Home Essays & Reviews Gender Problematic Aspects of Ester Boserup's Woman's Role In Economic Development


Problematic Aspects of Ester Boserup's Woman's Role In Economic Development

Many of Boserup's oversights stem from her failure to acknowledge or explore the possibility of essentially different conceptual categories in non-Western contexts. Numerous times throughout her book, Boserup assumes a "customary division of labor between the two sexes (1970, 44)." In fact, her entire analysis of women's role in development relies on her Western understanding of two dichotomous sex/gender roles and a system of labor based upon these polarized categories.

By Julie McCune

Much of the Western academic community holds anthropologist Ester Boserup in high regard. In 1998 the American Anthropological Association honored Boserup with a President's Award in recognition of her contributions towards an understanding of the relationship between population growth and agricultural intensification. Boserup developed and elaborated her current theoretical model in many books over the course of the past thirty years. Many consider one of her early works, Woman's Role in Economic Development (1970), a classic of development literature.

In Woman's Role in Economic Development, Boserup attempts to highlight the myriad ways in which modernization of agriculture affects women in developing countries. Focusing on Africa, Boserup claims that this process of modernization unavoidably alters the sexual division of labor. She maps out her understanding of the particular problems of women as they are deprived of their previous productive functions and values. Ultimately, Boserup describes this pattern of female deprivation as a significant obstacle to the success of development policies.

During the course of her analysis, however, Boserup utilizes several Western-inspired assumptions, sensibilities and methodologies that may not play out accurately in an African context. These assumptions pervade her work at a fundamental level and distort the very issues Boserup attempts to clarify. A critical exploration of Boserup's positions, drawing from the work of several African scholars, underscores the importance of academic responsibility in addressing issues of development in rural African contexts.

Many of Boserup's oversights stem from her failure to acknowledge or explore the possibility of essentially different conceptual categories in non-Western contexts. Numerous times throughout her book, Boserup assumes a "customary division of labor between the two sexes (1970, 44)." In fact, her entire analysis of women's role in development relies on her Western understanding of two dichotomous sex/gender roles and a system of labor based upon these polarized categories. Scholar Oyeronke Oyewumi, in a discussion of Yoruba research projects, notes that "Western conceptual schemes and theories have become so widespread that almost all scholarship … utilizes them unquestioningly (1997, x)." Because Boserup unquestioningly invoked a binary Western notion of gender while generalizing about all African societies, she fails to account for alternative definitions of difference. Although Boserup acknowledges that scholars often find proof of their beliefs when looking for it, she does not recognize this phenomenon in some of her basic assumptions.

In combination with less than responsible assumptions, Boserup consistently deploys a negative focus and a superior or condescending attitude. She frequently refers to the "problems of women" in Africa as though the women had inherent flaws. Boserup constructs negative, subordinate and objectified images of women. She neglects to represent examples of active autonomous African women. Furthermore, she often coats her arguments with an air of superiority. Boserup defines 'progress' of 'primitive' communities with examples of alterations in economic organization that she perceives as more closely resembling Western structures. Boserup also privileges a Western notion of science in discussions of farming methods without adequate justification. Boserup consistently privileges Western systems of beliefs and organizational principles while utilizing them in broad generalizations about the entire African continent.

MEN (and their women)

Boserup's Western notions present themselves in blatant and subtle ways throughout her work. She neglects female perspectives and assumes structures of patriarchy by representing men as privileged heads of households. In a discussion of Yoruba families, Boserup notes that women "performed domestic duties for the husband and . . . helped him on his farm (1970, 42)." Boserup centers her discussion of households on the husband as owner and director. She frequently describes women and children as helpers to the man in his economic ventures and agricultural duties. Boserup justifies this focus by drawing a distinction between subsistence crops cultivated by women and cash crops cultivated by men. Significantly, this distinction informs development policies that provide resources to males for cultivation of cash crops. Several African scholars, however, challenge the legitimacy of the male cash crop/female subsistence crop distinction.

