#LikeAGirl? Read These Books.

Superbowl 2015 was an emotional experience for us Washingtonians (Yes! We’re gonna win! Wait…No!!!). But the most poignant moment for me happened during a commercial. It was an ad I had seen a longer version of a few months earlier when it made its viral rounds through the internet:

This was the first time my eight-year-old daughter had seen it, though.

Ellie is a mighty girl. She is like the girls in the second half of the #LikeAGirl video – she sees herself as strong, capable, and fast. She also has a fiery strand of girl power running through her blood. Fiercely independent women who champion girls are on every branch of her family tree. Her great-great grandmother traveled to India as a single woman in the 1920’s and rescued girls from temple prostitution (I’m pretty sure this was before sex trafficking was a trendy cause).

Ellie is a girl who skips by every book about girls and their horses at the library, but stuffs “The Bravest Woman in America” and a graphic novel version of “Amelia Earhart” into her book bag. To Ellie, being “like a girl” means she wears boys’ basketball shorts on Saturdays and pink tights and dresses (or jeans and cowboy boots) on Sundays. She dances ballet and plays tag. At recess, she circles the playground, talking with her friends and shoots hoops. She explores our five acres through blackberries and mud, jumps off rocks and swims across the river, plays with dolls, and makes no-bake cookies. She climbs trees #LikeAGirl. She thinks being a girl is pretty much awesome.

So, I wasn’t surprised when the Superbowl ad began with, “Show me what it looks like to run like a girl” and Ellie perked up from her prone position on floor. Her brow furrowed as she watched the older girls and the boys running in a way no girl ever who is trying to run actually runs. “No, that’s not right!” she protested. Then the girls her age came on the screen and ran, threw, and punched with power in their muscles and determined expressions. Ellie jumped up and ran and punched with them, “yeah…YEAH!”

I watched my daughter who is strong #LikeAGirl and thought of the world she lives in where being told you’re doing something “like a girl” is an insult.

Which brings me to my first book review on this blog.  The book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, along with its predecessor by the same husband-wife team, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide are two books I must recommend if you LikeAGirl and think that the insult “like a girl” perhaps has some pretty shadowy links to some serious problems in our world today.

“Women hold up half the sky.” -Chinese proverb

“Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing – but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.” – Lu Xun, Chinese essayist, 1921

I first read Half the Sky a few years ago and was instantly drawn in. Nick and Sheryl speak the language of my heart and my brain – they capture stories of real people, weaving together history, economic and social realities, emotions, and extraordinary personalities. They also report the hard facts – data, statistics, money, efficiencies, and objective successes and failures. They write books that make our hearts and our heads smarter.

Because of the importance and relevance of its subject and the broadness of its intended audience, I can’t think of a book I have recommended or at least mentioned to more people than Half the Sky. I even drove down to Reed College one evening to hear Kristof speak and get my book signed (I think the only other times I stood in line to get autographs were when Steven Kellogg came to my elementary school (The Day Jimmy’s Boa ate the Wash) and Terry Porter and Jerome Kersey were at Clackamas Town Center).

Half the Sky convincingly outlines the authors’ thesis that simply by being born female, your opportunities are automatically limited nearly everywhere in the world. When a girl isn’t valued because of the culture, religion, traditions, and even language of her people, oppression and shame follow and opportunity is stifled. Kristof and WuDunn call the oppression of women around the world “the central moral challenge” of our time.

The authors confront us with heartbreaking problems that crush women in our increasingly small world, forcing us to imagine life outside our bubble of opportunity. We don’t like to think about girls the ages of our daughters entrapped in sex slavery, or pregnant by rape from a 50-year-old neighbor while walking to school, or about what female genital mutilation or fistulas are and why they are so prevalent in Africa. We don’t want to do the math and consider why China has 107 males (and India has 108 and Pakistan has 111) for every 100 females, despite the fact that “in normal circumstances women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world.”

But if you make it to the end of the book with your tissues and a stout heart, you are rewarded with the stories of amazing individuals and organizations who are making a difference for women (including, I might add, International Justice Mission, my nonprofit crush).

Half the Sky explains how gender restricts opportunity. In A Path Appears, Kristof and WuDunn go further to show how poverty constrains talented people – men and women – both in the United States and in the developing world. The myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ignores the cycle of poverty which pulls you under and entraps you into problems of hunger, underachievement, joblessness, abuse, trafficking, drugs, and crime.

