Women’s Empowerment Issue: An Upgrade from “Saving the World’s Women”

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When I first saw the cover of the New York Times Magazine’s “Women’s Empowerment Issue,” I had a classic case of the side-eye: a presumably American white woman with the “all in a day’s work” smirk donning indigenous clothing with arms sprawling across 5 brown children in a field of green pastures. Emblazoned beneath her was the headline “Do It Yourself: Foreign Aid.” But after I got past my smh moment and my suspicions of yet again another sequel in the never-ending saga of white saviordom, I plowed through several articles that were insightful, gripping and helpful to the conversation on women’s rights.

Yes, Nicholas D. Kristof gives his hat-tip to a Harvard-educated, World-Bank-working young woman who makes — I shit you not — 10 maxi pads out of banana fibers for the going rate of 75 cents to address the problem of how the lack of access to low-cost menstrual pads negatively impacts girls’ education and employment in developing countries. But before I could go in on Kristof for not sufficiently addressing the perils of advocating for basement activism without including marginalized women in the process from day-one, I am greeted with “The Art of Social Change.” This was a bad-ass historical account of how outsiders can participate in effective campaigns for social change by learning about the movement to significantly abate food binding in China and female circumcision in Kenya. Not only does the article stress the importance of collaboration, it calls out self-congratulatory behavior as unhelpful and highlights the role of writers in combating sexism.

But it gets even better.

Perhaps the issues’ intellectual crown jewel can be found in, Maggie Jones’ “Coming Out Illegal.”  The inclusion of this article addresses many of the concerns we raised here at Feministing with the release of the previous “Saving Our World’s Women” issue. Just to jog your memory, that issue was practically devoid of any analysis on the challenges that many marginalized women of color face in the US.  This excellent piece changed course by focusing on young, undocumented women who risk arrest and deportation to stand up for The DREAM Act. This is a must read, not just because it documents an important activist moment in our lifetime, but because it makes no bones about the fact that young women of color are central to the movement for immigrant justice. And it does so by beautifully discussing their everyday struggles that they battle while battling injustice. Particularly this account stopped me in my tracks:

Leslie, like most of her Cabin roommates, commuted to save money on housing. She caught a 7 a.m. bus, the first of two that would take her two hours to U.C.L.A. from East Los Angeles. At night, she returned home again, sometimes with her friend Ilse. The bus, crowded with nannies and housekeepers traveling home from L.A.’s wealthy Westside, drove along Sunset Boulevard, passing Bel Air and Beverly Hills and the 20-foot hedges and equally tall gates guarding mansions, making the “Private Entry” signs seem redundant. For Ilse, whose family is also from Mexico, it was a metaphor for her struggles to pay for school and to be part of the college experience. “It was like everything was telling us to keep out,” she said.

Please read on, if you have no time to read anything else in this issue.

Another important piece was a narrative on a mother who escapes a domestic violent relationship with the help of another mother who was previously in a similar situation. The sisterhood moments in that piece are solid gold. The final piece I want to discuss that left more to be desired was a confusingly short piece by Lisa Belkin on why American men don’t pitch in with housework. It is possible that my expectations bar was higher for her contribution to this issue because her work is featured on my current syllabus for my Women and Employment Policy graduate course. But it’s the kind of article that leaves you with dashed hopes because not a lot of new information is offered about the problematic men who sit court-side while their women partners perform twice the housework and three times the child care.

In the end, mucho kudos to the NYT magazine staff for providing content that was empowering to women who were not as visible in previous issues that focused on women’s plight. I don’t know if  Beyonce’s “Upgrade U” was the theme song for that editorial meeting, but they sure as hell followed directions!

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3 Comments

  1. Posted October 26, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    This week’s cover gave me a nasty flashback to that infamous cover where Alex Kuczynski proudly presented the working class womb she rented to carry her upper class baby. I’ll retrieve it from the recycling and take a look now that my fears have been assuaged.

  2. Posted October 26, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I had qualms with certain elements of the special edition, but agree with the premise that we can all get involved and help. One easy thing this week? Make a choice to give a choice: http://www.pathfind.org/MakeAChoice. Videos highlight the need for women to have access to reproductive health care around the world–one of the areas missing coverage in the NYT. Every gift given is matched through the end of October–up to $50k. Share a video, or give a small gift today–every little bit helps.

  3. Posted October 28, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    While I appreciate the author’s point of view, something about the beginning of this post really bothered me. When I read the NY Times article about people like Lisa Shannon and Maggie Doyne identifying needs in developing nations and dedicating their lives to addressing them, they didn’t strike me as congratulating themselves for swooping in and saving the day. The post’s depiction of Ms. Doyne as “a presumably American white woman with the “all in a day’s work” smirk donning indigenous clothing with arms sprawling across 5 brown children in a field of green pastures” just served to stereotype her and minimize the effect she’s had on these communities in Nepal. How do you know that she didn’t “include marginalized women in the process from day-one”? Why does it have to be about race? If it were a 19 year old African American woman who’d left her life behind, not finishing college, to open an orphanage in Nepal, would you have felt the same? I completely respect the author’s point of view, but I just hate the idea of minimizing the work of people, regardless of race, nationality, or socioeconomic status, who dedicate their lives to empowering and enabling women and children in what seems to me to be a culturally sensitive, sustainable way.

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