Anthropologist Achola Okeyo Pala argues convincingly that economic analysis of women as producers of non-market crops often renders their work as insignificant or irrelevant. Pala points out that "new directions of research by removing the distinction between market and nonmarket activities are redefining the value of women's work in the household, in child care, and in subsistence production, and places emphasis on its productive significance (1981, 7)."

Researcher Constantina Safilios-Rothschild supports this claim and argues that "the distinction between food crops and cash crops is … not very meaningful (1994, 58)." She claims that studies in Kenya have shown that more than half of 'subsistence' crops produced are marketed and used similarly to cash crops. Furthermore, Safilios-Rothschild points out that "the marketing behaviour of African women farmers is significantly influenced by prices …of a particular food crop (1994, 58)." Also, Safilios-Rothschild notes that some women farmers produce what most policies recognize as 'cash crops'. This softening of Boserup's cash-food crop dichotomy helps place women's activities within a context of wider economic spheres and brings more attention to their valuable productivity.

Boserup reinforces her male focus by representing men as active agents in charge of women. Women become more invisible to Boserup's project as they become the objects of her sentences. Boserup notes that "in many African tribes, nearly all the tasks connected with food production continue to be left to women (1970, 16)." In this statement and many others, Boserup uses passive language that promotes images of helpless women. Instead of women performing the food production tasks in a cooperative effort supporting the family, they are left with the burden and have no mention of choice in the matter.

Boserup also frequently excludes women from classifications that would more appropriately include both genders. For example, in a discussion of polygamy of the Mende in Sierra Leone, Boserup mentions that Little found "sixty-seven wives to the twenty-three cultivators included in his sample (1970, 39)." Boserup uses 'cultivators' in a way that implies that they are all men. At other points in her book, she excludes women from the category of villagers by suggesting that the villagers attend to one thing, while the women are left with the farmwork (1970, 32). Although Boserup intended to draw attention to oft-ignored position of women in development texts, her passive portrayal or omission of women contributes to their invisibility.

Boserup's focus on the male also depends on her utilization of the household concept as a unit of analysis. Anthropologist Felicia I. Ekejiuba makes a convincing argument explaining the problems with the concept of households as applied in a West African context:

"The concept of the household, as it is currently applied, is itself part of a subtle ideological transformation which has facilitated the assertion of colonial power nationally and male power domestically. The concept clouds the true pattern of gender interaction and power relations, portraying the impression of men as sole providers and of female dependence and passivity, as opposed to their active participation in socio-economic processes. The negotiated relationships that result in interdependence and relative autonomy between the sexes are conveniently swept aside for want of suitable analytic constructs (1995, 50)."

Ekejiuba offers the concept of a female-directed hearth-hold as a unit of analysis that more accurately reflects what men and women experience in daily life. The hearth-hold centers on the hearth or stove where a woman is responsible for food security (1995, 51). In a polygamous situation, several hearth-holds may constitute household headed by a male. In this conception, both men and women have important responsibilities. Ekejiuba notes that "a focus on the hearth-hold as an independent unit of analysis, or as a subset of the household in which it is nested, enables us to understand the significance of male and female adults as independent agents of development and change (1995, 57)." Boserup, however, consistently fails to portray females as independent agents.

In a chapter on the economics of polygamy, Boserup refers to women being "pawned by husbands or fathers to work in their creditor's field … without pay until the debt was paid off (1970, 46)." Boserup portrays women as objects of exchange and economic assets to men without any mention of personal value and authority within their lineages.

Boserup continues to write from a male perspective in a discussion of polygamy. Boserup quotes a report of the UN Economic Commission for Africa: "One of the strongest appeals of polygyny to men in Africa is precisely its economic aspect, for a man with several wives commands more land, can produce more food for his household and can achieve a high status due to the wealth which he can command (1970, 37)." Boserup asserts that "a polygamic family is the ideal family organization from the man's point of view (1970, 38)." Although Boserup goes to great length to explain how a man with many wives benefits economically, she does not make any argument concerning polygamy from a wife's point of view. This one-sided representation contributes to the image of polygamy as a patriarchal institution. Alternatives to this representation can be found in the work of Therese Locoh.

