A Better Half: The Poverty Onion

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz thought that to understand the world, you had to understand an onion.

It is the concept of social embeddedness.  The only way to understand an onion is as a whole; peeling back layers will never lead to a core – only more layers, and watering eyes.  Geertz was writing about culture, but feminist scholars Ellen Ross and Rayna Rapp made the same point about sexuality: it cannot be removed from social layers of family, politics, media, economics, religion, world systems.

Since reading Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky, I have been thinking about the poverty onion.  The global women’s oppression onion.   The violence against women onion.

In their book, Kristof and WuDunn tell urgent, compelling, personal stories about individual women – primarily in poor countries – struggling to overcome poverty and violence.  They are inspiring writers that make readers want to act.  As a former nonprofit fundraiser, I know the power of these stories.  (I also know the danger of turning lives into stories.)

Yet with this kind of writing, we always have the responsibility of asking questions like who is speaking for whom?  What kind of picture are they painting?   Do they show the problems women are facing as rooted only in individuals (i.e. sex traffickers) or do they show larger systems that act to constrain agency?  Is there an examination of structural causes?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from economic influences, cultural influences, global trade agreements being negotiated an ocean away?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from the world?

In other words, are they writing about the onion, or an imaginary onion core?

In a chapter about sex work and sex trafficking, WuDunn and Kristof write: “We’re not arguing that Westerners should take up this cause because it’s the fault of the West… This is not a case where we in the West have a responsibility to lead because we’re the source of the problem.  Rather, we single out the West because, even though we’re peripheral to the slavery, our action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil” (24-25).

Is the West not at all implicated or connected to sex work in poor countries?  This view ignores unjust global economic systems – and how the poverty that is influenced by these systems affects decisions individual women make about sex work.  Kristof and WuDunn’s argument that it is not our fault in the West that women are in these situations – but that we should do the right thing and help them – is a framework that leaves people in rich countries as the central and powerful figures and women in poor countries as objects.  Truly feminist work should disrupt, rather than reproduce, terms of domination.

But how do we as people who are concerned about global women’s issues do that?  Is it ever okay to speak or act for others?  Philosopher Linda Alcoff writes that “there is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others – even for other women – is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.”   At the same time, she notes that sometimes not speaking for others poses similar ethical questions: “If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?….Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way?”

Alcoff warns of the dangers of what she calls this “retreat response” – the retreating into a position of ‘I can only speak for myself.’  While the neo-imperialistic overtones of speaking for or acting for others is evident, so too is the danger, politically and ethically, of an individualistic and isolationist retreat response.

I do not think that our greatest contribution should be to move over and get out of the way.

Nor do I think feminists should cast aside this book because of its shortcomings.  When I mentioned Half the Sky in an undergraduate class, a few of my 18 and 19-year-old students stayed after class to tell me how Kristof and WuDunn’s book had moved them, made them take a Women’s Studies class, or learn more about violence against women worldwide.  In the end, what I struggle with is how we can best work with the energy and inspiration the book generates.

Despite – or perhaps because of – feminist critiques of Half the Sky, what can we do with the fact that thousands of people are holding this book in their hands?  How can we best harness the fact that this is a bestseller?   That we as a country are reading something about global violence against women, and use that as a jumping off point for a more in-depth dialogue about power, patriarchy, economics, and justice?

How can we start to talk about the poverty onion?

Layne Amerikaner, lamerika@gwmail.gwu.edu