Vol 13 No 1 (2021)

Pro-poor market or Push-cart evil? The historical and global struggles of women street traders

Susan Marie Martin
Independent Academic (Ph D-National University of Ireland, UCC) (MAIS-Athabasca University)
Volume 13 Issue 1 Cover
Published September 14, 2020


This study tests Michel Foucault’s observation that even well-intentioned policies may still oppress. This phenomenon is readily observed in cities when a seemingly innocuous program of governance such as gentrification is undertaken, touted by civic leaders as addressing the social needs of citizens by promoting business and ‘cleaning up’ inner cities. Gentrification is, however, a neoliberal privileging of the needs of the macroeconomy and developers; urban public space is shaped for private gain, and the urban poor are pushed further into the social and economic margins. Urban street trade, historically and globally, has been the domain of poor women, and their visibility makes them vulnerable both socially and politically under gentrification: they are visual reminders of the failures of the state and the economy as providers, and an ‘eyesore’ to large-scale commercial interests, and upscale city dwellers. This paper demonstrates how creating what Foucault terms a ‘history of the present’ informs the past, and highlights contemporary struggles over public space. An exploration of established theories on gender, gentrification, and social class delineates how it is that these three potential areas of inequality merge to further disadvantage women street traders. Qualitative and quantitative data gathered on women street traders in 1920s Ireland, when triangulated with contemporary data on women street traders in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, delineates how, across time and space, governance structures and the ‘tyranny’ of the abstract market deepens the marginalisation of the women who count among the urban poor. Key words: Foucault; genealogy; gentrification; gender; urban poor; street traders.