Locoh asserts that a wife in a polygynous marriage enjoys the "flexibility of customary marriage, where separations were relatively easy to carry out and allowed her to implement individual strategies, whether matrimonial or not (1994, 227)." Locoh also mentions that a wife in a polygynous marriage has "more autonomy to manage her own economic activity, to build her own social network and, in certain cases, to move to a subsequent partner (1994, 227)." Obviously, Locoh paints a very different picture of polygamy than does Boserup. In Locoh's model, men and women actively maneuver for independence and increased status.

Boserup's focus on an enviable, privileged male perspective contributes to a development myth that Achola Okeyo Pala refers to as "Man as the Enemy". Boserup's rendering of households, agricultural systems, and polygamous marriages as oppressive patriarchal structures gives the appearance that men are the immediate obstacle to women's advancement. Pala notes, as does Boserup, that the workload of African women is increasing as a result of complex processes of modernization. Pala, however, asserts that "their responsibilities do not often generate the type of psychic stress or alienation that cause them to define their relationship with men in adversary terms (1981, 10)." Furthermore, Pala does not idealize the position of men. She explains that "in some instances the male standard does not really offer anything to emulate. For instance, when men are employed in arduous low-paying jobs in the towns, their wages, conditions of work, and living cannot really be seen as a yardstick for success because the truth of the matter is that these men are being exploited (1981, 10)."

The Burden of Tradition

Boserup consistently represents African women in positions of drudgery and servitude. She provides a distorted sense of value by only recognizing women's economic contributions to male-operated organizations. She refers to them as servants or pawns. She gives mention to women's value as workers and mothers, but significantly she neglects to mention examples where women continue to be held in high regard as daughters in their natal lineage. These oversights provide an inaccurate image of women's flexibility, autonomy, and value.Boserup observes that "often, men apply modern scientific methods in the cultivation of cash crops, while their wives continue to cultivate food crops by traditional methods (1970, 53)." She then embellishes this observation into a polarized comparison of men and women with regards to their positions in a modernizing community. Boserup applies her own Western perception of women's labour when she notes that "men represent modern farming in the village, women represent the old drudgery (1970, 56)." She imposes her own values and neglects to examine the many ways Africans assign value to labor. She represents the woman as exploited (by men): "women perform the degrading manual jobs; men often have the task of spreading fertilizer in the fields, while women spread manure (1970, 56)." Boserup provides no citation to express to the reader why she refers to spreading manure as a degrading job, nor does she legitimate the hierarchical distinction between the two duties. It seems likely that Boserup inserted her own valuations of female labour and manure into an African context.

Boserup invokes these images of downtrodden African women in an effort to communicate the complex ways by which European influence and colonialism altered the power relations between men and women by privileged treatment of men. She notes that Europeans are responsible for "this peculiar polarization of sex roles, with men at the progressive end and women at the traditional end (1970, 56)." Unfortunately, Boserup proceeds to degrade and misrepresent the traditions that she perceives women as representing. In a discussion of the sexual differential in education, Boserup draws the conclusion that "while illiteracy, traditional behaviour, and superstition had once been common among all the villagers, these signs of backwardness gradually became more characteristic of the women than of the men in rural communities (emphasis mine) (1970, 56)." Boserup's superior western attitude blatantly reveals itself in this passage when she describes aspects of traditional life (women) as backward. Furthermore, her inclusion of 'illiteracy' in the demeaning description exemplifies a common assumption of development planners.

