Is it still a radical idea? The notion that the world can no longer afford to oppress half its population. Apparently so.

Random House Canada, 2013

Random House Canada, 2013

Sally Armstrong’s work considers the ways in which the world’s largest problems — poverty, conflict and violence — are being addressed via efforts to restore the historical imbalance between women and men.

In under 300 pages, she discusses a variety of campaigns which protest injustice. This requires many generalizations but the author also examines selected subjects in greater detail, and these examinations are encouraging and inspiring.

“Change is fuelled by anger and disappointment, as well as inspiration and patience. What is happening today is the culmination of all the waves of women’s efforts that went before. Once change like this begins in earnest, once it has lifted off, the momentum picks up and it becomes unstoppable.”

The chapters’ epigraphs feature the words of women who were deeply engaged in these waves that came before.

For instance, the first chapter, “The Shame Isn’t Ours, It’s Yours” opens with a Gloria Steinem quote: “The first corner turning was realizing we weren’t crazy. The system was crazy.”

And the last chapter, “The Anatomy of Change” begins with Hoda Elsadda’s words: “At Tahrir Square, we broke the barrier of fear. Once that barrier is down the people can do anything.”

In between, however, there are stories of women and girls, younger and older than these two women, from diverse backgrounds, who are all part of this momentum.

The narrative style falls somewhere between a term paper and an article in a news magazine. There are no footnotes or endnotes to slow the pace of the prose, but there is enough information contained in the prose itself for readers to seek out the source.

(The bibliography contains five pages of references and the index is 18 pages long; readers who want ‘more’ can certainly turn to additional resources.)

Women discussed are introduced with geographical and professional information so that readers can catch the salient details readily, and often a couple of sentences are quoted in the narrative proper. Sometimes you can catch the effort that it must have taken to have reduced a truly compelling tale into a few sentences, but this is unavoidable in a work which seeks to be portable despite such an expansive subject.

Indeed, this is the greatest challenge that Ascent of Women faces: the need for a balance between depth and breadth. Some issues are condensed tightly (for instance, The Middle East section of “Herstory”, which is only a dozen pages long) but others (for instance, Debbie Palmer’s research into the restrictions on women living in the Mormon community of Bountiful in British Columbia) are considered in a relatively detaied fashion.

For some readers, however, this is a strength of the work, for it provides a kaleidoscopic view of the arenas in which this struggle for ascendancy is playing out today.

Perhaps you are most interested in the Three to Be Free program, which targets women in three countries (Kenya, Malawi and Ghana) using litigation, policy reform and legal education to alter the status of women in these countries, and is fundamentally concerned with ensuring that the justice systems in these countries convict rapists. Perhaps you are most interested in the efforts of women and girls to outlaw Female Genital Mutilation in Senegal.

Perhaps the story of a 13-year-old girl named Bariya, who was raped and became pregnant, and was whipped 100 times with a cane will stick in your mind. Perhaps it is the story of two sisters (Charity and Susan, 11 and 6) who were raped by their father in Kenya that will haunt you. (Twenty-five percent of Kenyan girls aged 12 to 24 lose their virginity due to rape, and more than 90% know their attackers, who are often seeking to “cleanse” themselves from HIV/AIDS, which “requires” sex with a virgin.)

There is a lot of disturbing material in Ascent of Women. Because of course the antithesis is contained therein: the descent.

Some of the statistics are horrifying. Swaziland has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in the world, the most deaths per capita from HIV/AIDS, and a life-expectancy for women of 33 years. Swaziland also has women like Siphiwe Hlophe, who is heralded as “turning the pandemic around in sub-Saharan Africa”.

The rates of self-immolation amongst Afghan daughters and wives are shocking, twenty-two thousand known cases of attempted self-burning in 2011, with 2,000 cases of women being hospitalized and 234 deaths. And more than 75% of kids in Afghanistan face early and forced marriages. But women like Hangama Anwari and Sima Samar are courageous, and their efforts towards change are inspiring.

When women share their stories of victimization, Sally Armstrong writes, two things happen. First, we realize that other people do not necessarily live that way. And, second, we overcome the “personally perturbing question, who will we be if we change the way we are?”

Credit: Peter Bregg, Macleans

Credit: Peter Bregg, Macleans

Ascent of Women educates readers about the ways in which women elsewhere (and at home) live, and it creates a space for readers to ask themselves personally perturbing questions. It reminds us that it is every bit as important to remember from where we have come as it is to imagine where we are going.

Sally Armstrong’s work contains powerful stories, and her words settle on the pages with those of other women who have sought and struggled and celebrated change. Her acknowledgements are just as powerful as the narrative proper, for she has remembered to thank the women who stuffed bread into her pocket as she travelled out of the countries that had imprisoned them, along with the usual folks (her family, her agent, etc.).

But what truly stands out for me is this quote from June Callwood, in the work’s introduction, which speaks to both the individual and personal change that each of us can affect in our own lives and to the wider-reaching societal change.

“The first thing to get out of the way is that virtue always triumphs; in truth most attempts to confront and defeat misdeads are only partially successful or else seem to be outright failures. It doesn’t matter. Nothing is wasted in the universe. Even an effort that apparently goes nowhere will influence the future. Though the system looks untouched, it has a fatal crack in it. The next assault or the one after that will bring it down. At the very least someone somewhere has learned a lesson and will be more thoughtful.”

At the very least, readers of Ascent of Women have learned a lesson and will be more thoughtful.