McCorduck, P. & Ramsey, N. The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century

The futures of women: scenarios for the 21st century,  Addison Wesley, 1996; 288 pages

The futures of women has been a sensitive topic that very few futures writers have tackled, or have tackled well. As the authors note, for one or another reason, neither Paul Kennedy, Peter Drucker, the much-feted Tofflers nor John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene have done the topic justice. Yet it is a critical area affecting not just one half of the world’s population, but everyone. The book has emerged from the GBN fold and I am delighted to say that it is a strong and powerful one. It is founded on a good understanding of the scenarios method and uses a clear, readily comprehensible scenario framework. It follows, of course, that the work is not predictive. Rather, it is an invitation to further dialogue and work. By revealing a number of divergent paths from the present it sets up a useful agenda for such work.

The book begins with a brilliantly titled chapter called The Official Future Will Not Take Place. Here the superficial ‘good news’ about ‘progress’ for women is convincingly refuted, for example, by reference to the fact that: ‘international trends and driving forces suggest that in the near future, social reactionism could well have its way.’ The four major chapters contain detailed explorations of each of four scenarios. The latter are based on the working out of possibilities along two key dimensions: individual or group rights and a growing or depressed global economy. These give rise to four quadrants, four futures. They are outlined briefly below. 

  • A progressive scenario – ‘a golden age of equality’. Here individual rights prevail in an integrated growth economy. Regional trade develops and information technology facilitates inter-group and international communication. Military funding is re-directed to more constructive ends such as environmental protection. A profound shift of consciousness means that men and women achieve parity in most fields of endeavour.
  • A stagnant scenario – ‘two steps forward, two steps back’. Here individual rights prevail but in the context of a sluggish economy. New technologies and opportunities are unevenly spread and wealth accumulates in the hands of a very few. Moves toward sustainability cease. The conditions of life for women remain broadly unsatisfactory across much of the world.
  • A regression scenario – ‘backlash’. Here national and group identities prevail over individual ones, and the world economy is flat. Nationalist mentalities are a constant threat and migrant workers roam the globe. Violence prevails at all levels and communication between individuals is difficult. For women things have never been so grim, and the international network of women is hard-pressed to cope.
  • A separatist scenario – ‘separate-and doing fine, thanks!’ Here group values prevail in a growth economy. Outside the Western democracies there is a resurgence of authoritarian social and economic practices that work against women. In the West there is a closing of ranks and an increase in clandestine intra-group communication. Governments are generally inward looking and self-interest drives those at the top. The rights of women are widely sacrificed and repressed. In response they form separatist groups and pursue their ends in defiance, or in secrecy and isolation.

No hint appears in the book of the care and skill required to provide such superbly rounded scenarios. Each one has a wealth of detail so that the futures portrayed are richly textured and humanised. The lives of women are beautifully evoked here; moreover they are not just Western women. One of the things which makes the book outstanding is that the lives and experiences of women from around the world are evoked as lived realities, not mere theoretical constructs. The device of short, portrait-like, sections nicely catches the universal in the particular. So, unlike so much futures writing in the past, the book escapes the cultural limitations of work produced in and for the USA. It has a truly international focus and flavour which means that it will appeal, and be genuinely useful, to men and women in many other contexts.

Overall, I found that it enhanced my sense of reality about the trends and challenges of the near-term future. It gave what I call the ‘near-future context’ (which can so easily be yet another theoretical construct) a sense of being grounded in human experiences and choices. As such it helps to frame some of the key life world concerns faced by everyone. A useful focus is given in this regard by the postscript: In Beijing the Future is Hidden in Plain Sight. This gives the authors a chance to look at their four scenarios in the light of the UN Fourth Conference on Women in 1995. A number of key issues are re-examined: personal sexual autonomy, violence, education, health, equality in the workplace and power sharing in decisions. In each case the present evidence is ambiguous. Overall, the authors comment, ‘the Beijing meeting embodied the reality that the cold war has ended and, along with it, the old balance of power politics.’ But, they add, ‘the new pattern has yet to emerge’ and ‘new forms of democratic expression are only embryonic.’ These are clear messages: the early gains could be lost, things could still go badly wrong.

If I have any reservations about the book at all they are first, that the possibility of deeper transformations (in technologies, worldviews and ways of knowing) are not examined and second, that I think the authors underestimate the fragility of the current international order. To my mind, industrial-era ‘givens’ extend beyond gender concerns to include deeply embedded, unsustainable commitments to e.g., the ideology of growth, nature as a resource and a technology-driven, reductionist outlook. What Wilber calls the ‘flatland’ of industrial-era reality has, to our collective cost, become unbalanced because it has read out of the picture that half of reality upon which ‘inner’ and subjective truths are founded. Such concerns could have been usefully touched upon, albeit briefly, to deepen and extend the scenario framework. However, I also recognise that there is merit in keeping to a straightforward method, and exploring some of the human implications clearly. In these respects the authors have succeeded brilliantly.

Hence this is a beautifully crafted work and a real pleasure to read. It is detailed, rich and evocative. It should be read by all who are interested in reclaiming the future from the abstracted economic imperatives of late industrialism. Books such as this perform the vital task of returning the key choices and decisions about the future to us, here and now, and especially to women.

As such it is a magnificent addition to the quality futures literature.