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BOOK REVIEW | Spring 2016

Impatient for Change

Women and Girls Rising: Progress and Resistance Around the World

Edited by Ellen Chesler and Terry McGovern, Routledge


Review by ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

THESE ARE INTERESTING times for activism. So many causes have gone global, yet the globe itself is threatened with extinction via climate change. That looming backdrop, among other things, has given a new urgency and a sharper, more insistent edge to women's-rights campaigns that have been with us for generations. Activists sense they have to push now for real, deeply rooted change or hold their peace for another generation that is guaranteed to no one. Settling for the status quo isn't an option.

That urgency is at the heart of Women and Girls Rising, a collection of reports and analyses by 44 scholars and activists from around the world. They examine the state of women's rights through five lenses: progress at the United Nations; local and national activism within countries; case studies of women and girls striving for full economic justice; the battle for education and against child marriage; and, naturally, women's involvement in combating climate change. Each section has its merits, but it's the one on the U.N.—the one with the widest lens, paradoxically—that feels most intimate. The U.N. has a long history of sponsoring conferences and organizations that have carried the causes crucial to women, from reproductive rights to increasing the female presence at the peacemaking table. The good news is that official recognition of women's issues worldwide, which are perhaps more varied and nuanced now than ever before, has grown dramatically since Eleanor Roosevelt's time; the bad news is that oppressive conditions on the ground have not changed nearly enough. Change has simply not kept pace with the need for change, a theme running through the entire book. That theme doesn't dim the optimism, but it's a constant companion.

Among the many challenges currently facing women's rights is defining the term anew. As this book points out, LGBT and gender-identity causes overlap feminist causes, but they are not the same. Self-determination for women is often different in the global South than it is in the North. Religious fundamentalism has recast the "right to life" and the wearing of hijab as empowering and all about choice rather than patriarchy. And income inequality is a global crisis that brings down all of us, not just women. Women and Girls Rising charts all these complications in admirable detail, though the mostly academic language sometimes can flatten or obscure the power of its ideas and the passion of its hope.

One of the most lucidly written pieces is by feminist Devaki Jain, a U.N. veteran who criticizes the institution as moribund and then questions whether its whole approach to women's rights has grown too narrow. Yet what sounds like a downer is really a call to arms.

"We must begin by redefining and reevaluating all the terms we use to assess progress, such as GDP and MDG, or even 'gender equality' itself," Jain writes. "In the old days we used to argue in these picturesque ways, do we want to eat a part of a poisoned cake? Do we want to swim in a polluted river? Do we want equality within the confines of existing political and economic spaces?"

We need to do nothing less than change those spaces. That's something on which all the contributors here, varied as their voices and conclusions are, completely agree.

Reprinted from the Spring issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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