helps Third World women
courtesy of Rae Blumberg
sociologist Rae Blumberg (fifth from left) meets with women
in the Dalit settlement of Eastern Nepal during field research
she conducted in August 1998. Her research spanned the summer
and fall of that year and involved visits to Ecuador, Nepal
and El Salvador for a USAID Women in Politics program.
By Mary Beth Knight
a career spent crisscrossing 38 countries, U.Va. sociologist
Rae Blumberg has gathered compelling evidence to support her gender
theories and to apply
them to benefit women and men around the world.
globe-trotting began as a young Peace Corps volunteer in Venezuela,
and it was then that she got her first taste for the potent blend
of intellectual development, social change and adventure.
by Jack Mellott
with her then-husband, Blumberg led an expedition to the remote
headwaters of the Orinoco River to study two jungle tribes. A
fleeting moment among members of the Maquiritare tribe
gathering for a farewell photograph helped plant the seed
for Blumbergs life work. As the men who had been our
informants posed for the picture, a middle-aged woman joined the
group, she recalled. The men moved over and deferentially
made a space for her. Their attitude was, if we were taking a
picture, she was going to be in it. And it struck me. This
simple display of gender equality remained fresh in Blumbergs
mind a decade later as she began to formulate her general theory
of gender stratification.
earning a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University, Blumberg
joined the sociology faculty of the University of Wisconsin, which
sent her back to Venezuela for two years as a resident adviser
in sociological research in the Ministry of Education. Before
returning to the U.S., she headed to Israel to study the industrialization
of the kibbutz. Once again, she observed gender dynamics at play;
only this time, inclusion was not the theme. She soon discovered
that among kibbutz members the subject always turned to
the problem of the woman. Many women were unhappy
because their role on the kibbutz had become defined by household
drudgery, Blumberg said. It was a far cry from the collectives
foundation in equality.
in the United States, women were throwing off their aprons and
demanding an equitable portion of the American dream. Blumbergs
theory arrived at a time when issues of gender played a starring
role in the public consciousness.
In simplest terms, her theory hypothesizes that the most important
variable affecting gender equality is the relative control of
economic resources by men and women, at a variety of levels, from
the micro level of the household to the macro level of the state.
Once women have greater control of income particularly
if it extends beyond bare subsistence to include discretionary
income they have greater control over their destinies,
or life options, she said. Those might include everything
from household authority to fertility decisions.
to her theory, women who extend and consolidate their economic
control also increase their opportunities to gain influence, if
not formal political power, and decrease their likelihood of becoming
victims of male violence. Blumberg formulated yet another theory,
this one on gender and Third World economic development. One of
its key hypotheses proposes that women spend income under their
control differently from their male counterparts, holding back
less for themselves and devoting it instead to family welfare
especially to their childrens nutrition, health care
and education. According to Blumbergs research, both theories
have proved applicable at any point in human history, in any location
and among any social group.
by Rae Blumberg
woman from the village of Vvomba, Uganda, (far left) explains
the work of her focus group recently to U.Va. sociologist
Rae Blumberg. Five Vvomba women founded the group in 1998
to address a famine in their village. The famine was caused
by a virus that was killing cassava plants, a staple in the
villagers diets. With the help of a scientist, the women
farmers developed a cassava plant resistant to the virus.
Today, the focus group has some 300 members in its 12 zones
57 percent are women, as are nine of the 12 zone leaders.
Women also hold most central offices, including the presidency.
her career, Blumberg has worked for the U.S. Agency for International
Development, the United Nations, the World Bank and various other
organizations that promote Third World economic development. She
typically carries out gender analysis research, which helps these
organizations appropriately target their development projects.
You get more bang for your buck when you consider gender,
sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women raise up to 80 percent
of the locally grown food. Its the African farmer
and her husband, not the farmer and his wife, Blumberg said,
adding that crucial projects to boost food production have failed
because they discounted the womans role and failed to reward
her with economic resources.
is quick to emphasize, however, that her work is not just
about women. With more and more women worldwide taking over
farming responsibilities and becoming a dominant force in local
economies, they now are considered active agents of development.
Designing foreign assistance to reflect that status results in
enhanced well-being for everyone and increased national income
growth, she said. Although women disproportionately continue to
get the short end of the stick, some studies find gender
surprises, in which men are being unfairly treated. Blumberg
cites a dairy project she worked on in Andean Ecuador where men,
not women, emerged as the injured parties.
the fall of 1998, Blumberg joined the U.Va. faculty as the William
R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology, although she continues to
split her time between Charlottesville and San Diego, where she
retains an affiliation with the University of California. In between,
she sandwiches research visits to her numerous adopted homes around
the globe. Ecuador, where she has worked dozens of times, is particularly
welcoming. I go to Ecuador, and Im home, she
says. She stays in the same apartment building, owned by people
who have become extended family.
For three to four months each year, she divides her time among
Latin America, Asia and Africa. Beyond the souvenirs she faithfully
collects for friends during her travels, Blumberg disembarks with
an uncommon fusion of scholarly thought and hands-on approach
to lend to her teaching back in Charlottesville.
is a gap in the field of gender and development between practitioners
who work in the field and the academicians who theorize and conceptualize,
said Bhavani Arabandi, a U.Va. graduate student in sociology.
Raes work bridges this gap. She is able to carry her
experiences back with her not only to enrich her own gender theory
and build on it, but also to the classroom where students profit
from her experience and perspective.
the beginning of 2002, Blumberg has flown off to do gender impact
assessments in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Her travel agenda currently
is infused with the same high energy she embraced as a fledgling
sociologist in the Peace Corps, complete with a few dangerous
encounters. A little over a year ago, she was working in a town
in Uganda when local authorities confirmed an outbreak of the
is fearless, however, managing to find humor in most tough situations.
She traveled to Nepal in 1994, in the midst of a Maoist insurgency,
on an economic liberalization project funded by USAID. Walking
en route from one meeting to another, Blumberg and a companion
encountered a group of strikers, waving hammer and sickle flags
and angrily shouting into megaphones. Wary of what might erupt
in the wake of the demonstration, Blumberg hurried to get in front
of the protestors. Im glad there werent any
journalists around, she recalled with a laugh, because
we led the Communist demonstration down the street.
has dozens of stories to tell but insists shes not the least
bit jaded. Im still like a kid in a candy store, you
know the adventure, the travel, the intellectual development,
she said. Youre solving a problem for real-life people.
Theres significance to it.
I find it challenging
in all conceivable directions.