Mary E. Wilhoit


This article challenges broadly applied beliefs about the gendered nature of informality and the marginalization of single mothers to argue that many such women in Ayacucho, Peru routinely sought out formal-sector jobs and used these to exert authority over certain local processes of development. I argue that this situation, influenced in part by the male-dominated nature of the lucrative but completely informal coca economy, may also reflect Andean ideologies of maternal authority and the freedom afforded to single, rather than married, women. This article draws on over sixteen months of fieldwork in rural Ayacucho, during which time I observed women’s efforts to diversify and reconfigure their households and analyzed their income strategies in relation to political involvement and kinship networks. As I describe, my interlocutors were primarily landless, and sold food from home, engaged in hacienda ‘invasions’, and took available jobs with NGOs and municipalities. These jobs were often short-term, part-time, and low paying, and development and municipal projects sought women specifically for such positions, believing men were unlikely to take them. Countering the global pattern of women’s relegation to the informal sector, however, as well as the notion that single women are inevitably disproportionately marginalized, female heads-of-household in the Huanta region regularly sought formal, even government-sponsored jobs and used such positions to improve their own situations and direct community change.

Author Biography

Mary Elena Wilhoit is the Earl S. Johnson Instructor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on gender, sexuality and political subjectivity; labor and kinship in late capitalism; governmentality and statecraft as gendered processes; and the applications of Anthropological methodologies to understanding ‘anxiety’ and rural identity in the US today. Email: wilhoit@uchicago.edu ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7042-7569