Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World. Ronald Englehardt and Pippa Norris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. This book analyzes a series of large data sets that provide information across nations to pose this theory: that conditions for women have improved through two watershed moments, modernization/industrialization and then post-modernity. Inglehardt and Norris argue that, prior to modernization, the inherent risk in agricultural life meant that people relied on traditional family structure for stability and safety. On the surface, this seems like a fair starting point, since later data sets from the UN and the WEF have consistently shown that the industrialized nations have better conditions for women and the risks of agricultural life are well known (in spite of the common propensity to drape agricultural economies in a nostalgic mist). However, I don’t think we can just assume that the dominance of men over women, especially to the brutal degree it occurs in pre-industrial societies, necessarily follows from agricultural risk. Why would it be that such a system of dominance offered safety? I think the assumption that underpins this argument is merely that whatever existed in a previous time must have had a reason to be, must have been adaptive. As I will remark in the next book review, the question of the origin of male dominance is a sticky one and evidence suggests strongly that it is much older than agriculture.
In any case, the findings of this book (as well as the major datasets that followed) stand in stark contrast to the prevailing opinion in Second Wave Western feminism: that women were free before capitalism, thus modernization itself is the cause for female suffering. Inglehardt and Norris not only argue in the opposite direction regarding modernization (with statistical evidence), but extend that argument in a way that further challenges traditional feminist thinking: that the more expressive, less materialistic values that typify the postmodern era also radically benefit the freedoms of women. Many books written since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique have wanted to attach women’s oppression to the rise of consumer culture, so the findings of Englehardt and Norris may come as quite a shock to some.
These two authors also address the role of religion in perpetuating gender oppression, something few are willing to do. The book definitely takes the position–again, with reams of statistical data behind the finding–that religion, any religion, has a negative effect on women’s freedoms. However, one finding did disturb me: that Islam, even when you control for poverty, has a more negative effect than any other world religion. I have long believed that the negative effects of Islam could not be disentangled from the conditions of poverty and conflict that characterize most Muslim majority countries. And I do not like the way the American radical right uses women’s rights as an excuse to bash Islam, when they are otherwise so very unconcerned with female welfare. So, I was saddened by this book’s finding about Islam and hope that further work will illuminate the workings behind it.