Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky

[1] Stories. If there is one thing Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, and Sheryl WuDunn, a former editor and bureau chief for the Times, know, they know stories. Kristof and WuDunn are the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Through the deft journalistic documentation of real people’s stories, these well-traveled authors have composed a vivid and compelling book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.1

[2] Each chapter and section of the book is built around a single person’s story, mostly the accounts of women and girls from Asia and Africa. The story lines capture three main abuses: “sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality.”2 We read, for example, of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky by Mikka McCrackena girl sold into sex slavery in Asia who goes on to start her own small, now flourishing business and a young woman in Africa who first lacked access to prenatal care and later opens a hospital in her community. There are many hopeful, practical caveats about people making a difference in their communities and the world, such as the story of a young “social entrepreneur”3 who runs an innovative social justice movement in the United States. Kristof and WuDunn follow these women and girls through years of trials, tears, successes, and failures.

[3] Shared with sincere care, these stories take you on a journey to remote villages, bustling city slums, and through the authors’ own revelations as they encounter these women in their contexts. Based on what the authors have seen, heard, and experienced, they develop well-informed policy suggestions clearly outlined in actionable points in the final chapter of the book.4 They also indicate where they change their previous policy stances on issues.5 The book is well-researched, and through Kristof and WuDunn’s no-nonsense journalistic sensibilities, the stories are helpfully and meticulously enhanced by case studies, longitudinal research, and relevant facts and figures. These reporters also harbor healthy skepticism about the temptation to “torture frail data until it yields the demanded ‘proof’ of success,”6 which makes their fact-finding that much more believable.

[4] A warning to the reader: there is no time spent sugar-coating or veiling the reality these women and girls live day-in and day-out. The stories are gritty and not all have happy or fulfilling endings. However, through the vigilant observation of many women’s realities, the reader is one step closer to membership in the compassionate, justice-seeking movement Kristof and WuDunn hope to build. The authors are clear: “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts.”7

[5] From this worthy goal, however, spring two major shortcomings. First, there is a misplaced dependence on women’s economic empowerment as paramount, and second, and perhaps more importantly, there is a failure to incorporate a comprehensive look at patriarchy as the system that consistently presses down on the half of the sky women are desperately trying to hold up.8

[6] First, “unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts” is an important part of righting gender-based injustices, but freeing women solely for their economic contribution is not an end in itself, nor does it fully address women’s potential. The authors argue that once women and girls are freed through education, they will get jobs; contribute financially to their communities; delay marriage; have fewer children, curbing overpopulation; and begin to amass wealth to help care for and educate relatives and children, which will eventually kick-start a positive cycle of social change.9 It is important that women and girls can make a living wage and therefore contribute to their communities’ economic stability, but to say that economic empowerment of the community is the main reason to free a girl from oppression sees the woman only as an economic creature, not as fully human.

[7] The ethical question starts not with a girl who is freed to become an economic actor, but as a girl, a human with rights, and in a Christian sense, a person with intrinsic worth created in the image of God (imago dei), an indispensible member of the body of Christ. If a girl’s worth to society is defined in economic terms, she might as well be “spent” as a sex slave for another person’s profit. The authors do share success stories about microfinancing programs that have lifted women out of poverty, and they are important pieces of the puzzle. However, though the economic impulse to address the oppression of women and girls are compelling to some audiences, as Christians, we expect a fuller understanding of the person, whose very creation makes her worthy of liberation.

[8] Second, the authors correctly point to misogyny10 (the hatred of women and girls) and sexism11 (the hierarchically-ordered, gender stereotyping, privileging males over females12) as forces that hold women down, yet they do not discuss the systemic problem that includes misogyny and sexism within it, patriarchy. It is a solid understanding of patriarchy (the broad, societal system that promotes male privilege while conversely oppressing women and espousing an obsession with control13) that knits the stories of the women and girls in Half the Sky to our own, which should cause us pause, and stir us to act.

[9] The word patriarchy does not appear once in the book. “Patriarchal” is used to describe society in Rwanda14 and the stereotypical Islamic home environment,15 but the book fails to tap into the rich and helpful analysis of the role patriarchy plays in the lives of women and girls, and of men and boys as well. It may seem like an oxymoron to look at a systemic issue through individual stories, but Kristof and WuDunn have provided ample fodder.

[10] For example, a young girl newly emancipated from sex slavery opens a small shop and begins to earn money, but on a feast day, her shop is raided by her male relatives and ultimately destroyed. Patriarchy is the unnamed system that encourages this to happen.16 Anyone can perform a single, abhorrent act like robbing a store, but when looking at this particular act in the context of patriarchy, it becomes clear that her male family members did not perform that action as a random act, or necessarily because they harbored a personal grudge. Her male relatives are permitted to disregard her careful business plan and legal rights as a shop owner simply because she is a woman. They raided her store without regard for legal or societal repercussion because years of experience and historical background (a patriarchal legacy) have shown them that like actions have gone unpunished. In their cultural context, her male relatives might not even have thought twice about stealing from her, and that is what privilege is—the option to think about it or not.

