Individualism, Embeddedness, and Global Women’s Empowerment

Narratives about empowering women in the global South often exploit intuitive connections between feminism and individualism. In familiar media depictions, women develop new senses of self through entrepreneurship that enable them to contravene patriarchal gender roles.2 Now that a poor woman has received a goat or a sewing machine, the conventional narrative tells us, she is empowered to leave her husband or criticize sexist cultural beliefs. A description of the UN-sponsored Women’s Empowerment Week encapsulates the familiar intuitive associations: “empowering a woman in business means that she will gain financial stability and help address poverty;” a woman entrepreneur “might be less likely to allow men to make decisions for her” (Price 2015).

But intuitions on their own do not establish that individualism is a feminist value, and there are independent reasons to be skeptical of the idea that Western5 intuitions about Southern women tell us much about what feminism is. Westerners, like members of all cultures, are subject to ethnocentrism. Westerners are also subject to epistemic habits associated with dominance, habits that filter information about the global South in ways designed to preserve the view that Northerners exert a positive, moralizing effect on the inhabitants of poor countries.4 Moreover the value of individualism in particular has been accused by feminists who study women in the global South of being parochial (see Archambault 2011; Abu-Lughod 2013; Mahmood 2005; Goodman 2017) and harmful (see Abu-Lughod 2013; Mahmood 2005; Karim 2011; Wilson 2011; Cornwall, Gideon, and Wilson 2008).

All of this indicates that the relationship between feminism and individualism and its implications for development policy require deeper philosophical investigation. I suggest in this chapter that the link between feminism and individualism is more tenuous than is often thought. I argue that the form of individualism that Westerners assume will empower women in the global South (which I call “independence individualism”) is (1) not conceptually related to feminism and (2) worth jettisoning because of how it motivates political action that undermines feminist aims. Some of the reasons that feminists should reject this particular form of individualism are not just reasons to rethink development policy but also deep challenges for liberal feminism. For example, I contend that no form of normative individualism is conceptually necessary for feminism; if this is true, it is incumbent on liberal feminists with universalist aims to explain why normative individualism is context-independently necessary for reducing sexist oppression. I also claim that the form of individualism I am criticizing exacerbates the oppressive distribution of caring labor and unacceptably exposes women to loss of the goods they attain through relationships. This claim suggests that feminists who wish to retain individualist commitments need to find ways of doing so that do not exacerbate the gender division of labor or overlook the goods women stand to lose through changes to their existing relationships. These claims about care and relationship intersect with, and precissify, existing feminist philosophical claims that liberalism is too individualistic to promote gender justice. My ultimate position is that independence individualism, the form of individualism I am criticizing, undermines the pursuit of global gender justice and that even personhood individualism, a form of individualism liberal feminists often see as foundational to feminism, is conceptually unnecessary for it.

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