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We are only halfway to understanding women's 'agency'

Feminism’s deepest belief is that women’s voices must come to the fore, but when they do, we find these voices often scuttle our assumptions about what should be the right/legitimate form of ‘agency’. How do we account for the agency of women returning to violent partners, of women who decide not to throw off the veil but put it on, of women who want to be mail-order brides or sex workers? Manjima Bhattacharjya explores

The question of women’s agency has been a thorn in the side of feminism for as far back as I can remember. In early usage, it was a term used by economists to denote the “intellectual capacity of women to make intelligent, purposive (rational) decisions, under the standard constraints that face most decisionmakers”. Even then, it was a concept that saw considerable debate. Classical economists like Adam Smith contended in the 1700s that women could not be trusted to be economic agents in themselves, as they did not have the education or training (and even faculties) to take such decisions, and would need to be guided or controlled, an idea that was challenged by feminist economists in consequent centuries.  

By the 1940s, debates were taking place amongst sociologists on human agency in general. Their fundamental question was: what determines human behaviour? Is it the social structure – a set of systems and rituals that define social relations -- or an individual’s inherent agency? By prioritising structure over agency, they implied that people’s actions were not autonomous and were always mediated or controlled by the structures they were located in. Feminists more or less went with the idea that structure, without a doubt, cast a long shadow on women’s actions and inactions. In fact, feminism itself rests on the existence of a structure called patriarchy, defined by Sylvia Walby as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women”. At that point in time, it was important to highlight the structural nature of oppression so as to combat biological determinism -- the idea that women were naturally ‘less’ than men and deserved a subordinate position in polity, economy and society. To speak of agency then would probably have been detrimental to this cause, as it would have implied that women were themselves responsible for their inferior or subordinate status, and it was their actions (or agency) rather than overall structural changes that were needed to change the status of women.  

Inspired by Simone de Beauvouir’s words: “Man defines woman not in herself, but relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. … He is the Subject, the Absolute – she is the Other” (1949), feminist philosophers argued that women were known for their affiliations and not for their selves. Only when women reclaimed their Self and held an independent identity would there be the conditions for real agency to be exercised. Consequently, as the decades wore on and feminist thought gained ground, ‘female agency’ became something desirable, something empowering, referring to actions that are transformative in some way and somehow further the feminist project of the emancipation of all womankind.  

As women’s movements across the world excavated the hidden stories of women’s lives and their struggles for equality and dignity, the idea of agency became more tempered with cultural flavours, as accounts (especially from non-Western contexts) showed how women even within oppressive structures undertook little acts that helped in subverting or changing the terms of the debate, or led to transformative change in their lives or their children’s lives. Michel Foucault spoke of agency as being “a dialectic of freedom and constraint”. Agency began to be seen as something that actually always accompanied oppression; wherever there are constraints, is where you will find agency.  

For feminist activists too, far removed from theory and working on the ground, working with women who faced domestic abuse and sexual violence reoriented the way they looked at the concept of agency; it became an expression for a new approach. Women who had faced violence were not victims, as was the dominant approach at the time, but survivors of violence who had passed through extraordinary circumstances. This ‘survivor not victim’ approach came to typify a new approach to women in such circumstances, that later reflected in policy and law. Believing women to be victims had led to protectionist, problematic policies but by seeing them as reflective individuals who had the capacity to negotiate and survive what life threw their way, there was an affirmation of their identities that brought into focus their rights.  

But even as this shift was taking place, troubling questions were skirting the edges. For example, why did women, who had faced violence and abuse, go back to those very men who had hurt them? These acts were often voluntary. Was it the idea of love, was it insecurity about being able to survive in a patriarchal world unsympathetic to women? Was it complicated personal ties, or the presence of children? What could it be? These actions contradicted the liberatory meaning invested in agency and had to be defined in and as other things, not in terms of agency. After all, agency was a positive term, part of a bigger feminist project that was to deliver to us some magical power of freedom and choice and expression. So how could acts like these possibly be acts of ‘agency’? 

But the fact that these actions could also constitute agency is quickly catching up on feminist thought, with an increasing number of examples emerging in contemporary times that really problematise this romantic notion of women’s agency.  

One of the more obvious ones has been the debate within feminism about the women in prostitution or sex work. A traditional feminist position sees the exchange of sex for money as something that is inherently coercive, amounting to sexual exploitation. It’s a question that has resonance: is it possible that women would voluntarily transact sex? Yet, accounts of sex workers across classes and evidence from sex workers’ movements around the world tell us that yes, women have in certain situations made such choices knowingly and willingly. Are these acts of agency? Feminist academics like Melissa Ditmore invoke the concept of choice when arguing that sex work and trafficking are distinct, that all women in sex work have not necessarily been trafficked or forced into the occupation but many have “chosen this from the options available to them”.  

