if the word ‘gender’ is used correctly it means men and women mainstreaming… yes, put women into everything and it’s a great idea. This is what is happening in some part of the Asian countries, especially in India the women power is increased tremendously in many areas but unfortunately, still in some major areas there is no change or improvement. Thanks for this piece.

LanaLarder's picture

In agreement.....


I would love to speak to you ....I am looking for strong women to advise me with my business....a broker lending business. From what you have written it seems you would be a great fit with me and my passion to help women owned businesses. My business is ready to grow quickly...but I need a few friends...

Hope to hear from you soon....

Lana Larder

KJ's picture

Thanks for responding

Hi Lana,

Thanks for reding my piece. I'm afraid I must not have been clear that I was writing about Irene; I am not Irene. She is one of my mentors.

I hope you'll keep reading!



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