"The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century" by Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey

A Review by Kim Allen

"The Futures of Women," by Pamela McCorduck and Nancy Ramsey, tackles the toughest question that feminists face: where will women be in the early part of the 21st century? Will our slow march toward equality with men gather speed and critical mass, resulting in more and more status for The Other 51%? Or will some of our key victories be turned back, as they have for the women caught under the rise of the Taleban? Or will we just plod along, scraping away at the boundaries of a still essentially male-dominated system?

Thinking about these questions is not just a matter of setting a political agenda and trying to stick with it. There are factors outside women's direct control that could very well influence our future-- economic or environmental crises, for instance. This book is an attempt to take the broadest possible view, incorporating the effects of technology, global business, health care, and shifting political power on the status of women the world over.

When I first picked up the book, I worried that it was founded on a dubious premise: that "women" in general had a well-defined future, as if we all moved together like a giant school of minnows. After all, no one would be foolish enough to undertake a study or write a book on "The Futures of Men"; the possibilities depend too much on which men you study, or would end up being so general as to be nearly useless. But historically, women have felt a kind of kinship that men do not (mostly due to being united in positions of inferiority), which lends more meaning to the category "woman" than "man." As a feminist, I certainly understand the concept of grouping all women together, and was willing to set aside my doubts and go on the intellectual voyage McCorduck and Ramsey offer their readers. (And in fact, it turned out that they didn't treat all women as the same anyway).

So I set forth. I invite you to read the following journal of my travels.

McCorduck and Ramsey are the same age as the second-wave feminists, but shouldn't be stereotyped as such. Well, OK-- there is one glaring giveaway of their cohort: In the Introduction, they waste no time with the obligatory bemoaning of Gen X's "passivity": already on page 12 they say, "A generation of women who've taken equality as a given hardly feel impelled to fight for what they believe they already almost have". (I admit, I had to roll my eyes at this-- when, oh when, will older feminists get the concept of the third wave?) However, as futurists and scenarists, McCorduck and Ramsey are extremely open-minded-- more so than most women of any age-- and happily, the rest of the book is a delight for anyone who is tired of the standard feminist rhetoric and other typical analyses of gender.

The purpose of the Introduction is to jar the reader into a more open-minded state. Declaring boldly that "the Official Future will not take place," McCorduck and Ramsey point to numerous reasons why feminism is a shifting, nonlinear phenomenon that is not simply taking the linear forward path that women of the 1970's imagined it would. For some, these statistics will be an eye-opener, so I was glad to see them collected together. However, if you already know that the current and future state of feminism is complex, don't be tempted to skip ahead-- it's important to understand the fascinating technique they used to imagine the futures of women.

The technique that McCorduck and Ramsey use is called scenario-building. This is a way of imagining the future by constructing stories that flow plausibly from the current situation we are experiencing. Scenarios are not predictions or prescriptions for the future-- they are more open-ended and creative than that. But neither are they just fantasies or wild dreams-- they are grounded in facts and statistics, and are generated by logical analysis. The point behind scenarios is twofold: (1) to recognize and embrace the fact that the future is uncertain, and also (2) to balance that uncertainty against the fact that we must act nonetheless. Scenario planning involves identifying predetermined elements which must occur or influence the future no matter what (such as an aging population); driving forces, which are the most important factors in deciding which direction the flows of events will take (such as the global economy); and critical uncertainties, which are the difficult-to-predict wild cards that will nonetheless play a role in the unfolding of the future (such as new, yet-unimagined technologies).

Scenarists generally come up with three or four scenarios for a given case, and present them side by side. Scenarios do not come with assigned probabilities because they are not predictions; in fact, the "real" future is likely to combine elements from several scenarios. Instead, the point of seeing the scenarios side by side is to expand your understanding of the situation at hand: You are invited to consider points of view that you may not have thought of before, you are encouraged to see the long-term consequences of seemingly trivial trends that are occurring now, and you are perhaps moved to take actions now that will help achieve the more positive aspects of the long view.

