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.

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