Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Sheryl WuDunn, gave a free talk at the Palace of Fine Arts Monday night, telling the audience the best way to stop poverty and end terrorism worldwide is to achieve gender equality. WuDunn argued that gender equality is the most important struggle of this century, and that the key to world economic progress is unlocking women’s potential.
Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Half The Sky
WuDunn said that the paramount moral challenge of the 19th Century was slavery, in the 20th, totalitarianism, and in the 21st century, it’s gender quality.
WuDunn told the audience we are wasting half our resources by failing to educate and honor women. After her talk, she told me that she was inspired to write her book, because of all the missing women worldwide; they’d just vanished. No one had written about a book about them.
At the beginning of her talk, WuDunn asked the audience: Are there more women or men in the world?
About 98% of the audience (including me) believed there were more women in the world. We knew women generally lived longer than men. But this statistic only holds true in the developed world. In the developing world, women are vastly outnumbered.
Approximately 60 – 100 million women have gone missing.
Women die due to poor health care; they die in childbirth; they die from violence by men; girls are kidnapped into sex trafficking, never surfacing again, and female fetuses are aborted.
I’ve been a fan of WuDunn and her husband/ co-author/ New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ever since Half the Sky came out. About a year ago, the book was featured as the cover story of the New York Times Magazine. With the publication of this one book, national attention began to shift back to feminism and gender equality, bringing a renewed awareness in the media and in the public about the oppression of women worldwide and how that oppression affects and limits us all.
The very basis of the Taliban, of course, is oppression against women. While there was worldwide outrage about Apartheid in South Afriica years ago, no one seemed to care much about the gender crimes of the Taliban until 9-11. Even since 9-11, it’s been a challenge to keep the focus on educating women, in Afghanistan and all over the world.
WuDunn laid out a simple path to creating a better, safer, stronger world, as logical as a tenth grade geometry proof:
Overpopulation is the biggest indicator of poverty. When women are educated, they marry later and have fewer children, and they are more likely to make sure these children are educated.
WuDunn said governments must make it their highest priority to educate women.
WuDunn was asked by an audience member: Why is now women’s time?
She referred again to the missing women, then adding “Brawn used to matter.” In agricultural and farming societies, physical strength was seen as crucial to success. Now we’ve entered a period of technology and brain power, and its the opportunity for women to get ahead.
WuDunn argues again and again that the best way to bring about change is by investing in women. We’re losing our most valuable resource. When people in the audience asked what they could do to help women worldwide, WuDunn said give money to support women’s organizations. She said she loves Doctors Without Borders but we need to create Bankers without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders. We must rally our governments to commit to educating women.
Kavita Ramdas, CEO and President of the Global Fund for Women, was also speaking. The Global Fund is the world’s largest grantmaking foundation focused exclusively on international womens’s human rights. Ramdas told the audience. “If you can’t help women in the Sahara, help women in East Palo Alto. Here in the United States, 70% of those in poverty are women.”
Kavita Ramdas, President and CEO of Global Fund for Women
Listening to the talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a horrible example my home state of California, in my home country of the United States, sets with its bankrupt public educational system. How can we insist countries of the world educate women when we are are so substandard at home?
When a male high school student in the audience asked Ramdas what he could do to help women worldwide, she said, “I have a sixteen year old daughter. I worry about her. Set an example in how you treat your peers. Don’t use the words bitch and whore.”
The talk was fascinating, listening to WuDunn and Ramdas circle the globe and came back home to the Bay Area. They highlighted again and again, that until conditions improve for women, humans will not reach anything close to our potential.
I blogged about this a couple days ago. Here are some sad stats about the lack of women in America’s leadership positions. More women are going to law school but they’re not becoming law partners; they’re in medical school but they’re not chief surgeons. Women in America get paid less for doing the same work as men, and the Equal Rights Amendment was never passed in this country. It’s worldwide problem, our worst problem. We need to recognize it exists, identify it and then eradicate it everywhere. Order sEXISTs stickers and T-shirts here, one dollar from every item sold goes to the Woodull Institute for Ethical Leadership.
Sheryl WuDunn’s talk was free to the public because it was sponsored by Facing History and the Allstate Foundation.
Facing History is an international educational and professional development nonprofit organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism in order to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. By studying the historical development of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives.
The Allstate Foundation partners with non-profit organziations and community initiatives that promote safe and vital communties, tolerance, diversity, and economic empowerment.
There is a sense out there that a woman cannot be both accomplished and good-looking. Every time people speak in hushed reverent tones about Hillary Clinton, and chortle and sneer at the name of Sarah Palin who has arguably achieved far more in less time, that’s what I’m talking about.
It’s a real shame, but a big part of this statistical discrepancy is that a lot of women have quietly acquiesced to this. Once a woman runs for a Senate seat, or a Congressional seat, or a Governor’s chair, she’s given all the deference and respect that a male candidate receives and then some. (The aforementioned Palin is a notable exception, since her politics aren’t pleasing to the liberal intelligentsia.) The trouble is the women. They just don’t want to run. People in power right now are between 50 and 60, spoiled rotten baby-boomers, immaculately groomed and pretty if they’re men and pug-ugly if they’re women. It’s now at the point where you can count on seeing it every year at the Miss America pageant. Someone will ask a politically charged question of one of the finalists, she’ll eek out some answer, and for the next two months we’ll be chuckling about it. Why, because the answer was bad? No, because she’s a pretty lady. We’re just not willing to accept beauty and brains can be found in the same place. Feminists aren’t willing to give us the permission, and as a society we lack the balls to come to conclusions about things without getting permission first.
So the pattern has been set: If you feel comfortable in a position of power, and you’re worthy of it, and you’re a woman you must be ugly. Most women find that highly intimidating. We’re probably missing out on some real talent because of this, and it’s likely to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.