What the Percy Amendment, focused on women’s global poverty, has to teach 50 years later

The United Nations issued a warning in its report “Gender Snapshot 2023,” predicting that more than 340 million women and girls “will live in extreme poverty by 2030 and close to one in four will experience moderate or severe food insecurity.” (Dreamstime/TNS)

Last month, the United Nations issued a warning in its report “Gender Snapshot 2023,” predicting that should current trends continue, more than 340 million women and girls “will live in extreme poverty by 2030 and close to one in four will experience moderate or severe food insecurity.”

The problem is hardly new, and neither are attempts to address it. It was in the 1970s that the U.N., the World Bank, the U.S. government and others turned their attention to the challenge of world poverty and women’s place within it.


In fact, 50 years ago this month, Illinois U.S. Sen. Charles Percy introduced an amendment to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act that directly targeted women’s poverty. The amendment called for economic aid to support programs that “integrate women into the national economies of developing countries.” The Percy Amendment provided the language that launched hundreds of programs for indigent women — from Afghanistan to Zambia — that the U.S. government still funds today.

Before 1973, most international aid neglected women entirely or else positioned them as mothers, either as childbearers whose reproduction needed to be curtailed or as child rearers who required help on issues of health and education. With the Percy Amendment, women were considered, in the lingo of the day, as potential “income generators.” The amendment came with a faith that paid work for women would lift them and their children out of the direst poverty.

The amendment bore Percy’s name, but it grew out of a transnational “women in development” movement that pointed to the gender inequality built into existing economic programs. It reached the U.S. government when a small group of women met in the State Department in September 1973. This was the moment when liberals in Congress were reformulating policy on economic aid to focus less on large-scale infrastructure projects and more on local poverty alleviation. The concern with anti-poverty programs was called the “New Directions” mandate, and it had nothing in it on women.

Virginia Allan, deputy assistant secretary of state, and Mildred Marcy, women’s activities adviser at the United States Information Agency, along with a handful of others, decided to draft language that recognized that jobs, training and technology should go to women as well as men. Through personal connections, they asked Percy, a liberal Republican with presidential aspirations, to sponsor their amendment.

The amendment cost nothing, and it nodded to women at a moment of growing clout for the feminist movement and rising concern with global poverty. But for better or worse, it passed precisely when development aid was under assault. On the left, critics condemned foreign assistance as a form of economic imperialism and a Cold War tool that provided cover and support for military action. On the right, conservatives denounced it as liberal internationalism and wasteful government spending.

Outside the U.S., leaders in the global south objected to development aid that compromised the sovereignty of their nations, and they called for structural changes in the global economy that would level a playing field that gave the economic advantage to the wealthier nations. And poor people themselves rebelled against dam projects that displaced them from their homes, “family planning” programs that amounted to bodily coercion and high-yield “miracle seed” crops that favored wealthier landowners.

It was in this troubled terrain that the Percy Amendment landed. Amid upheaval and reform, the United States Agency for International Development created a Women in Development office in 1974 and gradually funded a growing stream of programs that attempted to integrate women into a new generation of global anti-poverty programs.

Today, we take it for granted that economic aid goes to women as well as men. In the microcredit boom of the 1980s and after, USAID, the World Bank and dozens of NGOs directly targeted women, envisioning them as entrepreneurs and better credit risks than men.

Recent studies have found, though, that microcredit does not routinely increase women’s profits, household income or consumption. With ill-paid work, hours of unpaid care labor, growing debt and inadequate public services, women can be “integrated” into national economies without ever alleviating their poverty or their daily grind.

Much has changed since the Percy Amendment passed in 1973. In its most recent policy statement, issued earlier this year, USAID takes a more capacious approach to gender that addresses, as it should, human rights, education, health, leadership and freedom from gender-based discrimination and violence.

But what about ending poverty? It appears only sporadically in the 79-page statement under the broad goals of “gender equality,” “women’s empowerment” and “equitable participation in the economy.” And aside from a general call for access to resources, services and jobs, the statement offers few specifics that would make a serious dent in poverty or in the skewed distribution of global wealth.

So what did the Percy Amendment accomplish? It called attention to women, pointed to the value of their labor and insisted on including them in the training, credit and labor-saving technology provided to men. Worthy goals and worth remembering, as long as we acknowledge, too, that the kinds of programs it launched were not enough.

As the U.N.’s “Gender Snapshot” suggests, a war on global poverty requires a more concerted, multilateral international effort with a larger transfer of resources from the wealthier nations to the poorer ones. (The cost isn’t small: The “Gender Snapshot” calls for an additional $360 billion per year.) And it also requires a substantive commitment — at the international, national and local levels — to redress the inequities in the household, workplace, welfare state and global economy that still hold women (and men) in poverty in much of our world today.

That’s the tall order that we need to remember alongside the Percy Amendment.