Lost in Representation? Feminist Identity Economics and Women’s Agency in India’s Local Governments Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Ulrike Mueller

Are gender quotas effective in enhancing women’s agency in political participation? In India, in 1992, gender quotas were introduced in the local government system in order to bring decision making on service provision closer to end users and to foster rural development. This policy mechanism was expected to particularly give voice to women at the lowest government tier. A wealth of quantitative studies examines the effects of gender quotas on political selection, policy preferences, targeting, and service delivery in India. However, the findings of these studies are mixed: while gender quotas have improved women’s access to local government posts, their effects on resource allocation and service outcomes are less clear. Since large-scale surveys tend to neglect the heterogeneous contexts in which elected women representatives operate, the goal of Ulrike Mueller’s study is to obtain a more nuanced and contextual understanding on women’s political agency in India’s local government system.

A feminist qualitative research methodology. Mueller employed a feminist research methodology that aims at combining insights from economics and sociology. For this purpose, a qualitative research synthesis was conducted taking into account studies on elected women representatives from several federal states of India. Qualitative research syntheses are deemed particularly useful for integrating findings from different disciplines. The analysis, which was based on a reinterpretation of existing empirical evidence, revealed four archetypes of women’s agency in local governments involving different degrees of empowerment: (1) proxy, (2) ineffective representative, (3) co-opted party politician, and (4) development altruist.

Theoretical framework. To examine the reasons for these varying archetypes of women’s agency in political participation, Mueller proposes a framework that draws upon a number of theories. Important insights come from George A. Akerlof and Rachel E. Kranton’s game-theoretical approach, which posits that identity-related parameters play an important role in actors’ choice to engage in politics, over and above a rational weighing of costs and benefits assumed by rational choice models (Akerlof and Kranton 2000, 2010). In order to gain a better analytical understanding of women’s political agency, Mueller updates Akerlof and Kranton’s identity model with feminist intersectional and institutional theories and applies it to the implementation of gender quotas in India. 

Gender quotas are not equally empowering across different settings. Mueller’s study finds that gender quotas are not equally empowering across different settings since they interact with context-specific institutions and intersectional structures, such as caste and party affiliation. Consequently, elected women representatives conform to identity-based behavioral prescriptions that can be associated with archetypes of women’s agency in local governments. While gender quotas provide a mandate for women in India’s local government system, expectations regarding the performance of elected women representatives are still unclear more than two decades after the adoption of the gender quota policy. Hence, women from various socioeconomic and regional backgrounds face different identity costs when engaging in political participation. Often, women find themselves at a loss in action situations with contradictory prescriptions of behavior. Following institutions in a specific situation is a creative act as their meaning is hardly self-evident but needs to be interpreted. Such is the case when women operate at India’s lowest government tier, which is supposed to be free from political party interference. However, de facto, political parties with their often rigid and male-dominated structures play an important role in local decision-making processes. Thus, it is important that women conceive of the prevailing gender norms as malleable, so that they can act as “identity entrepreneurs” and use opportunities of political apprenticeship to voice their concerns.

Complementary measures tailored to local contexts are required. In order to minimize women’s incurred identity costs and to render gender quotas effective in local government settings complementary measures must be implemented. Policy options for triggering social change include: promoting visibility and women’s political leadership through elimination of “rule by proxy,” fostering acceptance of elected women representatives through collective forms of identification, such as women-only institutions, and overcoming stereotyped accounts on women’s political agency through alternative training models and diversification of networks that enable interaction among peer groups of women with different experiences. Another implication that follows from this study is that change agents do not necessarily or always have to be elected women representatives themselves. Civil society organizations can also make a vital contribution in challenging stereotyped understandings of women’s leadership and in strengthening women’s agency.


Akerlof, George A. and Rachel E. Kranton. 2000. “Economics and Identity.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115(3): 715–53.

———. 2010. Identity Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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