Microfinance today constitutes a gendered frontier of global capital, targeting working class women for small loans through commercial microfinance institutions (MFIs). Drawing on ethnography and interviews with for-profit MFIs in India and their clients, this study aims to understand the mechanisms through which microfinance shapes gendered subjectivities at the outer edge of the global financial system. Through training programs that often accompany microloans, MFIs encourage clients to identify as working mothers who are primary caregivers for their children, but are also engaged in productive work through microenterprise or waged work. This identity serves MFIs—and global finance more broadly—by leveraging motherhood as collateral, while also ostensibly “empowering” women by encouraging them to provide for their families though work and loans. A few exceptional, well-off clients see value in the teachings of these training programs, and are celebrated by MFIs, but many more ignore or reject such programs, insisting that they are “only” housewives or mothers. Better off women, then, may be more “vulnerable” to MFI discourses aiming to transform them as individuals. Clients’ widespread dismissal of MFI empowerment programs also suggests that MFIs, far from having totalizing power, must be beholden to women who use the loans for their own purposes, while “declining” the models of gendered subjectivity on offer. Thus, the expansion of the global financial system, which requires cooperation from working class women on both material and ideological fronts, may be a contested, uneven process, rather than a linear process of “financial inclusion.”
Radhakrishnan, Smitha. 2018. “Empowerment, Declined: Paradoxes of Gendered Subjectivity in Urban India.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 44:1, 83-105.