Last week’s nationwide airing of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide reminded those of us who read the Kristof/WuDunn book of the same title how profoundly we were affected by its revelations. For those unfamiliar with either, the book and two-part film document one of the most shameful realities of the twenty-first century, namely, the continued, widespread oppression and degradation of millions of women linked to gender discrimination. Lest we feel impotent when confronted with such a grim reality, the film presents the inspiring stories of courageous women who are making a difference—a Cambodian woman, for example, sold into prostitution as a child, who escapes and later builds a school and refuge for girls with a similar history. Such stories challenge us with what Half the Sky calls “the single most vital opportunity of our time: the opportunity to make a change.”
The film further reminds us of an essential question at the core of the book, reflected in a Chinese proverb from which it takes its title—that women hold up half the sky: What happens when a culture, society, organization, or government marginalizes, oppresses, and/or underutilizes the talents and abilities of half its population? Kristof and WuDunn present a wide range of data to address this question. Their answer: the abuses and inequities they chronicle not only inspire moral outrage, but they thwart international progress. “Their descriptions of female resourcefulness alone make the case that neglecting women’s agency is a huge political and economic error,“ writes Martha Nussbaum in her review of the book Half the Sky for the New York Times. The authors argue that emancipating women, Nussbaum continues, “is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best strategy for fighting poverty” and lifting society as a whole. Gender equality, Half the Sky asserts, is the paramount moral and practical challenge of our time.
As an LDS feminist, I believe one of the questions Half the Sky asks Mormons to consider is: What happens to a religious organization that underutilizes the talents and abilities of half its members, denying them ordination to the priesthood, excluding them from participation in its decision-making councils, and circumscribing their sphere of influence and service simply because they were born female? Having recently participated in a Catholic/Mormon dialogue on women’s ordination sponsored by the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, I know many of my Roman Catholic sisters ask similar questions of their faith tradition. It is vital that we expect our religious communities to respond to questions of gender inequality just as we require it of our secular institutions.
As important as it is to pose these questions, Half the Sky asks more of us as feminist activists. Its underlying message is that knowledge brings with it a moral imperative—both in requiring action and in acting ethically. Kristof and WuDunn suggest that a significant reason why Great Britain finally chose to do the right thing and end the black slave trade—in spite of the huge economic hit it took for doing so—was because English abolitionists not only doggedly pressed the issue, but also meticulously documented it. They didn’t exaggerate or overstate their case. Rather, the authors assert, they presented it in such a way that men and women of conscience could no longer ignore or dismiss them. As one of many working for gender equity in my religious tradition, I am moved by Half the Sky’s call to a scrupulous moral activism.
Lorie Winder has an MA in Humanities from Brigham Young University and is the former editor of the Mormon Women’s Forum Quarterly, and LDS feminist publication.