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Women on the ascent? The realist in me was skeptical

Most humans are optimists, which explains second marriages and striped pants. The belief that the future will be better than the past is known as "the optimism bias," and those who don't subscribe to this notion – we prefer to be called realists – are inherently suspicious of Pollyanna rhetoric from glass-half-full types.

So I was a touch put off when I opened Ascent of Women, a new non-fiction book surveying the status of women around the world, and the booming utopic tone of an inaugural address rang out: "The earth is shifting. A new age is dawning. From Kabul to Cairo to Cape Town and New York, women … are propelling changes so immense they're likely to affect intractable issues such as poverty, interstate conflict, culture and religion…." The author/orator is Sally Armstrong, a formidable globetrotting reporter on women's issues for more than 25 years.

This is a book about optimism, that of the author and the women she writes about, pushing to improve the lots of millions. The tone is more boosterish – "blooming rosebud" analogies may induce sugar seizures – but in theme, Ascent of Women recalls The Better Angels of Our Nature, the 2011 tome by Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker that argued we are living in the most peaceful, violence-free time in human history. Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker raised an eyebrow about Pinker's "fishy" premise: "Hate and madness and cruelty haven't disappeared, and they aren't going to." I felt similarly skeptical at times when reading Armstrong, even when drawn in by her reporting.

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Without ducking the gruesome and troubling details, Armstrong personalizes the broadest human-rights issues. Poverty, for instance, becomes palpable in the story of Gowramma, a dalit (or untouchable) woman who walks kilometres to get water for her children, enduring jeers and harassment simply because she was born to the lowest caste. In Kenya, Armstrong reports, a girl child is raped every 30 minutes; some are as young as three months old. We meet 41/2-foot-tall Emily, raped by her grandfather, a man who, like many in sub-Saharan Africa, believes that sex with a girl child will cure HIV/AIDS. Then there's the girl in northern Senegal who is married off at 11, pregnant at 12, and dies during childbirth. The genital mutilation she endured as a girl all but ensured a fatal delivery.

The pessimist in me had one foot on my soapbox: Isn't it foolish, if not dangerous, to cover issues like femicide and marital rape with such gruelling description, and then sound so bloody peppy? Is the work really done?

But in the end, I took my foot back: Armstrong's positivity feels warranted. Yes, the book is heartfelt and important, but what makes its sunny message compelling is that it rises from Armstrong's unflinching gaze upon horror. It's optimism born of realism, not hollow self-improvement platitudes, but a true eye-witness account of transition.

These horrific reports, and more, are countered by stories of women organizing and pushing for change, protesting and marching in Cairo, Kabul, Lahore. A group of Canadian and African women are working with 160 Kenyan girls to challenge their government in the courts over untried rape cases that violate the constitution. Female genital mutilation is slowly becoming obsolete in Senegal due to networks of education and communication. The World Bank asserts that equality of women is intrinsically linked to a country's economic success, and Armstrong is unabashedly positive that the next generation of women will live that reality: "Like 3.5 billion beautiful rosebuds, half the world's population is about to bloom into the future."

She does sometimes overplay her hand, glossing over the siege on U.S. abortion rights, and cheering Afghan President Hamid Karzai's amendment to the Shiite Personal Status Law, when it's still pretty bad for a woman who wants to get a carton of milk in Afghanistan.

Pessimists are inclined to believe that sweeping declarations of better times ahead come from the bullhorns of hucksters and self-help gurus with one hand in your pocket. Optimists, in contrast, are naïfs and rubes. Well, there's a little truth there: Research suggests that extreme optimists are prone to struggle with long-term planning, incur debt and avoid proper medical care. That sounds a lot like the behaviour of an extreme pessimist, with a different motivation: While the optimist thinks all will be taken care of, the pessimist thinks there's no point in taking care of anything when it all comes to naught anyway.

What is needed, then, is something between extremes; an optimism that doesn't avoid the darkest truths, and a pessimism that isn't paralyzing. At its best, Ascent of Women is really the story of this exact fine balance. Moderate optimists believe that bad situations can be improved, and surely these are the women on the front lines in Armstrong's book. They've witnessed and experienced unimaginable injustice, but that's only the beginning of the story. If Armstrong is right, and epic change is in the making, then let the optimists have it their way.

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