A new 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' for a new social cause

Fiction and preaching once helped liberate slaves. A hot mystery series from a deceased Swedish writer and some well-known journalists may be about to break some chains of trafficking and oppression for women.
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Harriett Beecher Stowe

Fiction and preaching once helped liberate slaves. A hot mystery series from a deceased Swedish writer and some well-known journalists may be about to break some chains of trafficking and oppression for women.

Two of the forces that were vital to the 19th century American anti-slavery and abolitionist movement were fiction and the pulpit. I see some parallels to that time and to those forces today in a new social movement, a movement to end oppression of women and make headway against global poverty.

For the American anti-slavery cause, the fictional work that changed minds and hearts was Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe. Meanwhile, her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was preaching the gospel of abolition from his pulpit at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in New York City and with preaching tours throughout the country.

Times change and these may be only rough parallels, but I wonder if the Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, and his series of phenomenally successful novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and the newest, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet'ꀙs Nest) might not be the Uncle Tom'ꀙs Cabin of the new emerging movement?

The hero or anti-hero of Larsson's series is a skinny, 4'-11" tattooed young woman, Lisabeth Salandar, whose character has been forged in the fires of domestic violence and abuse. She also happens to be bi-sexual, adept in martial arts, and a world class computer hacker. The villains in Larsson's novels are "men who hate women,'ꀝ of whom there seem to be plenty. They murder, rape, torture and dismember women. They run sexual trafficking rings. They hate and they fear women.

The rough parallel to the pulpit in this analogy is the pulpit which New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, mounts several times weekly on the op-ed page of the newspaper. From that influential perch, Kristof brings us the world beyond our borders, and in particular, the world of global poverty and those who who doing something, often in small targeted ways, about it.

In 2009 Kristof, with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, published their Pulitizer-Prize winning Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. In that best-selling book, they expose and argue the case against three terrible social ills. These are "sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality, which needlessly claims one woman a minute."

WuDunn and Kristof do more, however, than document and deplore these social ills. They argue that in ending or reducing them and increasing the opportunities of women and girls for education and full social participation lie the real key to reducing global poverty.

Taking their title from the Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky," Kristof and WuDunn argue, with case study after case study, that oppression of women is not only wrong in itself, but deprives the most needy societies in the world of a huge, really the decisive, resource for social change and societal health.

Of course, many others have been working in these areas of concern, and related ones, for decades, leading movements against sexual and domestic violence. But that's the way it is with movements. They reach a "tipping point," when things begin to move and change. Are we nearing such a tipping point?

For some in the western world the idea of a new "women's movement," may elicit a been-there, done-that response. While this new movement owes something to the women's movement that began in the U.S. in the 1950s, it is different. It is global in focus and awareness. It understands that violence against women is a very deep and very widespread social pathology that is all-too-often regarded as normal or acceptable. It sees the link between these pathologies and rapid social change. And it sees that societies that systematically oppress women are, or soon will be, failed societies.

Nor should the global and developing world focus of Kristof's pulpit be taken to mean that similar ills do not also confront the western world. Larsson's novels are set, after all, in Sweden, even though it is a Sweden impinged upon by the more marginal societies of the Baltic and former Soviet states.

Another recent writer who shines a light on one element of this problem in the United States is Chris Hedges in his book The Empire of Illusion. Hedges, the author of the 2004 best-seller War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and then a study of the religious right, titled American Fascists devotes a full chapter of his new book to the American pornography business, seeing it as one expression of a broader social crisis. While some would debate whether porn involves oppression and abuse of women, that'ꀙs not an open question for Hedges, as his case studies and interviews indicate.

Annually the porn business in the U.S. yields an estimated $10 billion or higher. Moreover, it's not something involving marginal business interests. AT&T Broadband and Comcast Cable are the biggest on-line players. "AT&T and GM (General Motors, owner of Direct TV) rake in approximately 80 percent of all porn dollars spent by consumers,'ꀝ reports Hedges.

Are we at the next stage, the global stage, of the women's movement? Or are we at the early stages of a new social movement altogether?

Kristof and WuDunn are clear that they are in the movement business, writing in the introduction to Half the Sky, "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." Moreover, they write, "This is not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen."

Both literature and the bully pulpit have driven social movements in the past. Maybe it'ꀙs happening again?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.