Current Institutional Affiliation
Professor, Anthropology and Women's Studies, University of the South

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 1998
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, Emory University
When Women Have Wings: Feminist NGO Strategies and Social Class in Medellin, Colombia

In Medellin, Colombia, a city better known for its drugs and violence than for its desire to empower women, the Women’s Department of the State of Antioquia (La Consejeria Para la Mujer) is designed to empower local women so that they may become participatory “agents” in Colombia’s development process. The need to foster local “agency” in development design is now being argued from a number of vantage points, including NGOs, feminist organizations, and implicitly, practice theory perspectives in the social sciences. However, there has been little ethnographic work to date which shows the larger impacts that fostering “agency” has on women’s lives. In particular, the formulation of “empowerment” which the Women’s Department has promulgated, and its notion of the female subject as “agent”, have repercussions for women’s family and economic circumstances that are not well understood. On the one hand, this new vision of the female subject can provide women alternative means of envisaging or changing their lives. Yet it may also assert a new standard of agentive womanhood, increasingly internalized by women, against which they may be found deficient if they are unable to solve their problems by means of this new self-image. Promoted by the Colombian state and by international development organizations, the female subject as “agent” is thus a powerful discursive regime with ambivalent possibilities (Faucault 1988, Ferguson 1994). This ethnographic investigation of a state-supported project for women’s “empowerment” will provide much-needed information about the effects of fostering “agency”, and how it may fulfill and/or contradict the intentions of feminists and other scholars who seek to improve women’s lives.