Not Oprah’s Book Club: Half the Sky

A friend, her partner, and I were riding in the car last fall and got into a heated discussion about New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In very boiled down terms, the friend was arguing Kristof and WuDunn take an overly paternalistic, culturally insensitive view of the kind of social change that needs to happen in order to empower women worldwide, that they do more harm than good by making suburban mom and Oprah watchers feel good about donating to causes instead of understanding the vast intersectional issues. The partner, in contrast, was arguing that even an overly simplified argument that motivates people to pay attention to issues far afield of their own is progress, that we can’t be too pure about how these messages get translated, as long as we’re widening the audience of those who take them personally. I was sitting in the back, feeling torn.
Having now read Half the Sky (I hadn’t then, and I’m actually not sure my car companions had either), I can say that it succeeds wildly at what it does right. Here is what it is: a tremendous and comprehensive survey of the global issues facing women–from education to maternal mortality, from economic rights to government leadership. It is a fantastic primer, as the partner was arguing, for folks who are new to learning about global health and economic challenges disproportionately affecting women and girls. Kristof and WuDunn are masters are using a very unique story to illustrate a vast issue, incorporating statistics, and making non-partisan, no-nonsense arguments. They also did a notable job of finding plenty of grassroots activism, born and continued by those being directly affected, as model examples.
What Half the Sky is not: a feminist analysis of the systemic injustices that intersect in these women’s and girls’ lives. It is neither psychologically complex, nor steeped in moral investigation. It seems that Kristoff, who is the author most often mentioned, still hasn’t explored or isn’t interested in exploring his own privilege and the way it interacts with his “subjects.” It’s a book that prizes pragmatism over an analysis of power, simple stories over complex narratives, and motivating an “everywoman” reader over pointing out hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and challenges of Western-based activism for global uplift.
So here I am, still firmly positioned in between my two buddies in the car. I recognize my friend’s argument–that Kristoff and WuDunn could use more nuance, more self-awareness, more complexity in some of their analysis–but I also feel strongly that motivating people to act is often more important than acknowledging all the complexities. The wisdom must be, as always, somewhere in between. And of course, in knowing what kind of book you’re getting into. As an author myself, I can attest that it’s frustrating when you get critiqued for not writing the book that you never intended to pen in the first place. I think Kristof and WuDunn had a goal and they succeeded powerfully at achieving it.

Join the Conversation

  • daveNYC

    So the three of you were arguing over the details of a book that you’re not sure any of you had even read?

  • SilverAeris

    “I also feel strongly that motivating people to act is often more important than acknowledging all the complexities.”
    I feel that one isn’t more important than the other at any of the time – they are both necessary. The former, without understanding the complexities can definitely lead to more harm than good (one example: issuing of microloans to women without taking into consideration and addressing gender dynamics. Such programs have lead to an increase in domestic violence)as you mentioned in the beginning of the post.


    A while back I was listening to On the Media, and Nicholas Kristof was on talking about his storytelling strategy. After the book came out and after a dramatic appearance on Oprah, NK was criticized by many for his presentation of individual triumph feel-good narratives and the marked de-emphasis of context and systemic problems.
    He said on the program that he has deliberately honed this style, despite its evident shortcomings, based on his understanding of the sociology and psychology of both marketing and people’s desire to help and willingness to act. E.g., if people are shown a single starving African girl, yeah, they want to help her out. If you start adding her family, and then the widespread famines, and then the millions of rapes and deaths, well, the eyes start to glaze over.
    Which makes sense to me, although I know it is illogical and almost wrong. Sense that you can “make a difference” vs. sense that the world is simply effed and its problems are too big to be fixed.
    So while imperfect, Kristof thinks that his way of presenting the issues is the best way to get people to actually act.
    Have a listen, you may find the whole interview pretty interesting. [On the Media]

  • earwicga

    Courtney, I felt the same as you. Torn, because it could have been such a good book, but also pleased that the issues are being discussed.
    I don’t agree with Kristoff that the solution is micro businesses, but as he leaves world politics and imperialism completely out of the mix then that would be a logical conclusion if your only knowledge of what is happening to half the population is from a reading of Half the Sky. With that in mind, I can only conclude that the book is a fail.
    (NB – I can’t log-in under my original name which is earwicga so this is my ‘pen-name’)

  • earwicga

    What’s your point Dave? Courtney clearly she was listening to the argument and she hadn’t read the book.
    Now she has read the book and has written a good review, which you haven’t bothered to engage with.

  • daveNYC

    I was simply amused that she was torn between the opinions of two people who might not have read the book, when she herself had not read the book. How exactly can you have an opinion about someone’s opinion about something that you know nothing about (except for the title)?
    As far as the review goes, I’ll probably have to put the book on my ever growing Amazon shopping cart. The fact that Kristof focuses on pragmatic steps to try and improve the lot of women around the world. This is the same guy who is in favor of sweat shops, because the unfortunate alternative is prostitution or starvation.

  • heatheroc

    My reading of the book didn’t lead me to the conclusion that micro-loans were being touted as the sole solution. It seemed that the authors were recommending many complementary sources of help for women.

  • Comrade Kevin

    How we educate people is crucial. Part of intersection is critical thinking. Anyone, for example, can learn rote feminist theory, but that only applies to the letter of the law. The true context is when one sees parallels and contrasts between related fields.
    If that is not done, then we fall prey to navel-gazing.

  • BackOfBusEleven

    I think the women’s stories speak for themselves and don’t require nuance. But I disagree that the authors didn’t discuss any institutional problems. They did criticize the Global Gag Rule and UNFPA. They talked about some of the less glamorous causes that are cost-efficient and successful, like battling fistula and iodizing salt, that people don’t donate to. They didn’t say that this was a class issue, but I don’t think they have to. They don’t have to say “Your class privilege lets you ignore medical conditions that only occur in the third world.” Anyone who reads about successful charities that help fistula patients, provide period care products, and iodize salt will finish this book thinking, “Maybe I should donate to that cause instead.”