Radcliffe Alumnae Award

Women in the World: Personal Identity and Public Impact Radcliffe Symposium    —   June 11, 1999

remarks by Irene Tinker
Without doubt my life has been shaped by, and in some ways helped shape, the major social movement of the century: the global woman’s movement.   Such influence as I have had was accomplished in concert with other women, united in a myriad of organizations and research projects.  My actions have been based on a profound sense of universal equality, and on the belief that individuals, alone and in groups, can influence events and world views at many levels. 

My mother, by her actions, embedded these ideas in my psyche.  Reacting to the unfair rules that forced her to resign as a high school physics teacher once her pregnancy showed, she raised her daughters and son as equals, never cautioning us from climbing trees or jumping out of the garage loft window.  And like so many talented women of her generation, she engaged in voluntary activities through organizations she often reshaped.  I tagged along on visits to new immigrants in our small Wisconsin town, or listened to the women’s chorus she organized, or proudly attended the ceremony when trees were planted along a new highway in south Jersey with funds she and her group has raised.  

My enthusiasm for traveling the globe is harder to trace, perhaps from reading “Terry and the Pirates!”  Classes at Harvard were not much help in learning about countries outside Europe and North America: Rupert Emerson taught a course on Nationalism in which I read Nehru’s Autobiography; and Edwin O. Reischauer and John King Fairbank introduced their rice paddies course just before I graduated.  My ignorance about the world was painfully evident when, as a graduate student at the London School of Economics, I met women and men from Africa and Asia and Latin America. 

When my mentor and tutor, Harold Laski, died during the spring of my first year at LSE, I switched the focus of my doctoral research on elections and the parliamentary system from England to India. Eager to understand the many places between London and New Delhi, I found a second hand English Ford and talked two male colleagues into driving out to India with me.  Unrest today makes that journey almost impossible.  But there was fighting along the Afgan-Pakistan border even then.  In the crowded hotel in Kabul, we were the subject of much gossip: a woman with two husbands!  When a Pathan asked us to smuggle guns over the border, we feared being caught up in the struggle and stole out of the capital in the middle of the night, heading as fast as we could for Pakistan. 

These adventures paled against my African drive in an Austin A40 from Mombasa back to London, after I completed my research in India.  This time my newly acquired husband drove with me.  Since finishing my dissertation, I have continued studying and teaching about developing countries, traveling widely and living in Indonesia, India, and Nepal for extended periods.  This immersion in societies abroad reaffirmed my mother’s belief in equality.

Back in the States I quickly became involved in the civil rights struggle. In California I joined protesters demonstrating against covenants that prevented Orientals from buying homes in the Berkeley Hills.  Later I taught at Howard University, participated in the Mississippi summer and the March for Civil Rights in Washington, and organized academics to lobby for the first US Urban Grant university, the University of the District of Columbia.

It was from teaching a wide variety of black students, from Africa and the Caribbean as well as American blacks from both inner city and middle class societies, that I began to understand how we are all of us socially constructed. Today, in Women’s Studies, we teach about how the US government encouraged women to work in factories during World War II, and how they told Rosie the Riveter to go home after the war so that her job could be taken by a returning veteran.  Women’s magazines of the time projected the ideal housewife as one with four children and a dog in a station wagon who kept an immaculate house and served a cold martini to her exhausted husband when he came home from work.

The growing consciousness of how society denied most women from entrance into graduate schools for law or business or medicine but rather pushed the college educated women into the isolation of the suburbs drove the second wave of the women’s movement. 

Those of us in Washington, DC, who had persevered in our professions began organizing to change the legal bases for this discrimination, lobbying for equal pay, affirmative action, and the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) –which didn’t pass Congress but has largely been implemented throughout the country today.  Congress was receptive to gender equality where citizen rights were concerned: a woman could now have a  charge account in her own name or buy a house without a male family member cosigning.  Achieving women’s share of their husband’s pension or social security took more persuasion. 

But the male decision-makers balked at supporting rape crisis centers or abortion because these actions would undermine the patriarchal control of women in the home. Not until twenty five years later at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights were women’s rights declared to be human rights.  At last, domestic violence is seen as a crime, and an “honor killing” of an adulterous wife in Brazilian is now illegal.  This slogan: women’s rights are human rights is unquestionably the greatest challenge to patriarchy the world has ever seen

In 1972, I returned to Indonesia to study urbanization and was asked by the US Information Service to give some talks on the US women’s movement.  As I thought about what to say, I tried to draw comparisons with Indonesian women, and realized that although I had met and interview many women, I had never talked to them about issues of being a woman in Indonesia.  Only one book had been written about contemporary women in Indonesia, and nothing recorded about their roles in the Independence struggle. 

