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Feminist research examines the spatialities of money, debt, and finance in women’s everyday lives

Feminist research examines the spatialities of money, debt, and finance in women’s everyday lives

by Araby Smyth

I am a feminist economic geographer working as Post-Doctoral Visitor at the City Institute at York University. My latest research is with the SSHRC funded GenUrb project (Urbanization, Gender, and the Global South: A Transformative Knowledge Network). Briefly put, GenUrb seeks to produce new knowledge about urban place making that addresses the needs, hopes, and desires of poor women. Currently, our research is conducted within and across multiple cities – Cochabamba (Bolivia), Delhi (India), Georgetown (Guyana), Ibadan (Nigeria), and Shanghai (China). My role in the project, alongside others, is to comparatively analyze interview and life history data on the theme of money, debt, and finance in women’s everyday lives.

Women living in the urban areas of lower and middle-income countries engage a broad range of economic activities in both formal and informal sectors to make ends meet. Economic activities include but are not limited to working for wages, making and selling products, renting rooms, giving and taking out loans, saving money, investing, receiving remittances and gifts, enrolling in public assistance, having insurance policies, and more. In addition, women are primary caretakers within their households and communities. While much of their caretaking labor (such as childcare and housework) is unpaid, it intertwines with the aforementioned monetary economic activities. For example, a woman raising her grandchildren regularly is gifted money from the children’s parents who live and work elsewhere. Or a single-mother receives vouchers for her children’s education expenses and sets aside money she earns each month to give to her oldest child in high school. This comingling of gendered productive and reproductive labor and the diverse economic activities that surround it have always been central to my research interests.

As I begin to look at the data collected by the GenUrb research team, I have empirical questions such as: what do women’s incomes and expenditures look like? What are their methods of saving and borrowing money? Who makes financial decisions and holds the money in their households? By answering these and other questions, I anticipate that we will learn more about the nexus of production and social reproduction, and more specifically the financialization of social reproduction. Scholars have shown how money, debt, and finance wield increasing power in everyday life. Finance seeks ever increasing profits in urban areas and governments reorganize to accommodate financial profit-making. As public assistance and affordable housing become harder to secure, individuals take on more debt. This role of finance in the infrastructure of the city and the personal lives of the people living there is particularly salient for comprehending the full extent of the economic challenges that poor women face. At the same time, feminist scholars insist that social reproduction is a site of struggle. The strategies that women employ with their communities for navigating difficult economic situations offer insight into the conditions of possibility for challenging patriarchal racial capitalism.

Cooking tortillas with Giselda in Mexico. The one on the left is the first tortilla I ever made by hand. She fed it to the dog.

I am excited about collaborating in this analysis with the GenUrb team as it extends many of the themes of my previous work. In my doctoral research at the University of Kentucky (United States), I analyzed the ways that remittances, the money that migrants send to people in their place of origin, intersect with the political and social dynamics of gender in an Indigenous (Ayuuk/Mixe) community in Mexico. With funding support from the National Science Foundation, Society of Woman Geographers, and the International Chapter of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, I conducted over two years of ethnographic fieldwork, including interviews, participant observation and a historical archival investigation, in Mexico and the United States. As a white settler scholar from the United States, I cultivated accountable relationships during fieldwork in the interest of contributing scholarship that was collaborative in nature and centers Indigenous epistemologies and the everyday lives of women. In the dissertation, I illustrate how remittances intertwine with gendered collective work and communal governance. I argue that this process expands the territory of the village, a territory that is central to the collective nature of social reproduction there, which  provides important lessons about how people continuously struggle to secure the futures they want in the midst of ongoing crises and precarity. An article from this research was published last year. In it I trace some of the ways that international institutions, the Mexican government, and financial actors are targeting remittances for capture in the formal financial system. I scrutinize the gendered dichotomies within the financialization of remittances agenda in Mexico and provide empirical evidence on the rich nuances within place-specific gendered social relations that inform economic practices.

Araby Smyth (@arabysmyth) is a Post-Doctoral Visitor at the City Institute at York University on the GenUrb project (Urbanization, Gender, and the Global South: A Transformative Knowledge Network) with Professor Linda Peake as Principal Investigator. Her research has been published in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space; Gender, Place & Culture; Geoforum; and The Conversation.