WOMEN PLAY ONLY A minor role in contemporary financialized capitalism according to prevailing wisdom, let alone poor women. Financial actors are usually thought of as educated, wealthy men in megacities like New York, London, and Shanghai. These men are at the top of the pyramid. We picture them at work as investment bankers, hedge fund managers, financial analysts, or brokers, spending long days calculating, forecasting, buying and selling, resorting to evermore complex algorithms and mathematics. We assume that their often colossal wages must reflect rare and sought-after skills, as well as aptitude for risk-taking and great responsibility.
But if we look at the bottom of the pyramid, at the masses of ordinary people who keep the financial machine running, the key player is radically different. It is not the financial analyst or hedge fund manager but the indebted woman who is an essential cog in the wheel of capitalist finance. The indebted woman is most often ignored as a central figure of contemporary financialized capitalism. Yet without her and her hard debt work, without the multiple skills debt work requires, and without her sense of ethics and guilt, forged in her inner self and in her flesh, financialized capitalism could not operate.
This book highlights the crucial yet invisible roles played by women in the creation and consolidation of debt and credit markets and, more broadly, in the workings of capitalist economies.
A hallmark of contemporary capitalism is that it does not primarily finance so-called productive investment in areas such as industry, real estate, services, or trade but household debt. Under financialization, the logic of debit, credit, finance, and speculative capital serves to condition the reproduction of societies and human groups—that is to say, what makes them exist and remain sustainable.1 Faced with stagnant incomes, rising standards of living, and reduced or absent social protection, households have to take on debt to make ends meet, cope with life’s hazards, and manage life-cycle events such as births, marriages, and deaths. Since the turn of the twentieth century, household indebtedness has steadily risen. In the Global North, the rise in household debt stabilized during the global financial crisis of 2008 but subsequently increased again. In the Global South, household debt exploded over the 2010–20 decade.2 At the time of completing this book in fall 2022, the world was facing the consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war on Ukraine. Amid the biggest economic crisis since the Great Recession, household debt has continued to grow.3
The rise in household debt has been a concern for researchers, experts, and policy makers alike. International organizations have publicly raised the alarm about growth being driven solely by debt, including household debt, which has become the engine of consumption in many countries.4 In 2019, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for the “loudest alarm bell” on the financial vulnerability of businesses and households (UNCTAD 2019b, 76). But women’s debt has mostly remained a blind spot. Little is known about it because it is most often folded into household debt, treating female and male debt as part of an inseparable whole. Yet men and women often cannot access the same borrowing sources. They do not borrow for the same reasons; nor do they build up their creditworthiness or make repayments in the same way. With household debt on the rise across most of the world, the fabric, meanings, and implications of female debt can no longer be ignored.
While economics and statistics have little to say given a lack of gendered data, historical and ethnographic studies have shed light on how women have come to specialize in expensive, degrading, and predatory loans.5 These include the traditional pawnbroking and street-lending practices of industrializing Europe, which are very much alive today in many parts of the world. It also includes contemporary practices such as consumer credit cards, microcredit, and subprime mortgages. Beyond accessing credit services, women often take care of debt management and repayment. If money is tight and cash is needed to make ends meet, women are the ones to regularly pawn goods, manage bill arrears, juggle credit cards, deal with bailiffs, answer calls from collection agencies, file for bankruptcy, beg for help from neighbors, and deal with disapproval, contempt, or even insults from lenders, bankers, debt collectors, and bailiffs. Beyond narrow fields of research, however, their situation has tended to go unnoticed.
Predatory lending also impinges on the female body. It can involve the severe bodily dispossession of prostitution—a practice dating back to antiquity—contemporary trafficking, and sex work to repay debt. Others include “sugar daddies” who help students to pay off their loans, or the surrogacy that poor women, frequently of color, resort to in order to pay off family debt. It might seem surprising to link up such diverse cases, but what they all have in common is the corporality of women’s debt. They raise the question as to whether there are also more ordinary, everyday, but neglected forms of debt’s grip on female bodies.
How can we explain this sexual division of debt? What are the relations between the sexed bodies of women and the way in which they specialize in degrading and predatory forms of debt? What are the relations between the sexed bodies of women and their repayment ethics? Is female debt a product of capitalism, patriarchy, or both? How far can the sexual division of debt help us understand capitalism and patriarchy?