Too quickly it became apparent that women in Indonesia were losing their relatively egalitarian roles under the pressures of rapid economic development, largely due to the biases of western economists who still saw women as servers of martinis. 

Back in Washington I organized a discussion group of women active in the Society of International Development and found my observations confirmed in other countries. Women’s traditional work was not counted, not valued, and frequently undercut by development programming. 

In Africa, for instance, women still produce some 80% of the food grown, yet early US aid programs targeted men for agricultural training.  Men then took part of their land away from women in order to raise cash crops.  The men not only required their wives to weed the cash crops in addition to growing food crops, but the men kept all the profits.  No wonder per capita food production in Africa has been falling for decades.

This idea that women’s work and roles are undercut by development was so powerful and persuasive, that Congress added a provision to the 1973 Foreign Assistance Act and the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the integration of women in development.  Just before the First UN World Conference for Women in 1975 in Mexico City, I organized a seminar for women and men from around the world where many more examples of the differential, and too often detrimental, impact of development on women were documented.  The field of Women and Development was born.

More research was needed, so I founded two international research centers, one to maintain a critical outsiders view, the other to work with agencies to implement the programs that benefitted women.  We emphasized women’s work — from handicraft to Street Foods; after all the development agencies talked economic development. [Notice the exquisite weaving on the Laotian jacket I am wearing.]  But as we all have experienced in this country, women may demand, even achieve, equality in the workplace, but most women must do a double day of maintaining the household with little help from their spouses.  And in most countries, if the marriage fails, it is the women who must leave the family home. 

My recent work centers on women’s rights to house and land around the world. including the rapidly modernizing command economies of China, Laos, and Vietnam where we have observed the reassertion of patriarchal control of resources even after years of nominal gender equality.

As the leading proponents of women’s equality during the last forty years begin to retire, we are concerned our history, herstory, be preserved.  The Schlesinger Library led the way on women’s archives, but one library cannot collect everything.  Through the National Council for Research on Women, I have set up an archival committee to identify and describe existing archival collections on women in this century with the goal of increasing both the scope of collections and their financial support.  With that commercial, I was planning to close.

Instead, I will add another.  As Radcliffe merges into Harvard, the need for women faculty becomes ever more acute.  Let me commend to you the Committee for Equality of Women at Harvard for your support.  Together, we women are making a difference!   


Radcliffe College Alumnae Association:  Alumnae Recognition Award     Irene Tinker ’49

Irene Tinker, your contributions to academia and involvement in the international community reflect the best of both the scholar and the activist.  The author of many books and monographs, including Street Foods, Engendering Wealth and Well-Being, and The Many Facets of Human Settlement, you have blazed new intellectual paths in international and feminist studies.  At the same time, you have tirelessly devoted your time and energy to improving the lot of the disadvantaged throughout the world, particularly women and children.

An expert on women and development, you have identified the sources of persistent inequality, a necessary foundation for the greater empowerment of women world-wide.  Honored with many prestigious grants to study abroad, and drawing on your years of work with United Nations agencies, you have used these opportunities to convene international conferences, which have fostered greater communication across language and cultural divides.  For the amazing vitality of your scholarship and for the scope of your international leadership in international service organizations, Radcliffe College Alumnae Association is honor to present you with its Alumnae Recognition Award.

June, 11, 1999


        Irene Tinker ’49, Professor Emerita from the University of California at Berkeley, has always combined scholarship and activism. As a student a Radcliffe, she helped set up the first co-ed literary magazine, Signature. For her Ph.D. research at the London School of Economics (1954), she drove to India through West Asia and back through Africa.  Energized by the women’s movement, she help start numerous new women’s organizations, was a cofounder of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, and cofounder of the International Center for Research on Women and the Equity Policy Center.  Two edited books trace these activities: Women in Washington: Advocates for Public Policy recounts the many ways women’s groups changed US legislation during the 1960s and 70s, while Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development documents the differential impact that international assistance has had on women and men.  Street Foods: Urban Food and Employment in Developing Countries shows how research and local groups can enhance the lives of the poor.  Just published is Women’s Rights to House and Land: China, Laos, Vietnam, written in collaboration with women from those countries.     

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