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The “Power of the Purse”: Origins of Women’s Economic Power


Rae Lesser Blumberg & Samuel Cohn         









Women’s economic power matters because it is the key to gender equality. When women don’t have access to money, they are economically dependent on the men in their lives. If these men make unreasonable demands upon them, they are in no position to leave. When women have their own income and resources, they are no longer under the control of husbands or fathers.If they are unhappy enough, they can leave and survive on their own account. Giving a woman an exit option gives a woman power.


So, what causes women to attain economic power? Two factors:

1. Strategic Indispensability.

2. Strategic Alliances


Strategic indispensability.  Strategic indispensability is the essence of power (Pfeffer 1981). Being indispensable gives a worker a credible exit threat. If the worker leaves, the organization cannot go on without her. Lady Gaga is essential to a Lady Gaga concert. You can replace a roadie or a bass player but not the main attraction. If Lady Gaga is unhappy and threatens not to go on stage, the show will not go on. Lady Gaga’s strategic indispensability makes it likely she will get exactly what she wants. 

Hirschman (1970) made this argument compellingly in Exit, Voice and Loyalty. If management does something that workers don’t like, the workers have a choice of exit, voice or loyalty. They can leave, they can protest, or they can suck it up and take it. Voice (protest) only works if acting on the exit threat would actually hurt management. If the firm can operate perfectly well with replacement workers, the exit threat is meaningless: the workers have no power to force significant change in policy.

Strategic indispensability is particularly important for women’s economic power.  To be indispensable, women must work in key production activities. That is the prerequisite (Blumberg 1984). To transform their work into economic power, the activity has to be important and valued. The women cannot be easy to replace. Could the society or the power elite do without female production? If the answer is “not easily,” women have crucial strategic indispensability and with it, some level of economic power. 

Strategic alliances.  Power is not strictly based on one’s own resources. Victories are won by coalitions of people working together. Having powerful allies matter. If women receive the support of key gatekeepers and power holders in society, they can leverage this assistance into women’s victories. If every significant societal actor favors male domination, the women are outnumbered and outflanked. Regardless of their own resources, they are likely to lose. 

Resource mobilization theorists make this argument compellingly. Tilly (1988), and McCarthy and Zald (1977) all argue that the success of protests depends on whether elite forces contribute resources to the cause. Wealthy sponsors can donate money. Government officials can provide parliamentary votes, favorable administrative decisions, victories in court or protection from police repression. Moral authorities and celebrities can provide publicity or can frame women’s case in a manner that increases public approval. Movements with sponsors win. Movements without sponsors are crushed. Comparable arguments are made in the literature on organizational power where worker autonomy and access to decision-making are linked to alliances with key outsiders (Pfeffer 2010).

In today’s world, what kind of resources are necessary to get strategic indispensability? The most common resources are money, property and skills. In some cases, availability to work makes one indispensable when no one else is available.

What kinds of people must one connect with in order to get strategic alliances? Economic gatekeepers matter. Women need alliances with customers, vendors and lenders.  If male, they may have strong preferences on gender issues, including whether or not they will do business with women. The state is of fundamental importance too. If the law is biased against women, then regulators, the police or even customs officials all can hamper women’s economic activities. Moral, cultural and religious authorities also can create or destroy public support for women.



The Supporting Causes of Women’s Economic Power

There are many ways to obtain strategic indispensability and strategic alliances.  You probably can probably think of a dozen right now. We propose five determinants of women’s  strategic indispensability and five of strategic alliances. These undergird women’s economic empowerment. It is easy to demonstrate their importance in helping women solidify their economic power in numerous empirical settings in both the Global North and Global South. 

Absence of Patrilineal Inheritance. Patrilineal inheritance is inheriting property strictly between males, especially from father to son. Wives and daughters are intentionally bypassed. Cutting women off from property makes them economically weak.

Absence of Patrilocality. Patrilocality is having women go to live with their husband’s family when they marry. When women are forced to live exclusively with their husband’s family, surrounded by his male-side kin, contact with and support from their family of birth typically plummets or disappears. This leaves them with no allies in a marital dispute. Everyone else in the household and his relatives will support the husband.

Absence of Non-Irrigated (“Dry”) Plow Agriculture. Men have been far more likely to use the plow than women, given that human- or animal-drawn plows require considerable upper body strength and biologically, men have 1/2 to 3/4 more. In dry plow agriculture, plowing the earth to plant the seeds may be seen as the single most important phase of the food production process. In these cases, men, not women, have strategic indispensability and male power is high: In fact, women have little role from plowing to harvest. The next section adds more detail. (Blumberg 1984 offers more detail on these first three points.)