It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you don’t have a pair of boots (or they keep getting stolen)! What if in baseball, players were randomly assigned to bat from home plate, or 3rd base – from which position would it be easier to score? Would your child be performing as well in school if she had never looked at or touched a book before the day she entered kindergarten, or never ate breakfast in the morning, or dinner when food stamps ran out at the end of the month? Consider: who is more to blame, the prostitute who was neglected, molested, and led into drug addiction from childhood, then emotionally entrapped into a manipulative relationship with a pimp; or the john, whose mama probably read to him and who possibly reads to kids of his own and can afford a hook-up because he’s already on 3rd base with a stable job and a home in the suburbs? These are the kinds of thoughts A Path Appears causes the reader to ponder.

Ellie Treehouse

This picture shows my girl, reading in the tree house her daddy built her, kicking back with some adorable pink Bog boots (easy to pull up, I might add), enjoying the freedom and ease of summer vacation – her favorite time of year. This little girl has three generations of four families who pour into her life with wisdom, time, love, and gifts. She has so many people who love her and pray for her that she would lose track if she started to name them all. Her biggest burden in life is having to write all those thank-you notes after Christmas and birthdays. This is a girl who was born into great opportunity to become the woman God created her to be.

Talent is universal and shows no discrimination. Opportunity is not.

While Half the Sky discusses extreme poverty, abuse, discrimination, and fear that plague women in the developing world (along with smart, compassionate solutions), A Path Appears may appeal to those wondering about problems within our own borders, such as trafficking in the United States, urban violence, and the opportunity for changing a child’s future (or conversely, leaving him to almost certain disadvantage) in the first three years of life.

The final two-thirds of A Path Appears focus on the art and science of helping – tools and advice for measuring the efficacy of charities as well as the positive effects that generosity has on the giver. The last chapter and appendix of both books are worth the entire price: practical steps a person can take immediately to make a dent in the problems described in the book, as well as an extensive list of charities and organizations that the authors have researched and recommend.

Unlike the authors of A Path Appears, I approach issues of poverty, oppression, and the value of women from a spiritual and theological foundation and perspective. However, I stand with Kristof and WuDunn in urging evangelical Christians and secular humanists to “bridge the God Gulf” and join forces on behalf of the world’s poor and oppressed. The authors (who likely belong to the “secular humanist” camp) are keen to highlight Christian organizations as well as individuals and churches who are often the first on the ground and stay the longest, ready to put hands and feet to the gospel.

Whether you agree or disagree with the authors’ beliefs about the root causes of poverty, the central problems needing to be addressed, or the correct motivation for addressing poverty, the facts and stories described in these books represent real, hurting people – our neighbors here at home and around the globe. Women who we ought to value not just because they could be someone’s mother, sister, or daughter, but because they are loved by and created in the image of God.

Responses to the problems may vary, but respond we must. Don’t let it be said of Christians that the only issues we care about are abortion, same-sex marriage, and the Common Core. We can care about unborn babies and their mamas who will need to raise them with enough food, medicine, and education, and protect them from harm. Let our social media feeds, our voting record, and our actions prove it. Help change what it means to be #LikeAGirl – a person of beauty, strength, and value.

I recommend that you read these books or watch the documentaries.* But be warned that they may change you. Here’s how they changed me: I can no longer be happily ignorant about the realities of poverty and oppression in my own country and around the world. As a woman born into opportunity, regardless of my talent, I can no longer judge those who were not. My eyes, heart, brain, and bank account are now tuned to the kids on the playground, the teen mom, the people in that part of town, and all kinds of issues facing people all around the world. It can be overwhelming.

(Books like these also motivate me to send awkward, frantic emails, such as the one I sent to a few friends the day before they left for Haiti to work on a construction project at a school our church supports. It went something like this: “See if you can find out if the girls at the school have access to tampons and pads – we don’t want menstruation to prevent them from getting an education!”)

Inevitably,” David Platt explains in a recent blog post on A Holy Experience, “God will lead us to act in different ways. Not every one of us can give equal attention to all these issues. No one can fight sex trafficking while fostering and adopting children in the middle of starting a ministry to widows and counseling unwed mothers while traveling around the world to support the persecuted church – and so on. Nor should any one of us do all of these things, for God sovereignly puts us in unique positions and places with unique privileges and opportunities to influence the culture around us.”

There is joy when you find your niche and a path appears. You run #LikeaGirl, brushing against the boots of others who are making a difference in smart, compassionate ways, and with those have been given a pair of boots (or empowered to buy their own) and have climbed onto the path as well. Sometimes it even feels like you are following the footprints of Jesus.

But the path of the just is like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day. (Proverbs 4:18, NKJV)


*The documentaries based on the books are available on Netflix (Half the Sky only) and Amazon.com

For more information, go to Half the Sky Movement and A Path Appears