Strategic Gendering as Capability: One Lens into the Complexity of Powerlessness

How to Cite

Sassen, S. (2010). Strategic Gendering as Capability: One Lens into the Complexity of Powerlessness. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 19(1).


In her influential work on capabilities, Women and Human Development, Martha Nussbaum addresses questions that cut across diverse framings and philosophical conceptions, even as her project is to exit the confinements of these conceptions. Her conceptual exit aims at a precise locating of the core elements that should be at work in our understanding of human development: the individual as a bearer of capabilities that ought to be realized. These core elements should be recognized normatively and politically. More specifically, her work establishes a norm: the right of women to be what they can be. I intersect with this proposition. But I start from and arrive at conceptual grounds that diverge from Nussbaum’s. This divergence in beginnings and endings can coexist with that shared point of intersection: the recognition of individuals as bearers of capabilities. The divergence stems partly from our different disciplines and partly from substantive differences in focus. Nussbaum’s concern in Women and Human Development is to recover the individual, in this case women, as the bearer of capabilities. My concern is to recover the larger assemblage of actors and conditions within which this individual can become a bearer of capabilities.

In terms of the focus of this Article, the major theoretical and political implication is a systemic repositioning of exploited or undervalued women. After twenty years of International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) driven restructuring in poor Global South countries, these exploited and undervalued women are active factors in the making of alternative political economies for survival, not only for survival of their households but also for a range of economic sectors and for governments. In this process these women do not necessarily become empowered. The women themselves most likely do not gain anything from their functioning as a capability in the making of alternative economies for survival-or, from this analytic recognition/legibility of their systemic positioning as a vanguard actor in the making of a new history. But this recognition matters politically and theoretically: they are not only victims, and they can make history even if they do not become personally empowered. In this complexity of powerlessness lies a possibility for politics, including the making of the political. To sharpen the elaboration of the argument in this short article, I have chosen to focus on systems that can be seen as negative, notably, the trafficking of women for the sex industry, perhaps one of the most extreme forms of trafficking of workers. The analysis in this Article examines how these exploited women have become a key source for the survival not only of their households, as has been widely reported, but also, and less noted, for the survival of “entrepreneurship” in economies devastated by neoliberal policies that have destroyed traditional economies. Entrepreneurship in the context of trafficking ranges from global criminal syndicates, which are truly murderous, to small local entrepreneurs who are actually hired by the “trafficked” migrant, whether woman or man. Furthermore, these trafficked workers have become a source for enhancing government revenues at a time when many of these governments are burdened by massive debts to the international financial system and access to hard currencies has become critical. The capacity to enable survival of households, economies and governments needs to be recognized. That these women remain powerless and are often enslaved is a fact, but that should not obscure a second fact, that there is complexity in this powerlessness, and hence the possibility of a politics-a reorienting of this collective capacity towards different aims and thereby a making of a history.