New first-year summer reading program
Half the Sky introduces central issue of gender inequality to incoming students
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 16:09
For the first time in many years, an optional first-year summer reading program was established for incoming Wellesley students. During early months of the summer, the Division of Student Life distributed a free copy of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” along with other orientation materials to the Class of 2016.
Mailed with the novel was a personal letter from former Secretary of State and Wellesley alumna, Madeleine K. Albright ’59, challenging first-years to consider the implications that the book would have for them and their peers, as Wellesley students.
“Women’s stories, and women’s voices, must be heard and validated,” Albright explained in her letter. “We owe it to ourselves and to one another to listen carefully to what women are saying, and to consider how we want to impact the issues women face around the world.”
Half the Sky is co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who were also the first married couple to receive the distinction. The book, published in 2009, highlights the importance of women’s education and empowerment through the use of individual women’s stories from various areas of the world, including those of India and sub-saharan Africa.
Many first-years who completed the book noted the appropriateness of Half the Sky as an unofficial introduction to Wellesley, summarizing the book as an inspiring and eye-opening portrayal of the global need for women’s empowerment.
“After finishing the book, instead of feeling hopeless or overwhelmed by the issues presented, I felt a sense of determination and duty to do something to help and was inspired by the stories of women all over the world,” noted Anissa Malik ’16.
Not all students were as receptive to the book. Some criticized the premise of Half the Sky for offering a limited Western perspective on complex developmental challenges.
“I liked how the book didn’t just dwell on the problems and focused more on solutions...however, I also felt that the book had a Western or American-savior undertone,” Clara Kahng `13 commented. “I wish the book acknowledged and addressed this tendency, but I’m glad that WuDunn mentioned in her lecture that, for any change to take place, foreign aid must collaborate with the community it wants to help rather than criticize the culture.”
Through personal accounts, WuDunn and Kristof emphasize the importance of gender equality in promoting a nation’s overall economic success, discussing several topics relating to gendercide throughout their book. Stories garnered from women around the world discuss, among many other topics, honor killings; human trafficking; a lack of sufficient health care, particularly in rural areas; and obstetric fistulas, defined by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as “a hole in the vagina or rectum caused by labour that is prolonged—often for days—without treatment... [causing] women [to leak] urine or feces, or both... [and often resulting in] social isolation, depression and deepening poverty.”
“I found [the book] sobering, powerful, inspirational and in some ways profoundly disturbing,” Dean of First-Year Students Lori Tenser said. “I hope that Wellesley students took from [the book] a range of responses and, above all, a sense that it is possible—and crucial—to make even the smallest difference in the life of one woman.”
In the book, Kristof and WuDunn predict that women’s empowerment will stand as the most important international challenge facing the world today.
“In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery,” wrote WuDunn and Kristof in the novel’s introduction. “In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
The concept of the reading program came to fruition after a confirmed visit to Wellesley College from co-author WuDunn.
“Once [WuDunn’s] visit to campus was confirmed by the Albright Institute, we met to discuss ways of encouraging first-year students and new transfers to attend,” Dean Tenser explained. “It was very clear to us that reading Half the Sky would be essential and that it contained powerful messages that we wanted new students to encounter, so we joined forces with the Dean of Students’ Office to make [the reading program] possible.”
In her Tuesday lecture on Half the Sky, WuDunn spoke to Wellesley students about her personal encounters with some of the women mentioned in the book and provided some of her own advice as to how to solve the crises in her book.
“This is a huge challenge, a global challenge,” WuDunn said. “And I know sometimes it can get very overwhelming. But I think that the nice thing about this broad, broad issue is that we all come from different walks of life....We all have a passion. You can choose a passion in a particular area that you care about and work towards...[solving] the problems in that area. You don’t have to take [on] the whole [issue]... And that’s [how] a movement [can] bring about change.”
The College has yet to decide whether or not to implement a similar program again in coming years.
“Student responses will help us determine what might happen in the future,” explained Dean Tenser.