"The Futures of Women" is a set of four scenarios for imagining the continued development of the sociopolitical movement to improve the status of women. These scenarios take place in 2015, 20 years from the time of their creation, and are conceptualized as the four quadrants of a graph: on one axis is the global economy, which is rapidly becoming a single, organic entity under no nation's or industry's control. It can range from growing, "boom" conditions (as the diversity and larger volume feed off each other to spur more growth and capital worldwide) to a global Depression (as the volatility and weak political systems of emerging nations drag down the economies of the "first world" countries in a deflationary spiral). On the other axis is the ever-present political tension between individual and group rights. We live in a paradoxical time: through the Internet and other global communications, we are more connected than ever to people and events worldwide, and yet we simultaneously place a higher-than-ever value on self-reliance and individual rights. We believe that government is becoming obsolete in favor of individual empowerment, and yet for this empowerment we rely more than ever on the infrastructure and stability that are provided by our legal and regulatory systems. This axis ranges from a continuing drive toward individual considerations at the expense of the group to the opposite trend of valuing the group over the individual. The scenarios are entitled "Backlash," "The Golden Age of Equality," "Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back," and "Separate and Doing Fine, Thanks!"

The scenarios

First impressions after putting down the book

Wow! What a journey! I am truly impressed with the scope and quality of McCorduck and Ramsey's synthesis. All the scenarios are at least somewhat plausible and contain the important trends we are already seeing today, just amplified in different ratios. In fact, some aspects of every scenario have already occurred or are eerily close to occurring. This set of scenarios accomplishes exactly what it should: it challenges the reader to see the facts in new ways and acknowledge the possible directions that seemingly unimportant trends could lead in, which will (hopefully) mobilize some action to steer events toward the more positive scenarios. Frankly, I am all the more excited about third wave feminism and the promise of the Internet!

What are the take-away lessons? McCorduck and Ramsey provide some commentary in the Epilogue. Using the 1995 UN Fourth World Conference on Women (held in Beijing) as a backdrop, they point out various trends that are already present and some early indicators of trends to come. There are plenty of disturbing facts that speak unequivocably: Nothing is assured. We won't be handed any easy victories. Backlash is not out of the question. And even as we move toward The Golden Age or Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! we must be constantly vigilant not to slip into Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back.

It's well worth reading McCorduck and Ramsey's Epilogue, but remember also that one important purpose of this book is for each woman to find her own lessons. Think about what you just read, and draw your own conclusions. Then act on them.

A third-wave perspective

Not surprisingly, McCorduck and Ramsey find Separate-- and Doing Fine, Thanks! to be disappointing-- a pale, stunted future that women might have to "settle for" if they can't achieve The Golden Age. (You get very used to this sort of commentary from the second wave).

Just three retorts to this sentiment:

General thoughts beyond the third-wave perspective

Finally, I will share a few of my general thoughts. First of all, it seems that women only do well in the scenarios where the global economy grows. Should we conclude that feminism is irrelevant because all that matters for our future is the bottom line in people's pocketbooks? I think not. True, we should be aware that the economy is a major driving force in the world, and in general a good economy means more for everyone, not just in financial terms, but in the form of rights, security, equality, and health. But look at history-- the second wave of feminism made huge gains during the 1970's, which was a time of global energy crisis, Cold War paranoia, and stagflation in the US economy. Reducing everything to the four scenarios that result from two major driving forces is naturally going to simplify the pictures.

The other major lesson that I want to emphasize is that women do well when they use the power they have to further their own visions of the future. The positive scenarios share more than a good economy-- they occur when women actively participate in shaping the world, through politics, business, science, the arts, education, and good motherhood. We lose when we let go and just let the world evolve without us. Passivity will destroy us as surely as Backlash, and Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back seems very likely to occur if we don't hurry.

Let's keep moving!

(One more personal note: as an amateur scenarist, I also read this book with a growing ache-- how exciting it would have been to participate in the creation of these scenarios! I wonder if Gen X women would have come up with a different set. Already my head is buzzing with ideas for future projects....)

But enough. Read this book!

Copyright 1998 Kim Allen.