Pope John Paul II once declared the 20th century to be the most evil of all centuries, and it’s not hard to come up with evidence for such a claim even if one doesn’t share his presuppositions. The Holocaust, other genocides from Armenia to Rwanda, Stalinism, Pol Pot, the threat of humankind’s voluntary self-extinction by nuclear annihilation and then of involuntary self-extinction by environmental catastrophe – the human beings of the 20th century have a lot to answer for.
I sometimes imagine the centuries lined up on some chronological Judgement Day, and the 20th century being shown its great catalogue of horrors and atrocities. A cosmic judge asks that century “What do you have to say for yourself? How can you possibly justify your existence in the face of this destruction?”
In spite of everything, before this cosmic temporal court, I believe the 20th century could make up for it all with three small words: we liberated women. The liberation of women is the singular achievement of the past hundred years.
Before 1900, half of the human race, no matter its wealth or social standing, was guaranteed a life of subservience and disregard. Certainly women could still be happy in those earlier circumstances; happiness depends far more on one’s own mental dispositions than it does on one’s social standing or other external factors. But they received little if any opportunity to make a contribution to the world beyond their own families. A list of the pre-20th century philosophers who rival their greatest male counterparts, for example, could probably fit on the fingers of one hand, if one was being generous.
What the 20th century proved was that, contrary to the views of such great minds as Aristotle, Hume, Kant, the dharma??stra authors and arguably even the Buddha, women are every bit as capable as men when given a realistic opportunity; their lack of achievement had nothing to do with the poverty of their ideas and everything to do with the inability to get their ideas developed and preserved. Martha Nussbaum, Ayn Rand, Judith Butler, Iris Murdoch immediately leap to mind as among the past century’s most capable thinkers; even if one disdains their contributions, as analytic philosophers are prone to do, one can easily point to women among the most distinguished analytical ethicists: Philippa Foot, Christine Korsgaard, Judith Jarvis Thomson.
The technological achievements of the 20th century are a double-edged sword; the colonial empires’ liberation will be a footnote in the history told thousands of years from now, when most of those new nations no longer exist. But women’s liberation – incomplete though it may be – is here to stay. In the Western world, even organizations working against feminist causes accept women’s equality in ways they never would have hundreds of years before. Only in the Islamic world are serious arguments heard against women’s basic equality before the law in a general sense, and those arguments are marginal in much of that world, which has produced a large number of female heads of state. This is no longer a clock that can be turned back. And even in the face of so many shameful atrocities, that’s an accomplishment that should make any century proud.