Voice and Agency? Where Are We Now? Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Sarah Gammage, Naila Kabeer, and Yana van der Meulen Rodgers

The social sciences have a strong tradition, one to which feminists from all disciplines have contributed, that locates agency in the context of structural constraints. This approach, however, has not sat comfortably within the methodological individualism that characterizes mainstream economics. Agency here is largely reduced to the idea of individual utility maximization subject to an array of constraints including financial ones. This interpretation has been modified over time as economists increasingly acknowledge that decision making is often carried out between individuals with pronounced inequalities in power over the decision-making process. This view of decision-making has given rise to game-theoretic approaches that seek to model how decisions might be made in situations of conflict between individuals with different resources to fall back on should the process break down.

Conceptualizing voice and agency. Sarah Gammage, Naila Kabeer, and Yana van der Meulen Rodgers examine how scholarship in feminist economics has developed and used evolving definitions of voice and agency from different branches of the social sciences, analyzing their expressions in the key domains of households, markets, and the public sphere. Their focus is on agency as the capacity for purposive action, the ability to make decisions and to pursue goals free from violence, retribution, and fear.  This view also includes a cognitive dimension, what Naila Kabeer describes as a “sense of agency” (1999: 438). The authors consider “voice” to be an integral aspect of agency, the ability to articulate practical needs and strategic interests, individually and collectively, in the private and public domains. But for change to happen, “voice” must go beyond the capacity to speak; it must be heard, listened to, and acted on.

Voice and agency in and beyond markets. Gammage, Kabeer, and Rodgers also focus on how individual agency in markets spills over to agency in the household and vice versa. Yet, they argue the analysis of voice and agency in and over markets is underrepresented, and they  draw attention to the need for further scholarship on women’s claims-making and agency in and over markets with regard to entering into employment, improving the terms and conditions of that employment, or improving the outcomes from their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Deprivations of voice and agency. As the contributions in Feminist Economics Volume 22, No. 1 demonstrate, the deprivations of voice and agency that characterize the lives of women and girls in much of the world typically result from adverse social norms and dictates regarding the behaviors and substantive freedoms of women in each of these domains. Restrictions on women’s voice and agency posed by social norms are often exacerbated by poverty and other sources of socioeconomic disadvantage, as well as by legal discrimination that denies women access to key resources such as land and housing.

Policy implications. The contributions to the edited volume also underscore that an urgent policy agenda is required to address women’s lack of voice and agency, tackling discriminatory laws and extending policies to expand women’s capabilities and their economic opportunities. Channeling more resources to collective expressions of agency in markets and supporting cooperatives and unions as they make claims on labor and product markets will be essential if we are to improve the terms and conditions of women’s employment and entrepreneurship. Finally, acting on the construction of social norms by engaging in dialogue with key actors that shape and reflect these norms will be critical if we are to change the imagined and the imaginary to include women’s full participation and agency.


Kabeer, Naila. 1999. “Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment.” Development and Change 30(3): 435–64.

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