Feminist research has not remained silent on these questions. Philosophers, anthropologists, geographers, and political economists have denounced the hold of debt and financialization on everyday phenomena that are the very essence of life, such as food, water, caregiving, healthcare, education, housing, and marriages—activities that women are mainly responsible for and that feminists call “social reproduction” (Federici 2018, 179; Adkins and Dever 2016; Greene and Morvant-Roux 2020; Montgomerie and Tepe-Belfrage 2017; A. Roberts 2015). They have denounced debt as “the instrument by which global financial institutions pressure states to slash social spending, enforce austerity, and generally collude with investors in extracting value from defenseless populations” (Fraser 2017, 32). They have highlighted the “feminization of finance” (Allon 2014, 13) and how the poor, and women in particular, have become a new form of speculative capital for the global financial industry, always on the lookout for the market niche (Elyachar 2006; Roy 2010; Soederberg 2014; Kar 2018; Schuster 2015). They have stressed the persistent stereotyping of women as “financially illiterate,” “impulsive consumers,” or “paralyzed non-investors,” both in social policy and in the financial industry (M. Joseph 2014, 97; Bylander 2021, 31). In their advocacy for A Feminist Reading of Debt, social scientists Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago call female debt a form of exploitation and obedience based on “financial terror” (2021, 58). In Argentina, Belgium, Greece, Sri Lanka, Morocco, and several regions across India, feminist activists are rising up against the violence of debt and its excessive weight on women and are actively campaigning for debt cancellation.6
This book builds on and extends this body of knowledge. Echoing feminist criticism, it examines how emerging credit markets exploit women in the classic sense of value extraction. But this involves more than an appraisal of financial markets. There is something deeper, though overlooked by feminist critique, that intimately connects debt and the very fact of being a woman, experiencing womanhood, and having a female body. We will highlight the largely unexplored ways in which capitalism transforms womanhood through debt and how this in turn feeds financial capitalism. These transformations are both shaped by and constitutive of radical transformations in kinship and sexuality systems. Exploring the co-constitution of female debt, kinship, sexuality, and capitalism is not just about deepening the narrative on capitalism and patriarchy. It reveals a different story about present forms of accumulation and womanhood. The indebted woman is consubstantial with capitalism and patriarchy. She is also their backbone.
We have adopted a unique method to best capture these processes. We have spent over two decades observing the emergence and consolidation of a capitalist credit market targeting women in South Arcot, a region in east-central Tamil Nadu in southern India. Our observations of a market under construction offer unparalleled insight into the norms, values, and mediations that support the proper functioning of a capitalist market. As is the case elsewhere in the world, women are absent from the top tiers of financial capital, and very few own or manage private financial capital. But at the very bottom of the ladder, women are unquestionably the ones who build and keep financial markets running over, through intensive debt work. Such markets can only take shape through the financial obligations of these women, on the back of their demand for credit, of their creditworthiness, and their repayment ethics.
In their pioneering European history of women’s work, historians Louise Tilly and Joan Scott describe women, work, and family as “inseparable categories, defining one another and creating relationships of interdependence,” showing how employers both mobilized stereotypes of women and contributed to redefining womanhood in nineteenth-century Europe (1989, 3). In contemporary South Arcot, where capitalism is just emerging and women’s paid employment is on the decline, the debt/credit “dyad” (Peebles 2010, 225) is redefining womanhood. Expanding credit markets are encouraging the emergence of a new, indebted woman, especially among Dalits (former “untouchables” in Hindu theology). She has become an essential cog in the monetarization and commodification of Tamil society and its transformation into a capitalist society. But she is not just the product of the capitalist system’s aggressive credit policies, as many critical voices have argued. She reflects profound changes in kinship and sexuality systems, expressing women’s deep concern to improve their children’s prospects, to escape caste domination, and to exist as a subject, for better or worse.
Of course, debt does not spare men, including their bodies. To pay off debt, men frequently have to leave the village, engage in slavish forms of labor, and work to exhaustion. There is, however, something unique about female debt: female debt is consubstantial with women’s bodies, their sexuality, and their assignation to a status of a dependent, inferior being. Female debt is also consubstantial with women’s obligations as wives, mothers, grandmothers, and daughters to maintain life.
