Feministing Reads: Kathryn Moeller’s “The Gender Effect”

About a year ago, on the eve of International Women’s Day, a statue popped up in downtown Manhattan just blocks from my office. The art piece, a bronze figure of a little girl facing off with the infamous bull of Wall Street, appeared suddenly and went viral on the internet just as swiftly.

Fearless Girl, as she is called, claimed the hearts of progressive America; Elizabeth Warren herself posted a picture alongside the statue with the caption “Fight like a girl.” The statue evoked a narrative of a small but powerful girl who could all but stop a charging beast. With the energy of the Women’s March still in the air, Fearless Girl became a mascot of sorts for the rise of feminist power. 

In actuality, the statue was the brainchild of a financial advising company, State Street Global Advisors, as part of their campaign demanding more women in positions of corporate leadership. The company saw the statue as a branding opportunity and was careful not to connect it to any political movements. While reading Kathryn Moeller’s new book The Gender Effect, I kept thinking about that little bronze girl. With tourists lined up daily to take a picture alongside the heroine, not a word is said about the fact that the company behind her creation faced allegations by the U.S. Department of Labor for a significant gender pay gap among its executives and had reached a settlement of nearly 5.5 million dollars to make the ordeal go away. In the broader context, the Fearless Girl seemed less like a symbol of power and more like an effective tool for distraction.

Which brings me to Moeller’s powerful new book, The Gender Effect. In it, Moeller examines how corporations position (and consequently burden) girls as the key for poverty alleviation and, simultaneously, as the new frontier of capitalist markets. The girl, who corporations envision as cisgender, heterosexual, impoverished, uneducated and from the Global South, is conceptualized as both the victim desperate for a savior and also the “answer” to the question of development and growth. Moeller focuses on Nike’s  The Girl Effect, a popular initiative that launched in 2004 and gained popularity with a black and white video that elicits the same response from its viewers as a ticking time bomb. Moeller argues that by focusing on funding programs for poor girls, corporations like Nike divert our attention from their own business practices that exploit the labor of women and girls. Nike, for example, established The Girl Effect in the midst of growing concern about its sweatshop practices and other abusive labor practices. Corporations are pouring money into these issues while looking for new opportunities for economic growth, which Moeller writes in her book, is “investing in rather than transforming existing inequities across multiple axes of difference – gender, racial, class, religious, and geographic – even as they claim to be ameliorating them.”  

I spoke to Moeller about her new book, which she says works to critique the world of international development and the ways in which girls (and women) have been imagined within that world. “My argument”, Moeller says, “is that these corporations are creating systems  through their business practices that are unfair to these girls. So instead of funding short-term projects for these girls, why don’t they clean up their own house and their practices that exacerbate vulnerability for girls and women. Do the work to fix these systems and then come back and ask women and girls what projects they really want and need.” Cleaning house includes a long to-do list: ensuring quality healthcare for workers, protecting the rights of workers to organize and unionize, protecting equitable living wages, eliminating gender-based violence in the workplace, and far more. The hard work of righting wrong systems is far more worthwhile and sustainable than simply launching initiatives and temporarily funding projects.

The Gender Effect points to the fact that these efforts are ultimately not about the girls or about the poverty experienced by girls and women around the world. They are about what Moeller calls “poverty as a spectacle”, a phenomenon that speaks to the deeply reductionist terms in which poverty is spoken about in the world of international and corporatized development. Poverty as a spectacle means poverty is talked about in terms of racialized and gendered subjects and white, benevolent powers that come to their rescue. It means issues of oppression and injustice are depoliticized and discussed in new terms such as “innovation”, “unlocked potential”, and “impact”. Suddenly, girls living in poverty are not first and foremost human subjects but rather a part of a larger grantmaking project, one that corporations demand be tracked, monitored, evaluated.

What it will take to uproot these systems of oppression is a complicated question which has produced a crowded debate. In 2017, Americans gave more than $390 billion dollars to charity and women’s rights organizations like Planned Parenthood saw a dramatic increase in giving (that organization saw an increase of 1000%). While we may know how to give money to an organization in our own communities in the United States, how to lend support outside of one’s local context is less clear. In our conversation, I brought up the point to Moeller that many people give to these initiatives – (RED), the Nike Foundation, and others – because they think they are doing good. Corporations have  positioned themselves as safe bets for our donated dollars. Is the answer for us not to give to issues internationally? As feminists, it is uncomfortable to insist that our liberation is tied up in one other and also say that we should not be resourcing women’s issues outside of the United States.

We may not know how to alleviate gendered poverty but we can be sure that the answer does not reside in flashy PR stunts by corporations who are also exploiting women and girls. Moeller’s book is an important resource for anyone who wants to understand the contradictions at the heart of the relationship between corporations and girls. It explains the trajectory of corporatized development and offers impressive research on the impact of such programming. Building on intersectional fields – transnational feminist theory, critical theory, postcolonial theory – Moeller’s work interrogates the consequences, intentional and otherwise, of corporations “doing good” for girls and women. Moeller unapologetically questions the ways in which our current system harms the very people it insists that it is saving.

Justice does not require listening to capitalist organizations as they try to convince us that the single poor girl will save us all from poverty and injustice. Rather, we should be following the women themselves: supporting and funding grassroots resistance, providing resources for women to set their own agendas and build their own programs, and listening to the claims and demands of community activists. As we build a feminist future, we have to be supporting local organizations rather than corporatized development that just replicates systems of oppression in its work.

After all, as this book proves, women and girls everywhere deserve better than questionable dollars donated to their cause and false statues erected in their name.

Kathryn Moeller’s book can be found here and you can learn more about her work here.

Header image: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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