"Women hold up half the sky"

An equally persuasive and heartbreaking argument that female empowerment can save the world

Published August 21, 2009 6:22PM (EDT)

This Sunday's New York Times Magazine includes a long excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's forthcoming book, "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," which contains far too much material to cover in one blog post. So first, let me just say: Go read it.

Hillary Clinton's focus on empowering girls and women around the globe may have met so far with a "tide of trivialization," as Judith Warner put it recently in the Times, but Kristof and WuDunn make an equally persuasive and heartbreaking argument for why the secretary of state is exactly right to keep her -- and our -- attention there. And the reasons are about as bipartisan as they get. 

We bleeding-heart liberals might be most moved by descriptions of the horrific human rights violations girls and women in developing countries endure -- "sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape," for instance -- or by the fact that worldwide, somewhere between 60 and 107 million females are just plain missing. (Despite women normally having a longer life expectancy than men, suggesting the numbers should be on their side, males outnumber females in countries like China and India: "In places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish.") But improving the lives of the world's girls and women has benefits conservatives ought to love, too.

For starters, helping women might just be the most fiscally responsible thing to do. "[A]id has often been most effective when aimed at women and girls; when policy wonks do the math, they often find that these investments have a net economic return ... [I]ncreasingly donors are recognizing that that is where they often get the most bang for the buck." And if that's not enough to appeal to those on the right, check this out:

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country's population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren't fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys' locker room.

So why is a cause that not only improves human lives but makes good economic sense and fights terrorism routinely dismissed as a marginal concern, one of those things that might be nice to address but certainly shouldn't be a priority? Because we just don't get it, say Kristof and WuDunn. They didn't get it either, until they moved to China in the late 1980s.

Traditionally, the status of women was seen as a 'soft' issue -- worthy but marginal. We initially reflected that view ourselves in our work as journalists. We preferred to focus instead on the 'serious' international issues, like trade disputes or arms proliferation ... When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn't even consider it news.

Once they began learning about both the depth of female suffering and the myriad social and economic benefits of empowering girls and women, however, they changed their minds. Perhaps more journalists, politicians, and ordinary American citizens will, too, as Clinton and the State Department's new global ambassador for women's issues, Melanne Verveer, fight to keep female empowerment on the front burner. Verveer told Warner, "We have our own work to do at home. We trivialize the importance too often of these issues: the 'women's issue' -- you put it in quotes, that little category over there, the box you check. What we have to do is realize these are the issues; if we want societies to prosper and if we want our own security, we have to raise the status of women."

Warner despairs for the possibility of that logic penetrating our own country's thick layer of sexism in general and Hillary-hate in particular -- and I can't say I blame her -- but Kristof and WuDunn are somewhat more optimistic. "The world is awakening to a powerful truth," they write. "Women and girls aren't the problem; they're the solution."


By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

MORE FROM Kate Harding

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Gender