The paper assesses Sen's more abstract version of capabilities theory, Nussbaum's more substantive Aristotelian version and attempts to apply such conceptions to women's lives. Sen's capability approach is a helpful intervention in the discourses of mainstream Western welfare economics and moral philosophy. To influence these, it retains some of their assumptions, and appears limited by its conceptions of the person and of agency. In both areas Nussbaum goes deeper, but her emphatically Aristotelian style is controversial and can short-circuit the debate she sought to advance. Priority areas for further work are: more adequate pictures of ‘culture’ and ‘the individual’ than she or Sen have used, to combine insights from communitarian critics with the strengths of the capabilities approach. © 1997 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.