Words have power to uplift women

04/08/2010 12:00 AM |

Natalie Merchant started to weep and it made us cry, thousands of us, mostly librarians, who were gathered in Portland, Oregon, for the Public Library Association meeting. It is hard to say why. She is a small, middle-aged woman who was dressed like a librarian: sensible shoes, black skirt, gray jacket, loose hair. She used to be the famous lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. She got up on the convention center stage with a cellist and two guitarists, and sang poems that she had set to music to make lullaby songs for her baby daughter. She has a beautiful voice that can belt, growl or whisper with equal authority and she kind of dances when she sings, swaying hypnotically in her sensible shoes.

She had slides with photographs of the poets, some famous like e.e. cummings and Robert Graves, some very obscure, and she had stories about the poets and could put the work in the context of its time. She had done the research in libraries, and doing the research and writing the music had taken time, so the baby daughter was getting older and asking interesting questions about life, death and the meaning of it all — as children are wont to do — so Merchant found even more complex poems and put them to music, too. She thanked libraries for all the help with this particular project, and then she got into a thankful groove about how libraries had saved and redirected her life as a nerdy young misfit in upstate New York.

She had gone to the library and put on headphones and listened to old recordings of American folk music and decided to become a songwriter and musician. That’s when she got a catch in her throat and got the whole room teary. We love the idea that just by being there and doing our jobs, providing, organizing and making accessible information in all its myriad forms, we are helping people realize their potential, discover their passion, nurture their talent. And then to be publicly thanked! There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The new CD is being released this April by Nonesuch records and is called ‘Leave Your Sleep.’ Listening to it would be a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month.

The next speaker at the convention was Nicholas Kristof, a reporter and columnist from The New York Times. ‘Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’ by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller focusing on microfinance and girls’ education. The book argues that the oppression of women is the paramount moral challenge of this century, just as the fight against slavery was for the 19th century and the fight against totalitarianism was for the 20th century. There is a lot of oppression to get sad or angry about, but that in and of itself is not helpful. There is factual reporting about it — the horrors of unnecessary maternal mortality, sex trafficking, violence against women — but Kristof found himself unable to maintain a journalistic impassivity while interviewing two Cambodian teenagers in a brothel, so he ended up actually buying both girls from the brothel owner to release their families from debt and get the girls to a place where they could be educated and cared for.

The title “Half the Sky” comes from a Chinese proverb that states that women hold up half the sky, but in a small village in rural China a farmer didn’t want to pay the 13-dollar annual school fee for his daughter to attend fifth grade because she was just a girl. This attitude is not particular to any specific culture or place. My father was an American with a Ph.D. and he used to say things like that, too. When Kristof wrote about this particular girl in The New York Times, people sent money. One man was so moved he wanted to send a wire transfer of one hundred dollars. His bank made a clerical error and sent 10,000 dollars instead, but was persuaded that it would be better for the bank’s reputation if it donated the difference instead of having Kristof write a follow-up article about the sad consequences of the bank removing $9,900 from the fund set up at this school to educate all the daughters of the region. A happy story that ends well, but there are many more villages in China, in Africa, in Afghanistan and other parts of the Muslim world where educating and empowering girls is a matter of life and death.

Even without education, the new movement of microfinance, through which small amounts of money are lent to women, is improving many lives. Agencies working in the developing world found that when they loaned or even gave money to men, many of the men would spend much of it on alcohol and prostitutes and then beat their wives. When women get the money, they start small entrepreneurial businesses, pay back the loans, hire other women and take care of their children, whom they’re eager to educate.

Carolyn See, who reviews books for The Washington Post, says that “Half the Sky” is one of the most important books she has ever reviewed. It “asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. It does so with exquisitely crafted prose and sensationally interesting material.”

0What it does in its nonfiction way is also what happens when you read the novel ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini. This moving story, by the author of “The Kite Runner,” about the life of an illiterate girl in Afghanistan was the subject of Floyd Memorial Library’s book discussion in March. It opens your eyes to the oppression of women, using the power of fiction instead of the power of fact, but both have the power of truth. And the truth and the beauty can also be found in the lullabies you sing, the poetry you read and what it is that makes you weep.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist, radio commentator and newspaper columnist.