Starting off on the Wrong Foot

September 14, 2009

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has been a champion of women and girls by bringing issues that affect them to the forefront; he has devoted much of his column space to everything from rape as a weapon of war/conflict to acid attacks to microfinance and women’s economic development. He and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have embarked on a great journey to bring these issues even more attention by conducting research and writing Half the Sky. I had heard about this book long ago and waited months for its release. I started reading it the other night, excited about the prospect that crimes committed against women would become something that more people would hear, read, and talk about. Perhaps more people would even do something in support of the world’s population of women and girls, because I believe in the purpose of Kristof and WuDunn’s book and what their goals seem to be.

That said, I started reading the introduction, and on page xv, I came across this quote:

“In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal.” (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009)

I am so dismayed by this quote that I don’t even know where to begin. I understand the sentiment, but those two sentences are a gross simplification of issues affecting women in the West. Sure, unequal pay and the like are not “lethal” manifestations of gender discrimination, but they’re still discriminatory practices that are systemic indicators of a social order in the West and across the globe. Even beyond that, there are plenty of women and girls in the United States and the West in general who die at the hands of gender discrimination. Hate crimes against females are not limited to developing countries and rural areas — they’re a reality everywhere.

Take, for instance, the shooting at a gym in Pennsylvania that happened this summer. The killer targeted women as a way to get revenge for not getting a date or having a relationship, and according to the New York Times report, he prepared for the shooting nine months ahead of time. Women (notably Western women in the United States) were not behaving the way this guy wanted or expected, so he decided to take it upon himself to kill women, specifically. (By the way, Jessica at Feministing has a couple of great posts about this incident here and here.)

Another example of lethal gender discrimination in the West was the incident in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse in which 10 Amish girls were shot. According to the news report, the shooter divided the students and adults into groups of males and females. Then he let the boys go and “lined the girls against the blackboard, bound their feet and shot them execution-style in the head.”

I could go on and on, including more examples of “lethal” forms of gender discrimination that exist in the United States and other Western countries, but I think I’ve made my point.

The two examples cited above were covered by mainstream, national-level media. These examples do not include all the crimes committed against women (rape, mutilation, and homicide, etc.) elsewhere in the United States that are not covered by national media or may not even be reported to law enforcement officials in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to dismiss the point of Kristof and WuDunn’s book, but that doesn’t give them free reign to dismiss the work of women’s and human rights organizations that focus primarily on Western women or issues specific to individual Western countries. They shouldn’t oversimplify and dismiss the women in the West who die at the hands of their rapists, partners, family members, or even strangers. That quote is offensive because hate and violence against women is a pervasive problem everywhere.

Rather than discounting gender discrimination in the West, it should be included in the discussion and recognition of a global problem. Not all women experience lethal forms of discrimination, but that does not mean that those in the United States and other Western countries do not suffer at the hands of others. I hope others take these thoughts into consideration when reading Half the Sky.

By:   |   September 14, 2009


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I wrote as much in an Op Ed piece (unpublished) to the New York Times.

    My new book, Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future ( Sept 1, 2009, Chicago Review Press) is filled with examples of how sexism kills in America, in addition to other
    manifestations of misogyny in our presumably post-feminist society.

    I think it’s important for all of us who are deeply concerned about the future of girls and women not only aboard but on our own shores to commit and in some cases re-commit ourselves to fighting discrimination against women. We have to remember that women’s rights are human rights.

  2. Thank you for saying out loud what I’ve been feeling for some time. . .why is it so damned sexy for Americans to dash across the pond to help women in other countries when so many women right here in the US desperately need the same services and help in their desperate quest to survive???

    Women will never be equal and misogyny will never end until violence against women ~ in all its ugly guises ~ is eradicated from our cultural values.

  3. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for your comment. Do you mind sharing the link if your op-ed is published online?

  4. Hi

    I’d be happy to share the link, but don’t think that the NYTimes is going will publish it. If I post it online, I’ll give you the link to it.

  5. Flora Gray says:

    Carol Jenkins of Women’s eNews reflects upon “invisibles” in the United States — African American Women — for RH Reality Check at The racial disparities in health are staggering.

  6. I’m glad to see that others feel as I do. This is the piece I sent to the New York Times on September 8th

    Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D.

    Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their new book, Half the Sky, present a horrific account of violence towards women around the world. By comparison, gender discrimination in richer nations, including the United States, is far more benign, according to the authors. It is simply a matter of not getting girls on male athletic teams, an unwanted sexual remark from a boss, the gender pay gap. While the brutality abroad certainly demands our attention, it shouldn’t obscure the potentially deadly dimensions of misogyny on our own shores.

    The United States ranks 27th in the 2008 Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, putting us behind Cuba and Lithuania. We’re only 37th in Health and Survival. Calculated by the World Health Organization, this category estimates how long men and women can expect to live in good health, considering the years lost to disease, malnutrition and violence.

