I think what I want the most this year is for everyone I know to read this book. I don’t really know what to say about it, except that it is exactly what it should be. It’s hard to even think for too long about how purposeful and smart Kristof and WuDunn were in structuring and presenting the information they included here because it obviously represents a lifetime of research and investigation, but it comes off as though they’re telling campfire stories. I don’t mean to be disrespectful in describing it that way, and they certainly weren’t. I just mean that all of the heroes in this book are very vivid to me, and I want to meet them all and do anything I can for them. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I care about human rights for women and girls more than anything else in the entire world. If nothing else, this book is a wonderful resource for information and direction on these issues, but it really is both a storybook and a guidebook.
The premise of the book is that the great human rights battle of the twenty-first century will be to make women equal around the world. The main problems Kristof and WuDunn focus on are child sex trafficking, lack of education for girls, fistulas, and maternal mortality. Ultimately, they say (**spoiler alert**) that the best ways to fight these injustices are through education, micro-finance loans to women entrepreneurs, and, surprisingly enough, getting TVs into rural areas of developing countries.
They note that typically the mistake activists make, when trying to motivate people, is overwhelming them with statistics by trying to present the big picture of how the cause affects the world. Kristof talks a little bit about this in his article Advice for Saving the World
. There is some psychological study where the testers took two groups of people and told one group they could help a thousands of people by giving a dollar and told the other group they could help one person by giving a dollar and described that person’s situation. The test subjects were much more likely to help the one person than the huge number of people. This makes sense to me, because people want to feel successful in helping, not like they’re throwing a bunch of money and effort into something that is too big to be solved. WuDunn and Kristof managed this by discussing the problems in a very specific format. For each issue, they would present the story of one or two women who in some way exemplify the problem, then they would give background information on the problem historically and brief statistics, and then they would tell the story of someone who is successfully fighting the problem. Even though I know they were in some ways spoon-feeding me by being so purposeful, this was a very inspirational way to write the book. They weren’t patronizing, and in many ways it is such a substantial topic that I think I need to be spoon-fed.
All of my stories end up being about Ukraine, probably because the others tend to be boring and depressing. It is difficult to know what to write about Half the Sky, because I loved it so much, but it made me think of this little moment with my ninth-grade students. I used to make my classes write stories together to practice vocabulary, so on Valentine’s Day, I made them write a love story. I gave them a boy character and a girl character and asked them to describe them. They said the girl was tall and strong, had big muscles, short hair, and was very brave. The boy had beautiful hair, was graceful, small, and kind. I was impressed by them going against the usual gender stereotypes, which I found to be extreme in Ukraine. But, then, I thought, they were my favorite class, and always had a good political point or poignant question for me.
At some point, though, one of the students exclaimed, “No! No! Miss Holley! We are wrong. These words, ‘boy’ and ‘girl!’ We are wrong about these words! You must move them!” Then, there was a lot of yelling in Russian, and I laughed pretty hysterically for about 10 minutes at the mistake they had made. Obviously, I refused to switch the words, and we had a nice little lesson about how girls can be very brave and boys can be graceful. If the kids hadn’t been drilled from birth to stay in their seats come hell or high water, I’m sure one of them would have forcibly changed the words.
I guess I’m not telling this story to point out how silly it is that some kids think girls have to have long hair. Teaching moments are important; but, also, I think that really important humanitarian issues can be clouded by the idea that feminism exists because a girl got her feelings hurt. I am not married to the word ‘feminism,’ though I do love it. I think, though, there is almost no real way to discuss this topic using a phrase that doesn’t typically get disregarded as trivial. This book is not about girls opening their own car doors or boys having cooties. This book is about slavery and genocide, perpetrated against the female half of the population, which is globally considered subhuman.
The most difficult part for me about this entire topic is when women themselves don’t want to improve their own lives or the lives of other women. There is a small mention in this book about families who have very little food and allow the men to eat first. The boys in the family will be healthy and strong, and the girls will eventually be taken to hospitals, wasted and malnourished (if they are lucky). The mother of the house herself will eat, and the family gets fat on the starvation of the girls. This is not only a problem in developing nations. Women perpetuating the dehumanizing of other women occurs all over, from West Africa to West Hollywood. It bothers me when I meet men who really hate women or women who really hate men, but then I think the person probably had some kind of traumatic experience with the opposite gender and is over-stereotyping. It seems really disturbing and unnatural to me, however, when women hate other women. I don’t want that to exist.
Now to go uncomfortably personal on y’all. I finished this book last month, a couple of days after my mom died from an eight-year-long, horrible illness. By the end, her illness was sadder than her death, so I am not saying this for sympathy. My mom’s life just seems somehow connected to the topic of this book. I guess, with any discussion of women, our mothers’ lives, our own lives, and our relationships with our mothers are very present. My mother was a very unhappy person. She believed that men should provide and women should be fulfilled by motherhood. I don’t know if she was unhappy because life didn’t live up to that standard, or because she believed women should
be unhappy, or maybe even because the universe conspired against her. My mom and I were very different and didn’t communicate very well. There are many things I don’t know about her. I do know, however, that there was more to her than the unhappy woman I grew up with. I believe there is more to any woman who dehumanizes herself, or other women, than only the hopelessness and resignation they show to the world.
I also think it is possible to create a world that is nurturing to both men and women. I don’t even think it should be as difficult as it seems. There are many things to be discouraged about in the fight to give women human rights; but, there are also people who stand up to oppression, helping women around them and women internationally. I do not feel discouraged by my mother’s disappointments, but I decided to go to law school partly because of them. I hope that when I get out I’ll be able to advocate for women and girls and help the heroes Kristof and WuDunn talk about in Half the Sky
. In the meantime, you should read this book and do your part, too – even if your part is only hugging your mom and reminding her, if she needs a reminder, that she’s a worthwhile human being.