September/October’s book for Emma Watson’s feminist book club was HALF THE SKY: TURNING OPPRESSION INTO OPPORTUNITY FOR WOMEN WORLDWIDE by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I’m excited to talk about this one, so let’s get to it!
While the selections have generally been very good, I was especially excited for this book for a few reasons. One, it’s the first one with a Chinese-American author: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn are married Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists (this is also the first book club pic with a male author). Second, this is the first book that really looks at the issue of gender equality from the perspective of policy and global oppressions.
HALF THE SKY takes an in-depth look at a wide variety of issues that contribute to the oppression women and girls around the world, but especially in poor countries: forced prostitution, rape, honor killings, maternal mortality, female genital cutting, etc. Kristof and WuDunn argue the case that oppression of women is the most important humanitarian issue of the 21st century, pointing to the systemic undervaluing of women that causes many girls to routinely die in much of the world simply for being female. They make the case that Western intervention in the form of education, investment in women’s economic and political opportunities, and working with grassroots efforts to empower women in poor countries are the most effective ways to end gendered oppression worldwide. The title comes from Mao Zedong’s declaration that “Women hold up half the sky”; the book notes that improvement of the traditionally dismal status of women in China is one positive legacy Mao can claim, pointing to China as an example of how radically a country can turn around its treatment of women.
Kristof and WuDunn examine these issues from the perspective of journalists, not theoreticians. While their mission is obviously a feminist one, they argue strongly for the importance of data over reliance on ideology in testing what works and what doesn’t in determining the best solutions to make the most impact on women’s lives. The book mixes journalistic analysis of different humanitarian efforts and approaches with anecdotes of women in poor countries themselves. These stories show both the horrors many women around the world face regularly as well as the work that some of the most oppressed women themselves are doing to uplift their situation and that of other women.
For a book that deals heavily in the nitty-gritty of policy and covers some truly appalling atrocities, it’s very readable and accessible without glossing over the nuance–or humanity–of its subjects. The in-depth look at pressing issues that we often name without really talking about, combined with the insistence on rigorous testing and skepticism and care to humanize real women and the ways they’ve empowered themselves, make this book a really informative and important read. If nothing else, pick it up for the resources in the back detailing what you can do to participate in the fight against gendered oppression, but know you’ll be getting a great read to boot.