irene_tinker_visioning_an_equitable_worldVisioning an equitable world for women: an intellectual memoir

Irene Tinker

Published Feb 29, 2016 and available on



This volume traces my intellectual journey from my 1949 Radcliffe College honors thesis for political theory and comparative government, to two chapters in major reference books published in 2014, which summarize my work in the field of women and development.   The topics in most of my publications concern contemporary issues and debates which began with a concern for democracy and led to my thesis on the Political Liberalism of Jacques Maritain and Reinhold Niebuhr. Their philosophies were so contemporary that I found my best sources were informed individuals rather than books in the library. I interviewed a Congregational minister who introduced me to Niebuhr himself.   My mentor on Maritain was a Jesuit priest whom I met in the library stacks.

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Similarly, when I began research for my doctoral dissertation for the London School of Economics on India’s first general elections in 1951-52, I was informed that the topic was not scholarly enough for the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics where I had registered. Once again my sources were outside academia. Most useful were briefings by the Electoral Commission and discussions with the many press correspondents from all parts of India and from abroad who were covering the elections.


Indeed, for years I harbored a desire to be an international correspondent or a travel writer so I could explore the world. I soon found that obtaining travel grants for research was a better source of income than getting articles published.   My record of driving from London to India was published in the British Ford magazine in return for fine-tuning the Ford Anglia for the trip, and providing a set of replacement parts; but no money.   This habit of recording my travels has stayed with me: I send these letters out instead of Christmas cards.   I have collected these letters and other unpublished commentaries in a separate volume.


Throughout my career I have continued to focus on contemporary topics and utilized interviews and cultural immersion rather that library research as the foundation of my writing. Ideas often led to involvement in promoting my findings in an effort to change policy. Action research increasingly dominated my life and for years I worked outside universities. Not having to meet regular classes allowed for travel abroad for study or conferences.  As a result, I have spent about half my career at universities and the other half in institutions that allowed me to apply my ideas or on research grants studying new concepts in new countries.


The common thread that weaves my ideas together is a concern for individual rights for all women and men. At first I described this conviction as equality; I soon realized that most portrayals of equality used as its standard a white male. Raised to believe a woman could do everything a man could if she tried, I came late to the understanding of the impact of socially constructed gender roles. For years I tried to emulate men. Only later in life did I come to comprehend that equality as sameness was both undesirable and unobtainable. “If man is the measure, women will always be second class” became my mantra. I changed my call for rights from equality to equity: the rights of all people to utilize their own capabilities.   To achieve these rights, I celebrate all forms of activism to attain that equality/equity, from political parties to non-governmental organizations, from sit-ins to marches, to lobbying.



Organization of the book:

This volume consists of two parts. Part I focuses on my early career when my academic pursuits took precedence even as my activism grew. Part II reverses those priorities as the issue of women’s equality at home and abroad began to dominate my writing and my occupations.


Part I has three sections: Political theory, democracy, and elections; Education for all; and Population and family planning.  


My publications on elections had their roots in my dissertation research on the First General Elections in India in 1951-52. My first academic publications were three case studies observing the actual election in former princely states. The fundamental issue addressed by studying this election with universal suffrage for all was whether a largely illiterate population could vote to support democracy. During my tenure as a researcher in the Modern India Project and the University of California Berkeley, I applied my fascination with elections and democracy to other countries.   A fellowship to Indonesia to observe their first elections provided material for more publications analyzing the effect of the type of electoral system on politics.   Years later, I was able to combine my interest in elections with my years of writing about women and their organizations to illuminate the debate about electoral quotas for women.


Educational issues engrossed me as a result of my experiences teaching at Howard University, after I moved to Washington DC in 1960. The combination of poor academic preparation of the students and racial discrimination made teaching difficult. As a result, I became deeply involved in trying to set up a new university that might provide an alternative path to a good degree.   As Assistant Provost of the new Federal City College, I wrote several articles about our hopes and goals.   I also taught courses on urbanization. This led to a fellowship to study urban governance in Indonesia.   My exposure in Indonesia to the adverse impact of economic aid on women sparked my career in this area.


Appointed as the Director of International Science at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), my first task was to work with Margaret Mead to ensure the timely publication of a handbook for the United Nations World Conference on Population in June 1974. This immersion in population issues became the basis of several publications and was useful in my later action-research activities. Margaret Mead’s initiatives at the Population Conference provided a powerful example of using UN meetings to promote issues.   With her support, I was able to use the UN World Conference for Women in 1975 to propel the issue of women and international development onto the world’s agenda.