In a discussion of development planners in Africa, Nkiru Nzegwu notes that "they illegitimately suppose that lack of literacy skills is equivalent to lack of organizational skills (1995, 453)." Nzegwu refers to Pattanayak (1991), who notes that "when literacy is construed as the basis of modernization: 'illiteracy is grouped with poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, and health care, and the advance of civilization (1995, 453)." Clearly, Boserup's assumption that literacy is linked with modernization significantly affects her portrayal of women as backward. Nzegwu, however, quotes that research has shown the correlation between literacy and agricultural development is quite insignificant. Although Nzegwu acknowledges the importance of literacy, she also takes care to point out that many African women lacking literacy skills engage and prosper in a wide range of activities (1995, 453).

Boserup, however, fails to recognize any of women's activities as modern. She notes that "most of the retail market trade is in female hands, while the whole of the modern sector, modern shops, industries and offices, is almost exclusively taken care of by men (1970, 87)." The only women that Boserup considers as anything but representative of backward traditions are those with Western education and values. Boserup claims that "educated girls in Africa who support the cause of monogamous marriage as part of a modern outlook are unable to rally the majority of women behind them (1970, 43)." In addition to her diminutive use of 'girls', Boserup constructs a dichotomy between a backward traditional culture and a modern western culture. This dichotomy contributes to the development myth that Achola Okeyo Pala calls 'The Culture Argument".

Although Boserup's description of African women does not map exactly onto Pala's definition of 'The Cultural Argument", we can use some of Pala's work to explore the significance of Boserup's portrayal of the burdened traditional woman. Boserup's definition of modernization as provoked by outside influence leads the reader to assume that the traditional society has "no endogenous processes of change in … cultural traditions (Pala, 1981, 8)". Furthermore, Pala points out that "to assume that there is something inherent and unchanging in a culture first presupposes that there is such a thing as a cultural system divorced from economic and political forces (1981, 8)." Once a cultural system is perceived as outside of economic and political forces, understanding of woman's situation in Africa is obscured. Pala asserts that:

"The cultural argument is dangerous because it sees women as a separate category outside of the social, economic, and political circumstances in which they live, the totality of which defines their position. … It diverts attention from the economic constraints placed upon African women by the international economic order. … It is a dangerous argument because in it one discerns a certain resurgence of arrogance and paternalism that ultimately defines a role, albeit illegitimate, for external intervention (1981, 9)."

Although Boserup attempts to address problems in African women's lives, her methods obscure important factors crucial to a more accurate understanding of their situation. Furthermore, she strips African women of their agency by denying them internal possibilities for improvement. Any advancement must come from a developed modernized influence. Pala claims that a common problem to Boserup and other metropolitan researchers derive from "a continuing intellectual tradition that prefers to see Africa in stereotyped and easy-to-explain categories (1981, 9)."

Common Sense

Boserup contributes to simplistic stereotypical images of African women in many ways. She often inserts her own valuations of labor in descriptions of burdens or leisure time. She does not question many of her assumptions, nor does she open the possibility for conceptually different categories and organizing principles. Consistently, she provides explanations and reasons without citing any sort of responsible study of the context on which she is commenting. Furthermore, she draws on a handful of case studies to make generalizations about all of Africa. Boserup's Western common sense takes the place of fundamental questioning and research.

In many places, Boserup does not cite important information. In a discussion of polygamy, she claims that "the desire for numerous progeny is no doubt often the main incentive (1970, 41)." Without citation, the reader has no way of knowing how Boserup came to this conclusion. Does her confidence result from a careful responsible study of polygamous societies in Africa? Or does the incentive for numerous children just make sense to her, erasing all doubt and allowing her to exclude other possibilities? Citations would help the reader develop a fuller understanding of the incentives of polygamy in African contexts.