[11] Likewise, Kristoff and WuDunn propose a great plan to educate girls and help them speak up for themselves in situations where they have been wronged. However, when a girl boldly tries to share her experience with her father, brother, boyfriend, a male police officer, or the man she is forced to have sex with, and she ends up being beaten within an inch of her life, what is the system that oversees the response of these men?17 Patriarchy is the systemic force that privileges the men in her life to make the choice whether even to listen to her story or not. Without addressing the problem of patriarchy, we may be educating girls to talk, but listening will still be optional.

[12] As a final example from the book, in eastern Congo, patriarchy makes “rapes of stunning brutality” the most “cost-effective way to terrorize civilian populations.”18 In this conflict situation, the ultimate goal is to control (a key element of patriarchy) the local population through terror. However, firefights with other gunmen are considered risky because they will likely result in the death of valuable male or boy soldiers. Additionally, if men and boys are brought up in patriarchal structures that uphold female sexuality and virginity as sacred, then the rape of girls and women becomes the ideal weapon of choice and the easiest way to violate and terrorize the opposition.19 By maintaining control through rape as much as through armed conflict, no males are killed and the community is terrorized into submission through the targeted attacks on the other, less valuable, half of the population, females.20 It is this patriarchy-based mentality (and not just hormones, instinct, or chauvinism) that permits a young sixteen-year-old soldier to consider rape to be a right: “If we see girls, it’s our right. We can violate them.”21

[13] As people of faith we are called into life and service together to love and serve the neighbor. Part of that call to life and service together involves understanding the term patriarchy and “calling a thing what it is.” As theologian Mary Streufert writes:

“Martin Luther argued in The Heidelberg Disputation that ‘a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.’ A number of Lutheran theologians turn to his exhortation as one reason that it is important for patriarchy and sexism to be named for what they are. Putting a name to experience is an important step on the way to dismantling the crippling power of all of the systems of oppression, in this case, the social system of patriarchy.”22

Patriarchy can be a scary word for some people, a word that might even turn away would-be allies. Perhaps this is the reason Kristof and WuDunn did not invoke the term. However, by leaving their readers the tattered threads of injustice to tie together themselves, the authors miss a key opportunity to weave the durable fabric that is essential to the success of their movement. A working analysis of patriarchy helps people to fully understand the complexities of each story, to see them as related events, and as events that are even related to their own lives. A sustainable movement with real potential to affect change is a movement of people who are able to think for themselves, share their own stories, and analyze the root causes of those stories.

[14] At the end of the book, Kristof and WuDunn say, “we hope you will join this growing crowd and back it in whatever way you can.”23 Just as the authors are part of the movement, you and I are invited to be part of the movement through their work and stories, our work and stories, and God’s work and story! Perhaps it is by calling a thing what it is that the stories in Half the Sky and the stories of our own lives and faith traditions will meet in a movement that will end patriarchy and bring true fullness of life to all of creation.


1. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

2. p. xxi

3. Bill Drayton, a former management consultant and government official who popularized the idea of social entrepreneurship on the topic: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish…. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry,'” from p. 54.

4. On p. 244, principles for practice and on p. 251, “Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes.”

5. As an example, the authors discuss how they moved from supporting a policy model that would simply “legalize-and-regulate” prostitution to a model that relies on tough law enforcement crackdowns combined with social services for those caught in the cycle of prostitution, p. 26.

6. p. 17

7. p. xxii

8. “Women hold up half the sky.” –a Chinese proverb, the book’s namesake and opening quotation.

9. This is also known as “the girl effect,” more on p. xix.

10. p. 67

11. Ibid.

12. Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Sexism,” in Letty M. Russell and J. Shannon Clarkson, eds., Dictionary of Feminist Theologies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 256–257.

13. Based on a definition in Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 5.

14. p. 211

15. p. 159

16. Based on Neth’s story, p. 41.

17. Based on comments on p. 47.

18. p. 84.

19. p. 83.

20. As the authors put it, “Mass rape is as effective as slaughtering people, yet it doesn’t leave corpses that lead to human rights prosecutions.” p. 83.

21. p. 86.

22. From “Basic Vocabulary for Understanding Patriarchy and Sexism,” available at: . A theologian of the cross is able to “call a thing what it actually is” because through the cross, in God’s claim on us, our gaze upon ourselves has been broken and we see beyond ourselves. The freedom to name evil (sin) for what it really is comes from the dual experience of knowing we cannot end sin ourselves and knowing that we are nevertheless redeemed by God. For an accessible introduction to Luther’s theology of the cross, see Deanna A. Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 3–28.

23. p. 250

Mikka McCracken

Mikka McCracken is an intern in the ELCA Justice for Women Program and the ELCA Department for Advocacy.