In this paper, historical analysis and qualitative fieldwork are combined to question the belief that recent efforts in Kerala to induct women into local governance and mobilize poor women into self-help groups implies continuity with the earlier history of women's mobility into the spaces of paid work and politics. For a longer view, the histories of gender-coding of spaces and of women's mobility into paid work and politics are examined. In the twentieth century, while the subversive potential of paid work was contained through casting it within feminine terms, politics was unquestionably unfeminine space. However, recent efforts have not advanced women's mobility in any simple sense. The subversive potential of women's mobility towards work in self-help groups is still limited. In local governance, unlike the experience of an earlier generation of women, the ability to conform to norms of elite femininity now appears to be a valuable resource. © 2010 Cambridge University Press.