Contemplating the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut on the 101st anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage and the fall of Afghanistan.
Only 101 short years ago today, women in the United States were granted the right to vote by the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Into every industry female entrepreneurs, inventors, mathematicians, engineers, teachers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, writers, factory workers, steel-makers, special-forces soldiers, and politicians have since proliferated, slowly perhaps, but surely.
Two women recently climbed to unprecedented heights of political power, breaking new ground and old glass ceilings; first female Vice President Kamala Harris and first female Governor of New York Kathy Hochul.
There is still plenty of work to be done as far as women’s equality in concerned, in the U.S. and around the world. There are still places where women are still considered and treated as second-class citizens, if that.
But even in some places ranked low on the international index of women’s rights, there have been marked improvements. Women in Saudi Arabia, for instance, must still operate in society under many special restrictions; but they can drive.
Challenges still exist in the United States too, of course; and serious ones. A staggering number of women in the U.S, and around the world, are still killed by their partners in a spree of domestic violence that repeats yearly. There are glass ceilings yet to be overcome. The pay gap, sexual harassment, the glorification of violence against women in the media, underrepresentation in many fields, and many other issues remain to contend with.
Nevertheless, into every aspect of American life, female excellence has persisted, and prevailed. Women have set new world records, launched rockets into space, invented lifesaving technologies and medical procedures, set historic legal precedents with their judgements on the Supreme Court and too many other accomplishments to mention.
Human history is measured in eras, in epochs. The 21st century surely dawned as the epoch of female ascendence in modern American life.
Much of this ascendence, strange as it might seem, happened as a direct result of war.
War was and remains a terrible blight on humanity. It falls hardest on the shoulders of society’s most vulnerable, and its caretakers: Women and children, the impoverished and the elderly, doctors and nurses.
But even in times of war, and perhaps especially then, we human beings do what human beings have always done for around 200,000 years of anatomical modernity, and human ancestors did long before that: We adapted.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” it is said. It could also be said that war is the mother of all necessity. War and mass violence have taken a terrible toll on all of us; driven humanity to dreadful places, some too nightmarish and horrifying to even contemplate.
Our adaptations during wartimes, however, have gleaned whatever good could be gleaned out of such large-scale human tragedy. Which is good, because war and other atrocities are something over which so few of us have any real control.
And because world powers may not have yet slaked their thirst for war, though we all hope wholeheartedly that they have.
The famous ancient terracotta army discovered in China tells one such silver-lining-of-war tale.
Prior to widespread land wars in ancient China, it was common practice for regional rulers to indulge in human sacrifice. The ruler would order the sacrifice of their entire army at their death- plus their royal court, wives, companions, servants, and anyone else who took their fancy- entombing all and sundry and, in theory, preparing the exalted ruler for the next life.
War put a stop to that.
Wars, and ultimately winning them, meant provincial rulers needed all the able-bodied fighting men they could get, for themselves and to preserve their living dynasty- their children. Sacrificing hundreds of perfectly good soldiers in a mere funeral rite became taboo. Hyper-realistic, startlingly lifelike terracotta soldiers, each different from the last, became a suitable stand-in.
The terrible world wars of the 20th century brought another such surprising silver lining.
With all the men half a world away, fighting a war which had grown to encompass half the world, women were left to keep the home-fires burning.
This meant much more than growing a victory garden and getting creative with rations in the kitchen. “A League of Their Own” and Rosie the Riveter have only given us the barest glimpse of what women accomplished during the war, and for the war efforts.
To say nothing of the economy.
What women have contributed to the United States GDP in the past 101 years can’t be measured. It would be a number so big we could scarcely imagine it. The number would be meaningless anyway. So much of what women, and other caregivers, contribute to the economy isn’t easily measured in dollars and taxes.
For comparison, just look at what the nation of Afghanistan was able to accomplish in just 20 years after women were allowed to fully participate in society post-2001.
Almost right away, Afghan women and girls started receiving education, enrolling in school and graduating from college at exponentially increasing rates. Once women started joining the workforce en masse, things in Afghanistan started to really cook economically. The GDP of Afghanistan quadrupled in only two decades.
Considering that a 3% increase is considered healthy growth, a four-fold increase is the marker of an economy not just bouncing back from Taliban rule, but booming back.
Of course, the scenes of heartbreak and of terror spilling out of Afghanistan circa 2021 is casting a dark pall over the last 20 shining years of women’s rights in that beleaguered nation. It is to be hoped that the Taliban will honor their recently-made commitment to allow women and girls to keep a place in the educational system, the work force, and in government.
Perhaps the Taliban, like other armies before them, will have realized the value of their nation’s female citizens after 20 years of being at war. Together with the women of Afghanistan, even the Taliban might yet come to rule with compassion and good sense, as other societies have done before them.
Of course, the hopes of humanitarian and women’s rights organizations are not high. Already, reports of women being murdered for refusing to cover their heads, child marriages, and other such atrocities are already pouring out of Afghanistan.
Taking over the nation was the easy part, it would seem; now the Taliban have to govern a large country, with millions of people, and more territory than they occupied in 2001.
With the help of Afghan women, the Taliban could soon be presiding over a peaceful and prosperous modern nation with laws, like many other modern nations, fully compatible with the teachings of their Muslim faith.
Without the partnership and help of Afghan women, the country, and whoever happens to rule it, will toil in subsistence poverty and woe.
101 years ago, political leaders in the U.S. made the decision to allow women a full say in the democratic process. It was a calculation that paid off. Decades later, women began fully participating in the workforce. Today, no one can deny that the benefits to society have been monumental.
Perhaps the Taliban will make the same correct calculation.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)