Women Count: A Guide to Changing the World
As a single mom with two jobs and an interest in finding space for volunteerism and activism, I immediately connected with Susan Bulkeley Butler’s interconnected main points—that the ways we “count” women don’t always count, and that women need to take control of the ways in which they “count” on personal and political levels.
Women Count is divided into four sections: “The New Math,” “The Pioneers,” “Change is Happening,” and “Now It’s Your Turn.” Underscoring each of these sections is a fundamental belief in women’s ability to change the world by taking charge of their own educational, organizational, professional, community-based, and volunteering opportunities. In each section, Butler peppers her succinct chapters with statistics, facts, and affirmative messages; she gives women a sense that they possess unique skills and potentials that, if correctly accessed and valued, might revolutionize the world.
At points, her message becomes bogged down in gender essentialism and binary thinking. I do not entirely believe that women are innately “better communicators, better listeners, and better consensus-builders” than men, and I certainly feel like some of Butler’s points invoke a feminotopia that remains at odds with corporate structures. She discusses female mentoring at great length, and while I have experienced this in academic settings—especially from my dissertation director, who was also active in the Women’s Studies program—I have also noticed that professional women can be as cut-throat, competitive, and monovocal as many professional men. Although women do continue to face issues in the work place that men do not, Butler focuses on highly subjective mental features of gender difference (e.g., women are nicer and more patient) than on biological features (e.g., women might thrive if Fortune 500 companies all provided discrete, comfortable rooms for breast pumps and on-site childcare facilities).
Despite some theoretical differences, though, Butler’s book gave me insight into the invisibility of women in received narratives of history. I was shocked that Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin. Catherine Littlefield Greene did, but she let the young inventor take credit for it since women couldn’t receive patents for ideas and inventions in 1793. She also showcases the oscillating relationship between women, war, and work at several key moments in the book, and she notices the ironies enfolded in the fact that feminists (so often identified with peace) gained agency because of war, for example as part of the “Woman’s Land Army” or farmerettes of World War I.
Butler spotlights the accomplishments of historical women, of recent politically successful women in the United States (including both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin), of female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, and of young girls aspiring toward political ambitions. In her final section, she weaves the inspiring messages her readers could garner from the examples of women from ancient times to the present into a message of hope and, more importantly, manageable action. As soon as I finish making dinner for my daughter and myself, I’ll answer her parting question (“What is the change I want to affect in the world over the next three to five years?”) and write out her steps to success. But like many of the women depicted in Women Count, I still need to spend an hour in the kitchen first.