People are often surprised when I end a speech by saying there has never been a better time to be working for gender equality, especially in economic development, and that we must join hands with women around the globe, as well as male allies, to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create social justice for women. My reasons for this assertion are:
We have never before had so much data. These numbers, available for the whole globe, falsify—again and again and again—anyone's assertion that gender inequality is not real.
We have not known, until now, that the pattern of women's inequality, especially in economics, is consistent across the globe, showing a pronounced pattern when taken as a whole. Generally speaking, cultures do not vary as much on their treatment of women as we have been taught to believe. It's a global phenomenon.
We have not known, until now, that gender inequality is perpetuated by practices that have a toxic and lasting effect by fueling scourges from disease to hunger to slavery to violence of all kinds.
We have not known, until now, that the nations where the plight of women is most severe present the most identifiable geopolitical risks for us all—and that the relationship between female oppression and the threat of war is causal, not accidental.
We have not known, until now, that lifting the barriers to exclusion specific to gender has a rapid and positive effect on communities and, soon after, nations.
In sum, we have never before had so much evidence and so much reason to think that, as the first feminists asserted, freedom for women will benefit, literally, everybody, but will do so in ways so vast in positive consequences that no one could have foreseen it.
Because of all this new knowledge, institutional players like governments, NGOs, foundations, and corporations are, for the first time, taking action to produce gender equality. Never in history has the women's movement had such strong institutional support.
Survey after survey shows that, when asked any of a number of questions aimed at discerning attitudes toward gender equality, people in most countries—certainly the developed ones, but also increasingly in emerging nations—agree that achieving gender equality is important. Indeed, this is true of the men, as well as the women. A massive coalition for gender equality is out there, just waiting to be realized.
But. . . we are not just faced with the best opportunity in history to achieve gender equality; we are faced with a dark and dangerous threat to women's rights from the right wing movements rising around the world.
Some nations, like Poland, are in much worse shape because the right wing, with the help of the Catholic Church, has basically taken over the government. Some nations, like Italy, have new neofascist leadership and female citizens are waiting to see what will happen to their rights. In some nations, these misogynistic movements are emergent, like in Spain, but are showing themselves to be part of an organic regional uprising.
In the US, the anti women movement is visible in the horrific attitudes that overturned Roe v. Wade, then codified inhumane anti-abortion laws at the state level. The advancement of misogyny is also visible, though ignored, in the gutting of equal employment rights achieved by the Roberts court in the last ten years. Having kept an eye on the right wing movements in the rest of the world for several years, I see here the fingerprints of international dark money: I believe the same forces who threaten women's freedoms around the world are also funding and goading hostility toward women in the US.
In history, women's progress toward equality has never been linear. Every time women have won rights, the gains have been temporary. Whether the women have held those rights for five years or 100 years, the end has always come, usually precipitated by a regime change that instates a conservative leadership. It usually happens overnight, like a revolution. If watching the Handmaid's Tale makes you scared, you should be. There is no reason to believe the rights women enjoy today are permanent.
The dangers and the positive possibilities come together to make this, the opening of 2023, the best and most urgent moment in history for the good people, male and female, of the world to join hands against the darkness, and bring gender equality fully into the light, once and for all.