It was also impossible to imagine the phenomenon of ‘mail order brides’ (now ‘e-mail order brides’) – catalogues by agencies featuring profiles of women usually from East Asia (Philippines, Russia) who could be ‘ordered’ by men from the North looking for women as companions and caregivers -- as something that women would voluntarily participate in. In fact, horrific tales of violence and abuse followed on the trail of these ‘brides’, leading countries like the Philippines to pass national legislation against them. But recent literature that documents the voices of women and men who are part of these processes have shed a different light on this. For example Nicole Constable’s book on the experiences of correspondence courtships and marriages between US men and Filipina or Chinese women details such alliances and manages to “convey the richness and dignity of women's and men's choices without reducing these correspondents to calculating opportunists or naïve romantics”. Not only are the women given voice, but so are men, whose participation in such an enterprise is opened up delicately. Constable is able to put in perspective such choices by placing them against the backdrop of a globalising world, the immigrant dream and the desire of people from all over the world to escape poverty, hardship and sometimes violence.  

The last decade has also seen women voluntarily taking on the veil and wearing their religious identities on their sleeves. The veil has had a difficult interpretation for feminists – throwing off your veil was where there was liberation, not in putting it on. Yet Muslim women’s voices in the last decade, especially since the 9/11 terror attacks and the resurgence of identity politics around the world, have told us otherwise. Syeda Hameed writes in response to France’s recent law that bans wearing of face-covering veils in public places: “The assumption is that Muslim women wear the burqa always as a result of coercion. Such a construct strips women of all agency. Sometimes, Muslim women choose to veil themselves not as a symbol of their religious identity (nor in protest against western imperialism) but because they want to become more pious. The body becomes a site for action. Is it not possible that the act of veiling is reflective of an inner dialogue with the self (whether we agree with the finer points of the dialogue is quite another matter)?”  

In my own research with women in the glamour industry, I found that young women weighed various options and took a balanced approach in deciding to undertake shoots or shows that involved wearing revealing clothes, or making suggestive poses, ‘performing sexuality’ as I term it, even though these would invariably lead to censures in their real lives. Their decision to do such work was based on a set of variables that they carefully considered and based their decision on. Again, it was difficult for me to see this as ‘agency’ in the classical way (in one stream of feminist thought, they would be only objectifying themselves to sell certain commodities), but there was little doubt that women were exercising some sort of agency in their bigger goal to maximise their opportunities.  

So how do we rationalise these acts? Do we dismiss them as false consciousness? Do women do these things because they don’t know any better and have bought into capitalist or patriarchal discourses? Or do we leave it at what women say, privileging their own standpoints, and say these are their forms of their agency and put them against the context these acts are being carried out in: in terms of cultural expectations, the moment in history, questions of identity and globalisation, or ideas of ideal womanhood that may act as a powerful drive for women to act the way they do.  

It is ironical that it is feminism’s deepest belief that women’s voices must come to the fore, but when they do, we find these voices often scuttle our assumptions about what should be the right/legitimate form of ‘agency’. Perhaps we have no use for this romantic notion of agency any more. Every time a phenomenon emerges, is it useful to ask if this is an act of women’s agency? Whether it is a good act that moves us closer to a feminist utopia or a bad act that is regressive and weakens feminist gains? I was almost convinced that it was not, but I recently came across a definition of female agency that attempts to make sense of agency without being judgmental and helps us open up the concept a little more. Marion Bernadette G Cabrera in an article on cyberspace and women’s agency defines it as “women’s experiences of making the most of their situation, in the following ways: her ability to rise above the situations she is pressed with; participation in the community; assertion of identity; and how she continues to survive and make changes for herself and her immediate environment and community”. This definition gives importance to a woman’s individual context, is open and reflects a new approach to women’s self-determination and narratives of the self. 

The more voices we gather into feminisms’ folds, the more tangled the idea of agency appears to be. But in my view, we are still only halfway to understanding what women’s agency really is, because we are only halfway to hearing the voices of women in different contexts, regions, circumstances. As more and more women make their presence felt, or express their points of view, we have to accept that the vision that feminist foremothers had was perhaps a narrow one. One that didn’t really include the diversity of womankind that feminism has enabled us to appreciate today, and one that has to now change to include the women in the veil, the mail-ordered bride, the sex worker and the beauty queen.


Bodkin Ronald G. (1999). Women’s Agency in Classical Economic Thought:  Adam Smith, Harriet Taylor Mill, and J.S. Mill.  

Bhattacharjya, Manjima and Maya Indira Ganesh (2008). An Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet – A Literature Review. APC/WNSP. Available at

Constable, Nicole (2003) Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography and “Mail Order” Marriages. California: University of California Press

Marion Bernadette G. Cabrera (ND). Cyberspace and Women’s Agency

Isis International-Manila Available at

Ditmore, Melissa (2008) Sex work, Trafficking: Understanding the Difference. RH RealityCheck. Available at

Hameed, Syeda S. (2010) Panipat to Paris: Muslim women and the veil. The Hindu August 9, 2010. Available at 

Walby, Sylvia (1990). Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell

Infochange News & Features, August 2010