Another confusion in Boserup's work stems from her habit of using terminology that has powerful force over her Western audience. She asserts that "widespread prostitution or adultery is … likely to accompany widespread polygamy (1970, 44)." Boserup neglects to comment about the profound moral and legal implications of words like 'adultery' and 'prostitution' in Western settings. Her Western audience may assume that these words mean the same thing in African contexts, or carry the same moral weight, as in Western areas. The need for Boserup to address the confusions of cross-cultural studies became exceedingly apparent in examples such as this with culturally loaded signifiers. Boserup consistently fails to ask the right questions relevant to understanding the complicated issues she seeks to resolve.

This pattern continues as Boserup uncritically refers to an array of anthropological studies. For example, she does not critically examine the studies that inform her main point concerning the differential in male and female workloads. Boserup notes that "one of the sample studies from the Central African Republic mentions that the women generally do the most exhausting and boring tasks, while the performance of the men is sometimes limited to being present in the fields to supervise the work of women (1970, 22)." An alert reader may realize the assumptions and methodologies that contribute to complete acceptance of this classic representation of African women and their subordinate status. In fact, a current trend in anthropology involves critical examination of earlier work with the intent of representing a more accurate picture of particular societies.

Felicia Ekejiuba explains that "one of the main problems I had as a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard in the 1970s was reconciling my childhood experiences of women as initiators of development and active participants of social and economic processes in their communities with their image in much of the existing literature as 'marginalized', 'downtrodden' and 'exploited' by patriarchy and motherhood (1995, 48)." Ekejiuba's scholarship and previously noted work concerning units of analysis in African studies exemplifies the crucial importance of African inclusion in academic study. Achola Okeyo Pala asserts that "African scholars, and especially women, must bring their knowledge to bear on presenting an African perspective on prospects and problems for women in local societies (1981, 213)."

Although Boserup presumably initiated her study of women's role in development out of genuine concern for equality and a higher standard of living, her neglect of African priorities undermines her objective. Although working towards respectable goals of gender-sensitive development policies and equitable resource distribution, Boserup ignores local perspectives and priorities. Boserup calls for detailed surveys with gendered categories, but does not examine important issues concerning uncritical academic practices. As Pala indicates, "a statistical relationship . . . which can be established as an academic exercise does not necessarily constitute relevant information or a priority from the point of view of those who are made the research subjects (1981, 211)."

At times, Boserup seems aware of some of these important issues that Pala articulates so clearly. Boserup makes a distinct effort to show how European assumptions of superior male agricultural ability and authority led to disasters in agricultural development policies. She also explores the problematic aspects of European conceptions of ownership as applied to Africa, and the subsequent disadvantagement of women. Clearly, Boserup has considered the ways in which assumptions affect resource distribution and policy decisions. Unfortunately, she overlooks this same phenomenon in her own work.

Neurotic Resistors

In a discussion of women's revolts, Boserup finally gives some hint of independent female agents. Boserup mentions that "African women have not always accepted without protest the deterioration in their position (1970, 63)." Although Boserup designates a short section to women's resistance, her word choice and focus contribute to an image of women's resistance as a pathetic and desperate plight.

For example, Boserup discusses a revolt in the Kon region of Eastern Nigeria in 1959. Boserup mentions that the revolt was fanned by "rumours spread among the women that the Government was selling their land to the Ibo tribe (1970, 64)." Boserup includes that "although there were no Ibos in the region, the almost neurotic hatred of them was shared by most people in the region. The illiterate women regard their land as almost sacred, and the fear that their land might be sold was by far the most important reason for the uprising (1970, 64)." By describing the women as neurotic and illiterate, Boserup degrades their demands and ignores their history.

Boserup's negative rendering of women's resistance can be better understood by contrasting it with Nkiru Nzegwu's brief coverage of women's resistance, specifically during the Women's War of 1929, in her article Recovering Igbo Traditions (1995). In a discussion of the women's resistance, Nzegwu explains that:

"It showed their political acumen, foresight and vision, and revealed the existence of a powerful, highly efficient political structure with networks that transcended ethnic boundaries. The women displayed an incisive grasp of the colonial agenda, an ability to perform rapid and accurate analysis of the fluid, complex situation, and a remarkable capacity for formulating and deploying appropriate strategies (1995, 450)."