Labor Scarcity. Keeping women out of powerful positions requires that there be enough men available to fill those powerful positions. When men are either scarce or insufficient to meet rising demand and alternative labor forces (e.g., male migrants or even robots) are not readily available, there are jobs that will go undone unless one allows women to do them. Scarcity of men can come from warfare when men leave their homes to fight distant battles. It can also come from men migrating to other places. Such male absence often leaves the women to handle all the normal business at home (although sometimes, older men who stay behind can prevent women from gaining economic autonomy).    Overall labor scarcity can come from economic expansion or business booms. These scenarios increase women’s prospects for becoming strategically indispensable.

Access to Human Capital. Human capital is economic jargon for skill. Human capital generally comes from education and work experience. In a modern industrialized economy, skilled jobs pay more than unskilled jobs. Having human capital is essential to attaining positions of responsibility and status.

Commercialization of Women’s Home-Based Production/Enterprise. Prior to industrialization, most people lived on farms and produced the bulk of goods at home. When industrialization comes, some of that work can become valuable in the market. If women make textiles or art objects or do market trading – and are lucky enough to have that sector take off – they can find themselves in a lucrative niche in the economy.

Absence of Male Preference by Controllers of Capital or Sales. It is hard for women to become economically powerful if men won’t do business with them. If credit institutions and banks won’t loan to women, then the only businesses with significant assets will be those controlled by men. If strategic buyers won’t negotiate with women or buy their products, then marketing and deal-making will be male monopolies.

Women’s Economic Organization. Women can make alliances with each other to increase their mutual power. Female business associations, cooperatives, trading groups, traditional rotating savings and credit groups (especially among traders in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia), as well as informal cooperation among women in business, all increase women’s economic power relative to men. Microfinance institutions (MFIs), too, often prefer women as microloan clients because they usually repay better than men.

Favorable Balance of Non-discriminatory vs. Patriarchal Non-Economic Institutions. Women need societal support if they are to attain positions of power. To the extent the government or the law is anti-feminist and discriminates against women, women seeking power will face legal and political obstacles. The same applies if religious organizations, schools or the mass media are patriarchal, discriminating and anti-feminist. Under those circumstances, women will face hostile public opinion, as well as organized resistance from gatekeepers enforcing traditional moral codes.

Absence of Armed Conflict Near Women’s Homes. War and violence close to home foster male control over women. Women who want positions of power must be able to go about their business. If the streets are unsafe, women either must stay home or find armed men if they wish to go out. Limited mobility severely constrains what women can do on their own behalf. In warlike conditions, power devolves on those people who carry guns. Disproportionately, gun carriers tend to be males.


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​The previous blurb is actually a commercial!

It is an adaptation of some of the opening pages of a soon-to-appear edited book, Cohn, Samuel and Rae Blumberg (eds.) Gender and Development: Economic Basis of Women’s Power. (Sage). In that book we have the entire essay from which this selection is drawn. That discussion is a full development of the ten primary bases of women’s power and how this applies to women in the Global North and the Global South. The two main editors also have solo chapters, Cohn on how employers choose to provide or deny employment to women and Blumberg on the gendered behavior of primates and how this has been echoed in the history of gender relations among human beings. We also have essays from Jasmine Hristov, Valentine Moghadam, Rita Jalali, Manuela Boatca and Julia Roth, Kevin Leicht and Phyllis Baker, Marie Berry, Jennifer Rothchild and Priti Shrestha, and Jennifer Fish. We discuss gendered violence in Latin America, differential women’s power in Tunisia and Iran, the effects of powerlessness on women’s sanitary health in India, and a wide variety of other topics involve women’s relationship with power in many nations of the world.

Expect to see this title in early 2019!

And in the meantime, when you think about women’s power, think about these ten factors.​


For More Information

For the most readable and useful theory of power ever written, check out Pfeffer. Jeffrey’s Power in Organizations.

For less readable but more famous theories of power, the two go-to's there are Charles Tilly’ s From Mobilization to Revolution, and John McCarthy and Mayer Zald’s  “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory.” In the 1977 American Journal of Sociology. Never mind that these two sources concentrate on the power of protesters. The applications to personal life are there if you think about it.

For a grand, grand theory of gender inequality, see Blumberg, Rae Lesser. “A General Theory of Gender Stratification.” in the 1984 Sociological Theory 2: 23-101. There is no better statement of the cosmic issues.

For an alternative and extremely cool theory of gendered power, see Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation. We don’t use it here, but we love it.


For the best theory of sulking on the planet, see Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. It has a beautiful treatment of what you can do when you have power and what you have to do when you can’t.

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