Last Sunday in the New York Times Magazine, Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn suggested that “The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.” Improving the economic situation for women in the world, through micro-loans and increased education, will directly result in the lessening of global poverty particularly because women spend differently than men. They argue that women’s issues tend to be seen as “soft” issues and put on the back burner by journalists and politicians to more “serious” issues like Tienanmen Square or wars. Yet, more women have been lost in the “gendercide” of the 20th century, through preferential abortion, less health care, bride burnings, etc, than men were lost in the wars of the same century. Read the article for the rest of their argument.
What struck me was the consistent use of Progressive Era discourse throughout the text. First of all, consider the two titles. The particular essay referenced above is “The Woman’s Crusade.” The title of the whole magazine is “Saving the World’s Women.” The thesis of the piece seemed to be that wealthy Westerners have a burden to bring the rest of the women up to middle class standards of living through middle class morality. Despite Kristoff having sensitivity towards other cultures in his other pieces, he seems here to utterly disregard any strength in the world’s cultures, and sees only the ways in which they do not measure up.
So what I would like to discuss here is–How should we, as historians, consider modern efforts for ameliorative programs? I would imagine most of us abhor world poverty, and yet, for me at least, Kristoff’s piece utterly lacked a sense of the historical failures of the Progressive Era, coupled as it was with imperialism. What do you think such a sense would have added to his arguments?
And at the same time, how do we talk about the complex ways in which imperialism functions? I always think about the way the Americans sashshayed into the Philippines with a full sense of the “White Man’s Burden” and smashed the local resistance movement that had started the war with Spain in the first place. And yet, why are there Filipino nurses spread all over the globe, filling a global nursing shortage? Because those Americans set up hospitals. While it seems to me that imperialism is wrong, it does not seem like simple condemnation adequately addresses the full range of possibilities here. In his piece, Kristoff takes the problem of seeming to dictate Western morality by using illustrations centered on Africans and Asians, with their goals in the forefront.
Is it right for historians to judge (for a slightly different, yet similar question, read this post)? Or, given that we are human, when we judge, what should be our parameters? I suppose this is linked to my previous post about ethics, but here I ask about our own personal ethics as historians.