    Violence against women is rampant in our society and popular culture. Everything from increasingly graphic and available pornography, to the lyrics of our many well known rappers, to “Hunting Bambi” Videos in which men in combat dress driving jeeps hunt naked women with paint ball guns. Our most popular forms of entertainment—television and electronic gaming— feature new and ever-more ingenious ways of slaughtering women. Numerous studies have documented the high correlation between violent entertainment and real-life acts of aggression. And we’ve seen how mass killings in America have targeted girls: in the Amish school house and more recently in a sports club. But what we haven’t seen is an outcry against the systematic murder. “Why Aren’t We Shocked?” the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (and the only mainstream journalist to make this point) asks bout the murder in the school? There would be an outcry wrote Herbert if it were Jews or Christians or Muslims who were selectively killed. But because it was only women we barely notice it. It’s just the same-old, same old.

    “I have been dragged up 36 iron steps by …my hair,” a woman confided and this was far from the worst story I heard. She is one of the 5.3 million women abused in this country each year by their intimate partners. Unless it’s a celebrity, like swimsuit model Jasmine Fiore, murdered by her husband, we rarely get news of the 3 women every day killed by their present or former partners. And the numbers are increasing. “We’re not just seeing an uptick, but we’re seeing an uptick off the charts,” said Officer Steve Frazer, Commander of the St. Paul Family Violence Unit. American teens are also “experiencing alarmingly high levels of abuse in their dating relationships,” reports a June, 2009 study by the Family Violence Prevention Fund. The study concurs with experts in the field attributing the escalating violence to the poor economy: the laid-off abuser has more time on his hands and with cutbacks in funds for shelters and hotlines his would-be victim has fewer avenues for escape.

    Domestic violence, however, has been on the raise before the recession of 2008. The “soaring levels” of abuse are also a function of the aching male psyche. Already bruised by the terror attacks on our own soil and the seemingly unwinnable wars aboard, the manly man is being further hammered by the economic meltdown. Beyond all the trappings of masculinity—being an ace athlete, a sound decision maker, a soldier—what really makes men feel like men? “Being a good family breadwinner,” says a two-decade long survey conducted by the Yankelovich Monitor, reinforcing numerous academic studies. Historically threats to feelings of masculinity result in greater subjugation and mistreatment of women. Buried under the myth of a post feminist society, sexism reigns in America.

    The FBI estimates over 100,000 young American women and children are currently being “forced to trade sex for money,” girls like fifteen year old Debbie kidnapped in front of her Phoenix home, held at gunpoint, forced to have sex with approximately 50 men and kept locked in a dog crate until her rescue forty days after her abduction. But Debbie was fortunate to have a family that was able keep on top of the investigation until she was found.

    But what happens to girls who flee dangerous home situations? Many of them end up as
    prostitutes, virtual slaves to their pimps. They are branded, beaten and forced to turn tricks until they meet their quotas. These girls are considered “throwaways,” invisible to society, according to Rachel Lloyd founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. Her organization helps young women who have escaped commercial sexual exploitation—the lucky ones. A study by The American Journal of Epidemiology found the average age of death of prostitutes to be thirty-four.

    And sexism is shortening women’s lives in other ways as well. “The outlook for women’s health is grim and nowhere near approaching the nation’s goals for 2010 set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services initiative, according to Dr. Michelle Berline, associate professor at the Oregon Health and Science University. Not one state in fifty received a satisfactory grade in a women’s health report card issued by the National Women’s Law Center.

    For the first time since 1918, women’s life expectancy is dropping. Emphysema, kidney failure, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are taking a huge toll among poor women of all races. And our infant mortality rates are appalling. Data released in October, 2008 from the Centers for Disease Control ranks the United States 29th globally, with Non-Hispanic black and American Indian women having the highest rates. In our nation’s Capital the death rate of black infants in 4 times the rate for white newborns. CDC researchers Marian F. Mac Dorman, PhD. and T.J. Mathews note, “The relative position of the United States in comparison to countries with the lowest infant mortality rates appears to be worsening.”

    Women’s inability to receive adequate prenatal and medical care for themselves and for their babies is inexorably linked to gender discrimination. Startling new evidence has revealed a large gap in the cost of health insurance plans between what men and women pay, a difference amounting to hundreds of dollars more per year for women. We don’t allow race to be a factor in setting rates, why should we allow sex to be? And women have fewer employment and advancement opportunities than men, are more likely to work part time, less likely to have health benefits, pensions and unemployment insurance, and when they do work full time are paid only seventy-seven cents to the male dollar. Over the course of a lifetime, the gender wage gap of the average working woman results in a loss of $700,000— a huge sum that could have gone a long way towards assuring better nutrition and healthcare for a woman and her family.

    Gender discrimination, long excluding women from clinical trials, has skewed the medical community’s understanding of serious, often fatal diseases. More women die each year from stroke and heart attacks than men, according to the American Heart Association and only 8% of doctors nationwide know this. It’s exceedingly common for women to be misdiagnosed and given inappropriate therapies because they may present symptoms unlike men’s and respond to dissimilar medications and dosages. “For too long women have been treated as ‘little men’…”said Phyllis Greenberger, president of the Society for Women’s Health Research, an organization committed to ensuring women’s inclusion and retention in clinical trails. “What it amounts to,” she said “is women’s health getting really short shrift.”

    Sexism is killing women and their children here and aboard. The methods may differ but the horrendous outcome is the same. So yes, we must fight for justice for women worldwide, but we must also fight for it at home.

    I am the author of Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future
    (September 1, 2009), Chicago Review Press. I can be reached via email or through my web site

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