Clearly, Boserup did not choose to explore these aspects of the women's resistance. Nzegwu's rendering describes women with the power, intelligence, leadership and creativity to make positive changes in their lives. The different versions of women's resistance create significantly divergent openings for external imposition of development strategies.

Furthermore, Boserup reports women's resistance as hindering overall community development. Boserup claims that:

"There are many reports from Africa about husbands whose wives refuse to help them in the production of cash crops, or to perform household chores, unless they are paid a wage for their work. Other reports concern women who refuse to help their husbands in the cultivation of cash crops because they want to grow only their own food crops. This is considered an obstacle to the progress from subsistence agriculture to commercial production for the market (1970, 64)."

Although Boserup refers to the women's behaviour as an obstacle to progress, Nzegwu points out that in Igboland, "this withdrawal force acts as a constitutional check, forcing men to confront their dependency on women (1995, 457)."

Boserup does not legitimize this form of resistance as a culturally appropriate maneuver for power. Additionally, by her recognition of important local practices as obstacles to development policies, it is clear that the policies were developed without consideration for the specific context. Nzegwu describes this kind of approach as "counterproductive since it shut out local participation in the design of projects, with the result that local aspiration, values, priorities, and needs were excluded (1950, 460)."

Boserup's failure to account for African priorities provides a reasonably accurate representation of the methods practiced by many mainstream Africanist scholars. Nzegwu points out that the work of white Africanist women scholars privileges a "negative approach that treats Africa as a terrain for theory-testing (1998, 7)." This approach distorts, ignores, and overrides many social realities in African contexts and inserts an ill-fitting western framework of knowledge and knowledge production.

By using this approach, Boserup does little service to African women. By assuming structures of subordination based on her own western experience, Boserup remained "stuck in the groove of oppression (Nzegwu, 1998, 7)." Nzegwu could very well have been referring to Boserup's work when she commented that "constructed in poverty, elaborated on negation, African women became passive objects of study, to be poked, prodded, and stripped of any redeeming quality and dignity (1998, 7)." Such criticism does not intend to completely invalidate Boserup's work. Rather, recognition of her oversights and their serious ramifications enables other Africanist scholars to examine ways in which they continue to invoke a colonizing agenda.


Boserup, Ester. Woman's Role in Economic Development (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1970).

Ekejiuba, Felicia. "Down to Fundamentals: Women-Centered Hearthholds in Rural West Africa." In Deborah Fahy Bryceson, ed. Women Wielding the Hoe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 47-61.

Locoh, Therese. "Social Change and Marriage Arrangements: New Types of Union in Lome, Togo," Nuptiality in Sub-Saharan Africa, eds. Caroline Bledsoe and Gilles Pison (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 215-230.

Nzegwu, Nkiru. "The Politics of Gender in African Studies in the North," Women in African Scholarly Publishing, eds. Cassandra Veney and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (Bellagio Studies in Publishing, in press).

---. "Recovering Igbo Traditions: A Case for Indigenous Women's Organizations in Development." In Women, Culture and Development Martha Nussbaum and Jonathon Glover, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 444-465.

Oyewumi, Oyeronke. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Discourses on Gender (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Press, 1997).

Pala, Achola Okeyo. "Definitions of Women and Development: An African Perspective," in The Black Woman Cross-Culturally, ed. Filomina Chioma Steady (Cambridge, Mass: Schenkman Publishers Co, 1981), 209-214.

---. "Reflections on Development Myths," Africa Report, March/April (1981), 7-10.

Safilios-Rothschild, Constantina. "Agricultural policies and women producers," in Gender, Work and Population in Sub-Saharan Africa, eds. Aderanti Adepoju and Christine Oppong (London:International Labour Organisation, 1994).

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Home Essays & Reviews Gender Problematic Aspects of Ester Boserup's Woman's Role In Economic Development