This book sits at the crossroads of anthropology and political economics while offering further insights from history. It brings together the work of three researchers from across various disciplines, cultures, and genders. A strictly economic approach to debt would focus on wealth and income. The fact that women, on average, are poorer than men may indeed help to explain why credit is more expensive for them. There is ample evidence that women earn less and owe less than men on average, including given equal property rights and inheritance laws.7 But why do women often make less out of investment loans than men, even given equal income and wealth levels?8 And why, when it comes to social reproduction survival debt, do women often take on more debt and specialize in repayment?9 And what about the emotional, moral, and bodily costs of debt? Economists often struggle to understand the gender of debt, and indeed tend to see it as irrelevant, since they usually focus on household debt as a whole.10 Capturing women’s debt requires disaggregating data by gender and using specific survey protocols since the distinction between male and female debts is sometimes blurred. It also entails calculating differently, for example by measuring repayment responsibilities, which statistics have largely ignored. As we will see, debt repayment has become the prerogative of women in South Arcot. We adapted a very useful method, the financial diary, developed by economist Jonathan Morduch and colleagues (Collins et al. 2009; Morduch and Schneider 2017), to capture gender differences.
Although anthropology is often shy about quantification, it is valuable if one is to measure the full extent of financial exploitation and its impact on women. Going well beyond counting, however, this book explores the intimate meaning of the multiple debts the indebted woman juggles. It considers the intertwining of financial debt, in the sense of monetary sum to be repaid, and moral debt, in the sense of an obligation that must be honored. And as we will see throughout this book, financial and moral debts are inseparable. Anthropology, meanwhile, helps us to understand the morality and the ambivalent nature of debt. It shows that debt can dispossess and govern bodies and subjectivities, as well as create new forms of interdependence and solidarity.11 Credit, which is the other side of debt, creates money “from nothing” (James 2015) and may feed hopes and desires for emancipation and integration, open up new potentialities, and make care, friendship, and kinship relations sustainable, even in oppressive or precarious contexts.12
Our fieldwork began in 2003 and has continued into 2022. It has brought together ethnography, statistical surveys, and accounting methods such as financial diaries to examine Tamil Dalit women’s experiences and life trajectories while systematically examining the specificities of this social category, region, and period of history. In South Arcot, the suffering and dilemmas of the indebted woman express the contradictions and aberrations of contemporary Indian society. We encountered unbridled capitalism, rising social inequalities, and proliferating patriarchal conservatism, which has resulted in a tragic devaluation of women. Over recent decades, neoliberal policies and mafia-style capitalism have brought nothing but ruin and despair to the poor and other disadvantaged groups (Harriss-White and Michelutti 2019; Michelutti et al. 2018; A. Shah et al. 2018). At the same time, the ruling party’s Hindutva ideology continues its bid to construct a national male identity by disseminating norms of female purity and devotion (Das 1995a; Purewal 2018), even to groups that were previously spared, such as Tamil Dalit (Anandhi and Kapadia 2017). The indebted woman reflects these intertwined trends, albeit not as a unique case. Moreover, to what extent does today’s indebted Dalit woman in South Arcot share experiences with a woman in postcolonial India who is chiefly indebted to her high-caste master, or to gods and goddesses (Galey 1980; Ramberg 2013)?
We will move across spaces to consider many other figures of the indebted woman, including the late-nineteenth-century working-class woman in London who would line up outside pawnshops (Tebbutt 1983), or the single mother in a neoliberal post-Pinochet Chilean slum who lives out her life in debt (Han 2012). We will also touch on some more obviously unusual cases where poor women are primarily creditors, such as the Wolof saleswomen of contemporary Senegal who take advantage of the rule of “separate purses” (Guérin 2008, 62), or the women of premodern Italy who had permission to manage their own dowries (Shaw 2018). Far beyond Tamil specificities, the indebted woman is a recurring, if changing, figure of capitalism, intertwined with kinship and sexuality norms that engrave debt in women’s bodies and flesh. Our unique combination of methods and data offers a hard-hitting look at the materiality and intimacy of women’s debt, bringing three key insights to light.
First, the indebted woman actively contributes to the workings of capitalism through her debt work. Extending long-standing feminist claims about women’s unpaid and invisibilized work, we argue that managing debt is a true form of work. It is needed for the reproduction not only of workers but also of debtors and, by extension, of financial capitalism. This book echoes feminist debates about the blurred boundaries between sex work, monetized love, and marital sex, exploring the embodiment of debt and the multiple sexual arrangements deployed to construct and maintain women’s solvency.
