An interview with ICRW founder Irene Tinker

Article Date

23 May 2016

Article Author

Erin Kelly

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

In this series, as ICRW celebrates 40 years as the premier applied research institute on women and girls, ICRW will connect you to its presidents — Irene Tinker (founding Chair of ICRW), Mayra Buvinic, Geeta Rao Gupta and Sarah Degnan Kambou — who share their unique stories of their work ensuring that women and girls worldwide are at the center of global development efforts. Each president will walk us through their time at ICRW, from the vision and motivation behind the founding of ICRW to moving the global discourse from why we should focus on women to how we should empower women and girls globally.


In celebration of ICRW’s 40th year anniversary, we interviewed Irene Tinker, a founding member of ICRW who served as the organization’s first Board Chair. Tinker just released a memoir, Visioning an Equitable World: Reflections on Women, Democracy, Education, and Economic Development, which is a collection of reflections and perspectives from her work over seven decades.

ICRW: You’ve just published a book that compiles your work across so many different sectors, including political theory, education, family planning and advocacy at the US and global levels. What are some of your favorite memories or pieces of research that you captured in this memoir?

Irene Tinker: The first is, of course, my most strong memories when I first went to India and began to do research on the first general elections in India. That began to spawn a whole series of discussions on how minorities are able to vote and it eventually came all the way around the circle when there was more recently discussion about the need for quotas for women in legislatures. So in some ways, my interest in democracy and elections went a whole circle from the beginning to focus primarily on political systems to talking about how it can protect not only minorities but also women and give them the possibilities of representation.

You were one of the founding members of ICRW. What motivated you to establish the organization?

In the section of my book on activism, you’ll see that we in Washington, DC began to lobby the United States government to include women in various categories, for example to have quotas for women and then to destroy the quotas that allow women into professional education. Before that, there had been quotas for women and African Americans in medical school and law school. We were lobbying to help professional organizations set up caucuses and I was on the Committee of the Status of Women in Political Science. We were doing research on various things and beginning to look to testify in Congress.

Through these various connections, I went to Congress to testify about a project on women and their right to have maternity leave. When I looked at the data and saw that they had only 38 people interviewed, I thought if any decent researcher ever saw that, they would start making fun of us. I thought we better have better research before we started talking to congress. About this time Barbara Newell, then the new President of Wellesley, was given a new house on campus. She was an economist and was on the board of the Brookings Institute, across the street from where I was working at American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where I was working. We set up a meeting to talk about the need for good research and policy issues for women and she talked about the need to have something to fill this house at Wellesley. Out of this came the Wellesley Center for Women and Professions, but we later dropped the “Professions”. We eventually agreed, and I received funding, for them to set up this Wellesley Center, which is still operating. The woman working to help develop International Issues moved up to Wellesley and we, of course, wanted to do activism research and use this to lobby Congress. I was on the board of the Wellesley Center, so we eventually selected a very excellent researcher who looked at the parameters of research and said that if we want to have the Wellesley Center work taken seriously it’s got to be very carefully monitored. And this idea to have people use the research from Wellesley to go down and lobby and to have a Center in Washington isn’t going to work. As a result, the activity group in Wellesley moved back to Washington and then our question was how can we justify using our money to do some studies on international development and women. So the other organization, of which I was also the head, The Federation for Organizations for Professional Women (FPWA), had a small office, so we launched this split off from the Wellesley Center to form a new group to do a study of three different countries and how the US government was using money for women. We didn’t want to stay under FPWA, so we applied for 501(c)(3) status with pro bono help from lawyers. Within the year we were granted status, so the International Center for Research on Women became a separate organization. The whole point in doing research at ICRW wasn’t to do it for its own sake, but to do it to impact policy. ICRW was set up to be the premiere center to legitimize women’s research, which was very necessary back then.

What were some of the key issues you sought to identify solutions to during your time with ICRW?

When we first set up ICRW there was a law that stated policy should incorporate women, but it didn’t say how to do it and there was no money attached. The first person selected to engage women was the same person doing affirmative action, so there was confusion about whether they were just trying to hire women or do something else.

People would call and say “I’m going overseas, can you hire my wife, otherwise she won’t come overseas.”  So it was very confusing between affirmative action and women’s employment and women in development. So one of the first things that was important to do with ICRW was to do research on what was happening with USAID and how it was carrying on this issue of incorporating women’s concerns into all of its projects. Another thing that had to be clarified was there was a great deal of money flowing around for “population” and the concern was that if you think about p

opulation, most men think about mothers and maternity, they don’t think about jobs. One of the second issues was to be sure to separate the idea that women were going to be econonmic actors and therefor research was going to look at what women did in the economy and they purposefully separated that and the researchers who are doing very interesting research on women and population, but made a clear distinction between the two groups. I think that was very important. So we had issues of focusing on women’s policy and women as economic actors because we were talking about econic development.

What do you currently see as some of the biggest barriers to tackling gender equality worldwide?

40 years ago there was not much communication between women in different countries… this was before email or even fax. What has happened since then is partly as a result of communications but largely as a result of the United Nations’ Women’s conferences. You have a tremendous world network that has resulted in the development of the global women’s movement. Once you have that global women’s movement, women aren’t going to go away, so they now have a tremendous difference in how they can support each other against other governments that are making life difficult.

The global women’s movement is a tremendous protection against backsliding on the part of men. Of course they’re backsliding, who wouldn’t want to have servants like they used to have? Women in many countries are still servants. The most important thing is probably the global inequality of income and the lack of opportunities of poor people, women, minorities, poor men and having access to facilities that allow them to fulfill for their own capabilities. This is an ongoing issue, but I am optimistic. I think we’re a little more than half the glass full, but we still have a long way to go worldwide. In countries around the world, including this one, one of the biggest issues to recognize women’s economic roles, is to provide decent, free or inexpensive day care for children so women are free to go off to work.

How has ICRW’s research and advocacy efforts changed the trajectory of women?

I think there are several issues that ICRW has worked on that have been very critical. Of course the first is AIDS. ICRW began to look at the intersection between marriage and between women’s property and AIDS and then began to broaden that. That has been a tremendous issue to show why women need to have property rights or at least the right to live in the house so she can kick out the obstructive male, especially if he’s going to give her AIDS. ICRW’s work here has been critical around the world, especially in South Asia and South Africa.