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Empowerment and Women's Healths

by Jane Stein


I was invited to write an article for this issue of the Prism because I wrote a book last year entitled Empowerment and Women's Health: Theory, Methods, and Practice (available at Internationalist Books). As you might be able to guess from the title, the book grew out of my dissertation for the Department of Maternal and Child Health at UNC-CH. I was hoping that I could just find a section in the book that I could submit as an article.

However, as I looked through the book I realized that that wouldn't work: the book is about too many different things and the writing style is far from journalistic (although I do think it's readable if you're interested in the topic).

What I did keep coming back to were some of the quotations I included in the book. During the course of writing first the dissertation and then the book, I was constantly forced to take out more and more of the quotations—to put things "in my own words." Yet I was always convinced that the original writer said it better. So I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity to put together a few thoughts, mine and others, about how women survive and strive to make things better. Of course I'm not talking about all women, or about women everywhere, or about all times. I am generalizing and overlooking some of the bad stuff. But our souls need to know about movements that are positive and hopeful and our minds need to be reminded that there's a past and a future and that we are part of some strong currents.

What I have written about is an international women's empowerment movement, made up of groups of women looking to a better future, determined to influence their own and their children's lives through concerted and participatory actions whose means reflect their ends. While I focus professionally on how participating in this movement improves the health of women and of their families, the movement itself reflects how women see their lives holistically, how health is not separable from their living situations and their cultural, political, and economic settings.

Here, then, are four of my favorite passages—about health and anger, about resistance, and about hope for the future.


Now cancer isn't something that happens overnight. It must have been secretly growing in her, a thwarted appetite for flesh, for a long time.

I've been sitting here thinking and I believe it was hunger that killed Mami. Not the times there wasn't enough to eat, because Mami always found ways to stretch a little bacalao a long way. I think it was the wild dog hunger in her that never had anything to eat but the insults she swallowed, and those English brand names all full of corners, and the vicious retorts she never made to my father's abuse. ...

The kind of hunger that ate Mami's stomach can't be kept in. It isn't housebroken, tame. It can go years looking like a farm animal, hauling water, carrying wood, cooking and digging and trying to stretch a handful of change into a living. It can even be hit with a stick and cursed for its lameness, but watch out. Sooner or later it gnaws at the rope that binds it, and if that rope is your own life, you die. ... If you swallow bitterness, she says, you eat death.

Instead of swallowing bitterness, I've been spitting it up. . . . I got home from Mami's funeral and that Monday after work I began this book. Now it's done. It's a kind of cookbook I wrote for Mami. A different set of recipes than the ones she lived her life by, those poisonous brews of resignation and regret, those soups and monotony and neighborly malice that only give you gas. . . . [M]y favorite recipe is the one at the very end. Remedy For Heartburn. This is the most challenging recipe in my book, comadres. The ingredients? You already have them. In your pockets, in your purses, in your bellies and your bedrooms. For this kind of broth, there can't be too many cooks. Get together. Stir the stuff around. Listen to your hunger. Get ready. Get organized.

Morales, A.L. (1991) 'A remedy for heartburn: in memory of Dona Gina Torres of Bartolo.'; Ms, 52-56.


There is a women's resistance that is not 'feminist,' 'socialist,' 'radical,' or 'liberal' because it does not come out of an understanding of one or another social theory, and it is not informed by experience in conventional politics. It is a resistance that exists outside the parameters of those politics and outside the purview of any of the traditional definitions of progress and social change. Women's resistance as I am defining it here is shaped by the dailiness of women's lives. It comes out of the sexual division of labor that assigns to women responsibility for sustaining the lives of their children and, in a broader sense, their families, including husbands, relatives, elders, and community. This responsibility is knowingly accepted, albeit under enormous social pressure.

Women's resistance also comes out of women's subordinated status to men, institutionalized in society and lived through every day in countless personal ways. Women's resistance is not necessarily or intrinsically oppositional; it is not necessarily or intrinsically contesting for power. It does, however, have a profound impact of the fabric of social life because of its steady, cumulative effects. It is central to the making of history, and. . . it is the bedrock of social change. Too often we have not seen this kind of resistance or appreciated its cumulative effects because we have been looking for social movements as these have been traditionally defined, and we have looked for the historical moments when these movements have reached their apex, making sweeping social changes. To see women's resistance is also to see the accumulated effects of daily, arduous, creative, sometimes ingenious labors, performed over time, sometimes over generations.

Aptheker, B. (1989) Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Life. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.


Women all over the world, both in the past and the present, have been involved in what [Margaret] Randall refers to as 'less conventional' politics. [Their strategies include] ... interpersonal networking, grass-roots economic development projects, protests of many kinds, use of traditional women's activities in the cause of national liberation, and involvement in nongovernmental and informal women's groups and organizations. Bystydzienski, J.M. (1992) 'Introduction.' In Women Transforming Politics: Worldwide Strategies for Empowerment, Bystydzienski, J.M. (eds.). pp. 1-8. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN


Women are speaking in one voice, in many voices, in a different voice. Listen to them. Listen to the Women. They are arriving over the wise distances on their dancing feet. Women speaking from the edges of all our societies are challenging the dominant paradigms of politics and knowledge.

Soethe, F. (1993) 'Final document on the women's human rights session at the Asian NGO conference on human rights', dh. mujer, Peacenet, May 14.

  Jane Stein is co-director of Meliora Associates, a Chapel Hill consulting group and can be e-mailed at: jstein@igc.apc.org  

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