I've been looking forward to last Sunday's New York Times Magazine
ever since its contents
were released online last week. The cover seems almost too good to be true - with "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of Our Time" emblazoned down the side, the issue promises articles about Hillary Clinton's campaign for global women's rights, women's philanthropy, the tragedy of missing or devalued daughters. I read the magazine on Sunday, but it's taken a few days to formulate my thoughts for this blog. For some reason, the whole package made me very uncomfortable, despite the fact that its primary goal seems to be taking "women's issues" - that often-played-down, snooze-inducing phrase - and making them "human rights issues". Which, admittedly, we've been trying to do for a while. And I certainly hope that these articles have opened the eyes of some NYT
readers to the absolute necessity of empowering women worldwide. But, you must admit, it's interesting that for all of the global rhetoric infused throughout the magazine, the focus landed squarely on Asia, with a couple side trips to sub-Saharan Africa. Women's rights worldwide, eh? Well, surely that includes us too.
I think my problems with the magazine are two-fold. First of all, I completely agree with the excellent analysis at Feministing
- however glamorous it may seem to throw on our American superhero capes and go flying into Pakistan to "save" the poor oppressed women from the terrible abusive Pakistani men, it's not a long-term solution. We need to take a couple of steps back and assess how we can help these women change their own lives - and admit when we're not seeing the whole picture. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the authors of the magazine's feature article, seem to making the somewhat disturbing assumption that we need to take spending power away from the men of developing countries because they are inherently less likely to spend their money on medicine, nourishment and clothing.
"If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries," Kristof and WuDunn write. "A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier."
Moralizing much? And really, shouldn't we be working on both men and women as part of the family equation? If we want to liberate women from traditional gender roles, that requires a change in the way men see themselves - if we assume that they're simply alcoholic spendthrifts and unworthy of any responsibility, they will become resentful and really, who can blame them? For an article that purports to change "women's issues" into "human issues", there is very little discussion of the fact that gender roles must change for men as well as women. Furthermore, I am bothered by the assumption that we should be giving women money because they will spend it more wisely. Women deserve economic opportunity because they are human. They deserve education because they are human. Period, end of story. The idea that we should be extending aid to women merely because they will do what we want, and what we believe to be morally right, is very disturbing.
This isn't to say that Kristof and WuDunn haven't written a powerful and compelling article - they're clearly both passionate about women's rights (we've written about Kristof here
in the past
), but I think their article, and others, leaves out another extremely important component. The fact is, when we talk about worldwide women's rights, we should include our own country. A few of the interviews - one with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
, and one with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
- ended with a comparison between developing nations and the United States, all centered on the fact that we still haven't elected a female president. Clinton gave a fairly generic (and diplomatic) answer about her own campaign, but Sirleaf was much more direct. "I have to ask you that question," she said, when asked why she thinks the United States has never had a female head of state. "You've got to vote for her."
For me, the issue is not so much why we haven't had a female president yet - I'm hoping that this will be rectified within the next ten years. Rather, I'm wondering why we're not extending aid to women in our own country. Why we're not writing about extending maternity leave
, so women can realistically have children and careers, or the fact that earlier this month, a man was so furious
that he was denied access to women's bodies that he entered a gym and killed three people, or the fact that women in the military can seriously fear sexual assault
from their own peers. We don't have economic equality of the sexes here - the Equal Pay Act was signed
only eight months ago, and women are still paid significantly less
than their male counterparts. What about domestic violence? Rape culture? Yes, things are certainly not as bad as they are in Liberia, where 70% of the population is illiterate, but we're not paragons of gender equality in the United States - for goodness' sake, most young women are afraid to say the word "feminism" aloud, much less attach it to themselves.
I do believe that women can change the world, and I admire the sentiments behind these articles - but even as we're airing these important issues, I think we need to bear in mind that there's a lot we're leaving out. Men need to be included - and, in some cases, empowered - and we must make sure that in giving aid, we're not running people's lives or attaching subtle caveats to our generous gifts. And let's not forget the women of our own country. It's much more difficult to look at one's own culture with a critical eye and rectify injustices, but these injustices need to be acknowledged. We can't allow ourselves to be so distracted by our quest to "save" the women of developing countries that we forget that we are far from perfect.