Maria Mies, Professor in Sociology at the University of Applied Sciences in Cologne, was the first senior Women and Development (W&D) lecturer at the International Institute of Social Studies from 1979 till 1981.
Together with Mia Berden, she developed the curriculum for the W&D programme, which became a full-fledged specialization in 1983 as part of a fifteen-month master’s in Development Studies, the first of its kind globally.
In the absence of literature about the history of women’s movements in the Global South but also Europe, Maria and fellow lecturer Kumari Jayawardena, Professor in Political Science at the University of Colombo, decided to write textbooks themselves. In a very short-time they produced a series of publications for use by ISS students.
Jointly with Saskia Wieringa, Mia Berden and Rhoda Reddock, she initiated the first major W&D international research project on ‘Women’s Movements and Organizations in Historical Perspective’, which contributed to the historiography of women’s movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean by researchers who were both activists and scholars and lived in the countries concerned. Before joining the ISS and after returning to Cologne, Maria, like her husband Saral Sarkar, was active in a range of social movements both politically and academically in India and Europe.
Maria has been a feminist icon and a source of intellectual and political inspiration for different generations of feminist scholars and activists. She is the author of several books. Many of her pioneering scholarly contributions are still relevant and valid today.
In Towards a Methodology of Women’s Studies (1979), Maria advocated to replace value-freedom by ‘conscious partiality’ and the vertical relationship between researcher and researched by a ‘view from below’. She nurtured a view on feminist scholarship that inspired women to document their campaigns and struggles. In this way, she argued, women would not only make history but also appropriate history.
She is known for her analysis of women's subsistence production, an interest linked to her childhood in a large peasant family where she and her siblings worked in the fields after school. In Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (1986), Maria expanded Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis that the expansion of capital accumulation required exploitation of non-capitalist sectors by including women’s domestic and subsistence work in capitalism. She coined the concept of ‘housewifisation’ as the process through which women were defined as dependent housewives especially through the colonialisation process. This allowed for an expanded conceptualisation of women’s labour as a freely available natural resource in the international division of labour under capitalism, which linked invisible women producers in the Global South with atomized, dependent consumers, housewives in the West.
She conceptualized the notion of women’s autonomy. According to her, autonomy encompassed the struggle for freedom from oppression and exploitation in all social relations, including the realm of body politics, and a rejection of subsuming the women’s issue and women’s movement under some other apparently more general theme or movement. In Ecofeminism (1993), Maria and Vandana Shiva explored the link between environmental movements and feminism and developed an ecofeminist epistemology and methodology.
Although Maria only worked at the ISS for a short time, ties with W&D alumni and colleagues remained, especially with her PhD students who occasionally visited Maria and Saral in Cologne.
Ireen Dubel (W&D alumna 1980-1981, W&D staff 1985-1987)
Words by her students and colleagues
(ISS alumna 1978-1980, research fellow 1980-1982, W&D convenor 1983-1984)
I had the privilege along with Ofelia Gomez of Colombia to be the first two registered students in the first graduate course in Women and Development taught by Maria Mies at the then Institute for Social Studies. This course nevertheless was ‘audited’ by women of all ages within The Netherlands as well as in other ISS graduate programmes. This was one of the first courses of its kind in the world and certainly one of the first to focus on the connected but diverse and unequal global experiences of women.
Maria was brilliant and radical. She totally revolutionized our thinking forcing us to ask new questions, to always ask why and to seek to understand the structural factors underlying the reproduction of social and women’s inequality and injustice. Maria’s ideas and questions disturbed, we were disturbed and many in the ISS were disturbed, but all of us were forced to reflect and think in new ways.
I was further privileged to have Maria as my doctoral supervisor (doktor moeder) with Professor Gé Kruijer as my promotor. Maria was able to draw out from me my fullest potential for which I am eternally grateful. Her guidance continued, reminding me to ask the right questions, to examine the underlying causes, to identify your conceptual frame and to continually challenge inequality. Her innovative use of the methodology of historical materialism guided my doctoral dissertation which was a social and political history of women’s work and the women’s movement in my country published as – Women, Labour and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago: A History. This continues to be an important work in the field and the historical method continues to be central to my work.
The establishment of the programme in women’s and gender studies (today the Institute for Gender and Development Studies) at the University of the West Indies was one of the successful outcomes of the ISS Programme. As this programme developed, Maria’s guidance was never far from me when she insisted that Women’s Studies needs the Women’s Movement. Today this is possibly even more important than it was then.
In the future even as we develop new scholarship, the classic work of Maria Mies should not be forgotten.
Jyotsna Agnihotri Gupta
(W&D alumna 1980-81, W&D staff 1983-86)
For all the sisters of Maria Mies' ISS class of 1980-1981
Sisters of the round table
from different lands
under the self-same sun
moon and stars
that watched over us
that were divided
by labels we had no use for
created only to divide us
the missing ‘second world’
placed in between
what united us
not a legendary female King Arthur
but shared oppression
the spirit burning within
that we would overcome
if we arose as one.
Now that we are again
scattered all over the corners of the world
each of us bears
made from the wood of that round table
we carry it
each hour of the day
every sleeping and waking moment
of our bond
of the burden we bear
of the inspiration
and the supportwe share.
Each a chip of the old block.
We only wait
before we arise
each from her corner of the world
to trample beneath
leaving no escape
for all who stand in the way
as we march ahead
to make the world
'Maria has made incisive contributions not only to our conceptualisations, but also to the self assertion of women among construction workers, domestic workers, health workers, who all can fluently explain why we talk of 'production of life and livelihood' and reject 're-production' as a concept. Of course this is the result of a much wider organisational process, but the good thing is that many of us could stand our ground in this process because we had a deep thinking process as well. And that process of analysis and organisation has to go on and must be carried forward.
(W&D alumna 1980-81, W&D staff 1983-2015)
'Maria has passed on, and I suppose by now her soul has arrived in a feminist sustainable eco-friendly truly democratic and just after-life, where she may find well-deserved rest, while keeping the kind of naughty twinkle in her eyes encouraging us to keep on studying AND with every step changing or rather transforming the world order.
Thank you so much Maria, the close encounters with you during those formative in-Sisterhood years at ISS have transformed me profoundly and are still a source of inspiration!'
(W&D alumna 1980-81)
'The ISS Women and Development specialization was not merely an academic course. It was a holistic programme through which we explored all aspects of our lives and especially how we brought together praxis and theory. This course, inspired and directed by Maria Mies and assisted amply by Kumari Jayawardena and Mia Berden, really inspired the 30 odd women from all over the world, mainly the South.
'Maria, Mia and Kumari ignited us into radical and crucial thinking: how in our various countries and contexts we lived and had means to explore and undertake radical feminist work. In my case it was intensifying the feminist element into and the analysis of feminism in the mass democratic anti-apartheid struggle. Of course, the racial oppression was so blatant that it was easy to subvert other struggles like women's and LGBTIQ+ during the apartheid and post-apartheid era. Equipped with feminist anti-capitalist analysis our struggles intensified into an intersectional one.
'Even during my apartheid prison experience in solitary confinement and later on trial for treason the support of the 'women & development group' from all corners of the world expressed solidarity through various ways, making the challenges of prison bearable. Being part of post-apartheid parliament and later as a commissioner on gender equality Maria's voice and teachings enhanced my own work. I valued the intermittent post-ISS communication with her; always encouraging and motivating me, taking me to new paths.
'Maria Mies, born in Germany but whose thoughts, ideas, analysis and writings generated globally to the general greater good.'