Second, in a challenge to dominant narratives that only highlight the corrosive role of money, markets, and private capital, we argue that the indebted woman is not only indebted to capitalism but first and foremost to her kinship group. Revisiting anthropological debates about debt as a power relationship imbued with guilt and moral conflicts, which are often restricted to class, racial, or caste domination, we argue that debt is also shaped by and constitutive of patriarchy. While debt proves itself to be an ontological condition of womanhood, this has worsened with the emergence of capitalism, dependency on the market for a livelihood, and specific norms of kinship and sexuality that assign women to a status of dependency and passive sexuality.
Third, and running counter to dominant narratives that vilify debt, we argue that the problem is not debt but debt subordinated to private capital and kinship. The indebted woman is sometimes able to create debt and credit “circuits” (Zelizer 2013, 303–4) outside the capitalist market and her kinship group, with her friends and lovers. Revisiting debates in economic and feminist anthropology on the intermingling of materiality and intimacy, we highlight the decisive role these relationships play in allowing some women to exist. They exist not only as indebted mothers, wives, sisters, or brides but also as financial subjects capable of borrowing and lending, as subjects of desire and care, and as women defying the norms of capitalism and forced sexuality from the margins.
1. There are many definitions of financialization (Mader, Mertens, and Van der Zwan 2020). The one used here considers that financialization occurs when life-sustaining activities—what feminists call social reproduction—become dependent on financial markets (Federici 2018; Fraser 2017; Adkins and Dever 2016; Allon 2014; A. Roberts 2015). See also Kalb (2020), Mikuš and Rodrik (2021).
2. According to UNCTAD analyses based on International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, the global stock of debt in relation to gross domestic product (GDP) has almost returned to its preglobal financial crisis level (260 percent in 2017, as opposed to 240 percent at the onset of the global financial crisis and 140 percent in 1980). This growth has largely been driven by rising private debt, which has increased more than twelve-fold since 1980. It accounted for two-thirds of debt worldwide by 2017. Southern countries, where private debt has long been kept to relatively low levels, are following the same trend: as a share of global GDP, private debt rose from 79 percent in 2008 to 139 percent in 2017 (UNCTAD 2019b, 74–75). Data aggregated at the global level by the IMF do not distinguish the share of household debt in private debt (which also includes corporate debt). National data are available on IMF’s website: https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/HH_LS@GDD/SWE/AUS/CAN/DEU/USA/GBR.
3. In 2021 and 2022, the media regularly reported worrying data from central banks and the banking sector about the rise of household debt. The World Bank has also expressed concern (2022, 123).
4. See, for example, the Global Financial Stability Reports by the IMF (2019, 2022). See also the reports of UNCTAD (2019a, 2019b).
5. Detailed references will be given all along in this book.
6. See the website of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, which documents ongoing feminist struggles against debt: https://www.cadtm.org/English.See also Federici (2018), Cavallero and Gago (2021), and Bruneau and Vanden Daelen (2022). For India, see N. Joseph (2013); Dattasharma, Kamath, and Ramanathan (2016); Guérin, Joseph, and Venkatasubramanian (2021); and Picherit (2015).
7. For an overview and global evidence, see Doss et al. (2019). For a detailed analysis of how an egalitarian law can turn out to be fundamentally unequal in practice and to perpetuate significant capital inequalities between women and men, see the case of France (Bessière and Gollac 2020).
8. See, for example, Cozarenco and Szafarz (2018) and Agier and Szafarz (2013), who show from French and Brazilian data that women, under equal conditions, are discriminated against in terms of loan amounts compared to men. See also Garikipati (2008), who shows from Indian data that women derive little benefit from their borrowing to economic investment because they rarely own their means of production.
9. This will be a key argument of chapter 4. We will also note the analyses led by Isabelle and two economist colleagues on repayment rates among 350 microcredit organizations in seventy countries: all other things equal (i.e., controlling by various variables such as age, education, wealth, income, etc.), women repay better than men (D’Espallier, Guérin, and Mersland 2011).
10. For a literature review of the few available statistics on women’s debt, see Reboul, Guérin, and Nordman (2021) and Reboul (2021).
11. See the range of studies on this topic from the pioneering work of Marcel Mauss (1993a) to recent conceptual extensions (Fourcade and Healy 2013; Gregory 1997; Hart and Ortiz 2014; Hours and Ahmed 2015; James 2015; Peebles 2010; Roitman 2003; Saiag 2020a; Shipton 2007; Servet 2012; Théret 2009; Villarreal 2004a).
12. Apart from James, see, for example, Chu (2010), Han (2012), Kar (2018), Saiag (2020b), and Schuster (2015).