03/08/2013 07:09 EST | Updated 05/08/2013 05:12 EDT

EXCERPT: The Ascent Of Women

The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense they're likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.

Women and children arrive near Indian parliament to participate in protests against a new sexual violence law as the parliament convenes in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Activists say the law is inadequate and it only partially followed the recommendations of a government panel set up after the fatal gang rape of a woman in New Delhi led to nation-wide protests. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul and Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women are claiming their space at home, at work and in the public square. They are propelling changes so immense they're likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture and religion, and the power brokers are finally listening.

The new wave of change isn't about giving the "little woman" a fair shake or even about pushing reluctant regimes to adhere to hard-won international laws relating to women. It is based on the notion that the world can no longer afford to oppress half its population. The economist Jeffrey Sachs, spearheading the United Nations Millennium Development Project, claims that the status of women is directly related to the economy: where one is flourishing, so is the other; where one is in the ditch, so is the other. The World Bank asserts that if women and girls are treated fairly, the economy of a village will improve.

Those who monitor the state of the world's women are speaking out as never before. There's this, from Isabel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: "Countries that oppress their women are doomed to be failed states."

And this, from Farida Shaheed of Pakistan, United Nations independent expert for cultural rights: "More women are enjoying more rights and more spaces than ever before." And this: "Together men and women are the two wings of a bird--both wings have to be not wounded, not broken, in order to push the bird forward." That's from Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.


Photo gallery 10 Female Artists To Watch See Gallery

And Canada's Marilou McPhedran, director of the Institute for International Women's Rights, says, "Change does not occur because we want it to occur or because it's fair for a just society. Change occurs because people engage in the process."

One of the most vocal leaders of the new age of women is Hillary Clinton, who has had plenty to say while U.S. secretary of state: "Recent history shows that agreements that exclude women and ignore their concerns usually fail. In country after country, we have seen women help push peace agreements to the finish line. Where women are excluded, too often the agreements that result are disconnected from ground-truth and less likely to be successful and enjoy popular support."

Now, at last, is the time for women.


The journey to get to this place has been a perilous one for women through thousands of years of oppression and trickery. Women were burned alive at the stake for daring to have opinions. They were beheaded for failing to produce a male heir. They suffered foot binding to create dainty, useless feet to please their men (so tiny, deformed and painful that they could barely walk, let alone run away). They continue to be subjected to female genital mutilation and honour killing and forced marriage. They're still jailed for being raped in places like Afghanistan. Some clerics and religious leaders have described women as whores, harlots and jezebels; as brainless and even soulless. Women's story of change is one of stunning courage, tenacity and wit.

Women such as Christine de Pizan were proclaiming women's rights in the 1400s in France. Mary Wollstonecraft was doing the same in England in 1792 when she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Between those historical points, Isabella of Castile, Elizabeth I of England, Christine of Sweden and Catherine the Great of Russia all reigned as monarchs, and each in her position embodied some form of female emancipation.

Women led the bread riots in England and France in the 1500s, marched to protest the salt shortages in the colonies of New England in the 1700s and made sorties into the world of equality rights as long as four and five centuries ago. The suffragettes and the Famous Five from Canada agitated for change early in the twentieth century. And the beginning of the second wave of the feminist movement in the sixties made women such as Betty Friedan and Doris Anderson famous. Helen Reddy's "I am woman, hear me roar" sounded like a call to arms when she first sang it in 1972. But in the past the gains women made were often modified, and women themselves were cast back into their historical roles as mother, wife, caregiver or temptress.

For the past five decades, the second wave of the women's movement has struggled to alter the law, change the status quo and improve the lives of women. In a push-me, pull-you process, women have scored significant victories (writing gender equality into constitutions) and suffered serious losses (failing to get enough women elected to alter the culture of politics in Canada, the United States and the countries of the European Union). Even in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan, which have established quotas for women in parliament, there's been an obdurate resistance to the ideas and goals that women bring to the table. But now the threads required for serious progress on human rights have started to weave themselves together into a tapestry of change.

You want a better economy? Put the women to work. Your health system is lagging? Improve maternal and infant health care. War is your problem? Bring women to the negotiating table. Is poverty stubbornly stuck at unacceptable levels? Ask your women to make the budget. It's a sweeping generalization, but my experience writing about women in zones of conflict as well as in developing and developed countries tells me that women are more interested in fair policy than in power, in peace rather than a piece of the turf.

And women leaders have long asserted that a sense of community is far more valuable than a sense of control. The information age is altering the grip of top-down power, giving rise to the less confrontational leadership style that women prefer. Gloria Steinem, who is perhaps the best-known contemporary feminist in the world, predicted that the switch would take time when she said a decade ago, "One day an army of grey-haired old women may quietly take over the world."

Thanks to Random House of Canada for sharing this excerpt.

Excerpted from Ascent of Women by Sally Armstrong.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Sally Armstrong.

Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited.

All rights reserved.