Women’s issues are, of course, part of elections and education, and central to population. But the focus of the women in development movement (WID) was on the economic contribution of women.   While population studies concentrated on women’s role in the family and on women’s ability to control her fertility, they situated women in their reproductive roles. In 1973, population projects were well-funded by development agencies. Not so, those promoting women’s vital role in a nation’s economy. WID promoters considered it critical to emphasize the distinction between women and mothers and women as producers in order to influence national and international agencies and organizations as they formulated their economic projects and programs. The funds that flowed into these projects assisted women to organize at local, national, and international levels and inadvertently helped to fund the global women’s movement.


Part II consists of seven sections: Activism in the nation’s capital; Influencing Development policy; Influencing global policy through UN Conferences; Women’s work in the rural economy; Women making money; Food and Shelter in urban areas; and an overview chapter HERstory of women and development: from then to now.


When our family moved to Washington DC in 1960, the city was roiling as the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War groups cooperated with or contested the invigorated Women’s Movement. Drawn into these struggles, I interacted increasingly with the myriad of women’s organizations in the city. The focus of my publications quickly settled on contradictions between women’s goals in the US and how US aid was undermining those goals abroad.


Presenting the concept of women and development at the United Nations, I then followed how its basic themes evolved as a result of the four UN World Conferences on Women. My publications focused on the politics of these conferences. Active in UN conferences were many non-governmental organizations; I compared NGOs with women’s organizations in their ability to achieve women’s goals. In the final chapter in Women and Gender Equity in Development Theory and Practice: Institutions, Resources, and Mobilization, a volume Jane Jaquette and Gale Summerfield edited in my honor, I illustrate how development aid actually paid for women to organize.


The adverse impact of development on women in subsistence economies was the foundation of WID. Programs introduced by the development community tended to overlook women’s roles in agriculture and food production. Appropriate technology groups proposed “solutions” to food processing or energy needs that were less than appropriate. When the UN convened conferences on these topics, I was invited to present the women’s responses at national and international conferences. I also attended these conferences to lobby for women’s inclusion in the conference documents.


As subsistence economies became increasingly monetized, programs were introduced by economic aid agencies to assist women in earning money. Projects aimed at crafts or knitting and sewing added more to women’s time burden than to their income. In response I began a major study on Street Foods, an enterprise where women were already gainfully employed in developing countries. I also wrote several critiques of micro-credit schemes.


As a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Berkeley, I began to write about urban issues of housing, criticizing its gender neutral viewpoint when in fact housing both at home and abroad is utilized differently by women than by men.   Urban agriculture was as overlooked as were street foods as a critical input in the urban food supply and an important source of income, especially for women.


The final section attempts to capture the herstory of the period from three perspectives. First is a book of memoirs, edited with Arvonne Fraser, recounting how 27 women from 12 countries helped form the global women’s movement.   My Introduction, “Ideas into Action,” reviews the field; my own memoir reflects my upbringing and high school experiences.


The second set of articles follow the field of women in development.   “Many Paths to Power: women in contemporary Asia” utilizes my years of research in South and Southeast Asia to examine the influence of culture on women’s progress. The chapter I wrote for my festschrift, “Empowerment just happened: the unexpected expansion of women’s organizations,” provides evidence for my argument that international economic aid unintentionally funded the growth of the global women’s movement.


Finally, two retrospective chapters about the WID movement and what it accomplished complete the volume.   One was written for the International Development Research Council of Canada and published in a collection of economic-focused papers which are heavily referenced. Adding a chapter on women was a frantic response by the editors when they realized that, despite their instructions to authors, women were largely invisible in the other chapters.


In contrast, the two women editors for the Oxford University Press America Handbook on Transnational Feminist Networks requested a readable chapter with minimum footnotes. Authors were asked to explain their original goals and explain what succeeded and what did not. Finally, the editors requested authors to write about commentaries on their approaches to WID, a request that provided me with a welcome opportunity to defend the field of women in development. I chose a provocative title for my chapter, “The Camel’s Nose: women infiltrate the development project.”


Presentation and editing of articles

Academic articles are over-referenced in order to prove to readers that the author knows the literature. To avoid cluttering the included articles with lengthy footnotes, I have incorporated important comments in the article and cut those meant to demonstrate knowledge of the field. Further, most articles include long lists of references. Obviously, many are repetitive. When the reference is to a quotation, I have included the bibliographic information in the text. Occasionally, when the author is an outstanding commentator on the issues at hand, I have also provided the reference in the text. These editing decisions have markedly reduced the length of the manuscript and added to the readability of this memoir.



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