The Splendour of Perspective

The Splendour of Perspective

I will be forever grateful to Miriam Schneir, the great American historian and chronicler of women’s rights, for her books, especially her staggering trilogy, Feminism, The Essential Historical Writings; and then Feminism in Our Time, which contains foundational documents in the struggle for women’s rights; and particularly her just published prequel, Before Feminism: The History of An Idea Without a Name. This newest book is one hell of a positive, revealing, and hopeful work: it’s an instant classic. I rarely go this far to praise a book but this one is so accessible, lively (for which read written in “non-academes”), yet brilliantly sourced — and most of all contains things in it that the most saturated feminist reader (like me) still doesn’t know or doesn’t know enough. It’s the ultimate answer to the snide question, “Where were all your great …?” Do get this new book, which made me so proud–and of course it also made me furious, parallel to every constraint placed against women’s freedom, advancement, even selfhood. But there they all are, those women, down through history–or herstory–glimpsed filling the world and the millennia with their presence, even when not allowed to have their own full-throated voices.

So, this inspired me to realize that we need a break in which to celebrate ourselves and our evolutionary slow inching along, and I decided to offer us a heap of good news in a time of weariness and peril. We don’t do this often enough for ourselves or each other, share the good things that are happening. We really should. It might just give us the balance we so desperately seek, and balance lends perspective.

Besides, god knows that to try and live a life of attentiveness and ethics – as E. M. Forster termed it “to see life steadily and see it whole” –well, these days can instead feel chaotic, destabilizing, even apocalyptic. Toxic nativist leaders rise around the world, politics in democratic nations become more polarized; gaps in wealth seem to continue to expand; and the menacing specter of planetary failure due to climate change hovers over us all, while its clock ticks loudly.

But still. But still. Well, here goes, in somewhat random manner.

During the last two centuries our species has gone from constituting a tiny elite to a world where eight out of 10 people can read and write. Global income inequality has declined significantly. As for life expectancy, according to the United Nations Population Division, a person born in 2017, on average across the world, could be expected to live to 72.4 years, the highest number in nearly six full decades of record-keeping. Fertility rates are falling around the world, a good thing for overpopulation and the environmental devastation that accompanies it. Child mortality rates also continue to plummet, and child marriage among females who were married or in a union before age 15 shrank from 8.1 percent in 2003 to 5 percent in 2018.

Yes, there is a massive global gender gap (in wealth and power) that, at current rates, the World Economic Forum predicts will take another 100 years to close. But the trend is in the right direction, that at least. More women now hold government jobs than ever before, comprising as much as 76.3 percent of legislative bodies around the world in 2018, the last year we currently have data for. That’s up from 23.97 percent in the late 1990’s. Also, both infant mortality and maternal mortality rates reached new lows in their respective recorded histories (at least globally; the U.S. is unique in its failures on these fronts).

The number of people in poverty (for which read: women and children) is at an all-time historic low. The United Nations measures “extreme poverty” as living on less than $1.90 per day: the very poorest people in the world. These poverty figures take into account non-monetary forms of income – for poor families today and in the past this is important, particularly because many of them are subsistence farmers who live largely from their own food production. The majority of the world population still lives in poverty. Every tenth person lives on less than $1.90 per day and two-thirds live on less than $10 per day.


We have more access to pure drinking water, approaching over 90 percent.

We have greater access to electricity, and 11 percent of global energy now comes from renewable sources: wind, hydro, and solar. Fewer people than ever before in recorded history are dying from air pollution. The total assets of institutions divesting from fossil fuels has gone from 5 billion in 2012 to 11.5 trillion in 2019.

For the first time in human history, two thirds of human beings have access to essential health care, which included reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health, and infectious and non-communicable diseases.

I could go on but you definitely get the point. You also know me, and you know that I can be pessimistic with the best of them; neither am I some perky little goody two shoes spewing indiscriminate positivity. After the five years we’ve been through we should be cheerful and generous to those who brought us those years? Hah!

But when you think of all the years before then and the centuries before that and the millennia preceding those, and how each of us somehow, women and men alike, brought her or his tiny chip of color to fit in the great mosaic of humanity–well, perspective is not only a glorious and life-saving help; it’s a splendour.