The NYT Issue on Women: “A Persuasive Argument”

Amanda Marcotte

Kristof and WuDunn persuasively argue that fighting for women’s equality around the world, especially in developing countries, is the moral issue of our time.

The recent publication of a series of articles in the New York Times magazine
focused on women and development, at a time when several books on the
subject have also been published, has sparked debate in the women’s
rights community internationally and domestically.  These debates come
at a time when US Foreign Aid programs are under review and during the
15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and
Development.  Rewire is featuring commentary on these issues from a diverse set of voices in the US and abroad. 

Previous commentaries include on by Edwin Okong’o of New America Media, Yifat Susskind of Madre, and Carol Jenkins of the Women’s Media Center.

A compilation of the pieces posted on RH Reailty Check and on other blogs will be published on Friday, September 11th. 

The New York Times Magazine created the splash it intended
to with its special issue titled, with an unfortunate chivalric take, “Saving
the World’s Women,” an issue centered around an article by Nicholas Kristof and
Sheryl WuDunn titled "The
Women’s Crusade"
, where they persuasively argued that fighting for
women’s equality around the world, especially in developing countries, is the
moral issue of our time.  The
article and the issue in general promoted WuDunn and Kristof’s new book "Half
the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide"
.  The book might seem like a daunting
read, as Kristof and WuDunn describe the various evils of patriarchy and
misogyny worldwide—women trapped in sex slavery, killed for perceived slights
against a family’s honor, left to die in childbirth, thrown out to be eaten by
wild animals because they have fistulas that stink, prevented from getting an
education because of neglect and poverty, starved by families that let the male
members have their fill before the female members can eat, beaten by fathers
and husbands for the slightest transgression—but Kristof and WuDunn manage to
make it a bearable and quick read. 
(Except for the parts about female genital mutilation.   That topic always sends this squeamish reader towards Cute Overload for a brain cleanser.)

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How did they make it so readable?  Kristof and WuDunn understand the power of hope.  When most of us read about the tragic
loss of life, limb, and freedom that many women endure when trapped in a sexist
system, we can’t get past despairing to consider such a light and fluffy thing
as hope. But Kristof and WuDunn sprinkle the book with stories of women who
were given (or who, in some cases, snatched) an opportunity to go into business
or get an education, and were then able to buy themselves a measure of
freedom.  We read about women who
dedicated their lives to educating girls, repairing fistulas, providing decent
maternity care, helping shut down brothels that peddle enslaved women, and
offer microloans to other women so they can lift themselves out of
poverty.  Is it really too much to
believe that women can gain a measure of equality worldwide, they implicitly
ask.  After all, women in Western
nations fought for and received something within putting range of equality.  China, too, has seen remarkable gains
for women in status and freedom. 
If it’s possible in these places, it’s possible everywhere.

My main problem with the book was that Kristof and WuDunn
are so intent on making women’s lives around the world an issue past ideology
that they end up giving the American right wing more credit than they deserve
when it comes to believing women are full human beings who deserve to be free
and healthy.  For instance, even
though they detail how the American right, with a big assist from the Vatican,
was able to pressure the Bush administration to cut funding for contraceptive
services around the world while pouring money into abstinence-only boondoggles,
Kristof and WuDunn seem determined to ignore how the anti-abortion movement is
anti-contraception, too.  Instead,
they argue that the American right and left should come together and agree that
women should have better access to contraception, because of the obvious
benefits in terms of educational attainment and lowered maternal mortality and
morbidity.  Well, of course, we
should come together on this.  Or,
to put it more bluntly, of course the right-wingers should drop their
objections to giving women rights and freedom and come over to the left on
these issues.  They shouldn’t just
do it with contraception—legal, safe abortion has the same benefits for
women’s health and lives.  But no
one is stupid enough to suggest that the American right will support safe
abortion, so why is it still acceptable to pretend they’re not fighting against
contraception as well?

In the grand scheme of things, this objection is actually a
smaller one than you’d think. 
Outside of flattering the American right for being humanists when
they’re not, Kristof and WuDunn do a pretty good job of identifying the enemy
of women as sexism, in the West and otherwise.  It’s sexism that makes it a big deal when a couple of
journalists are kidnapped, but relegates the routine kidnapping and
imprisonment of women into brothels as a mere “women’s issue” to be shoved into
the back pages.   It’s sexism
when death and injury from basic reproductive functions like childbirth can
barely capture the world’s attention. 
It’s sexism when people say that prostitution will always be with us,
and so shrug off the need to free women in sex slavery.  (Not that there aren’t many willing
prostitutes, of course, but the fact that there are women who consensually
provide the service makes it even harder to argue that sex slavery is
inevitable.)  It’s sexism when
women’s abilities and talents are ignored, especially in nations where women
represent an untapped resource that could do wonders to help move the economy
along, if they were allowed.  As
Kristof and WuDunn note, it’s sexism to treat women as nothing more than “slaves
and baubles” instead of people in their own right with much more to contribute
to the world than the use of their vaginas.

And it’s great to read a book that’s brimming with ideas for
solutions, especially when those ideas are reflected in the real world.  Kristof and WuDunn emphasize especially
the need for women to take leadership roles in their own countries and
cultures, and not just because of the threat of cultural imperialism, but also
because it’s more practical.  Who
better knows where aid needs to go and what obstacles you might face than
someone who has lived her whole life in that culture?  I dare anyone reading this book not to walk away wanting to
help, even if just a little bit by giving money to Kiva. 
Kristof and WuDunn believe in the world’s women, and when you’re done
with this book, you’ll almost surely share their enthusiasm.     

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