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Blumberg’s work helps Third World women
Rae Blumberg in Nepal
Photo courtesy of Rae Blumberg
U.Va. 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

In 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.

Her 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.

Rae Blumberg
Photo by Jack Mellott
Rae Blumberg

Along 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 Blumberg’s 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 Blumberg’s mind a decade later as she began to formulate her general theory of gender stratification.

After 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 collective’s foundation in equality.

Meanwhile in the United States, women were throwing off their aprons and demanding an equitable portion of the American dream. Blumberg’s 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.

According 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 children’s nutrition, health care and education. According to Blumberg’s research, both theories have proved applicable at any point in human history, in any location and among any social group.

Vvomba women
Photo by Rae Blumberg
A 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.

Throughout 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,” she said.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women raise up to 80 percent of the locally grown food. “It’s 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 woman’s role and failed to reward her with economic resources.

Blumberg 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.

In 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 I’m 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.

“There 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. “Rae’s 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.”

Since 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 Ebola virus.

Blumberg 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. “I’m glad there weren’t any journalists around,” she recalled with a laugh, “because we led the Communist demonstration down the street.”

Blumberg has dozens of stories to tell but insists she’s not the least bit jaded. “I’m still like a kid in a candy store, you know – the adventure, the travel, the intellectual development,” she said. “You’re solving a problem for real-life people. There’s significance to it. … I find it challenging in all conceivable directions.”


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