The Future is Paved with Broken Glass
In late 2007, in the midst of that presidential election cycle, I was a 21 year-old private in the U.S. Army. While Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were building up early, crucial support in Iowa and New Hampshire, I was slogging through woods and swamps on training operations with my unit. In our downtime, the conversation would inevitably turn to the election.
I vividly remember sitting around in between training exercises, bored and annoyed — like you do in the Army — and listening to the normal ranting about politicians that could be expected of any tiny corner in America. What threw me for a loop was when another soldier casually offered:
“If Hillary is elected, I’ll never salute her.”
There were murmurs of agreement in the group. Red flags shot up in my mind. Somehow, I knew what he meant without having to ask, but my brain — maybe my soul — needed confirmation.
The soldier, sitting across from me, flashed a look that read somewhere between incredulity and annoyance.
“Because she’s a woman.”
My heart started beating a little faster. I’m not sure why. This is such a trivial thing, right? For me, at the time, it didn’t feel that way. I grew up respecting women as leaders, perhaps because of the teachers who looked after me during my childhood in an abusive household. I needed role models, and there they were. I knew sexism existed, of course, but witnessing something so brazen knocked me back on my heels.
You’re not going to a salute a woman president? Because you might get cooties? Do you also have a treehouse that says “No Girls Allowed” scrawled on the side?
My brain did somersaults, grasping for a response. Should I respond? My mouth got ahead of my calculating.
“That’s a stupid reason, don’t you think?”
A silence washed over the group for a few moments. Profanity is pretty common in the military, and playful asides get thrown out so much they seem like nothing. But this was different. He looked up at me, his face a bit redder, his eyes a bit more pointed, and drew out his next statement with purpose:
I witnessed a lot of misogyny during my time in the military, but this incident, more than any other, got right to the root of a problem that wasn’t unique to our Armed Forces but reflective of something far more pervasive in wider society.
A bit over a hundred years ago, suffragists Alice Paul and Inez Mulholland led 8,000 protestors (mostly women) in a parade in downtown Washington, D.C. on the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.
Their demand was simple: full enfranchisement of the right to vote for all women. Marchers — spanning diverse sections, including participants from countries who had already granted women the right to vote — walked boldly down Pennsylvania Avenue as bemused men looked on with drinks and not a little condescension. Soon, perhaps realizing this wasn’t all a joke, the men began wading into the procession, tearing at signs and clothing. Police escorts passively stood to the side, only becoming engaged with the violence unfolding before them to get a little action themselves on the marchers.
Beaten with fists and nightsticks, over 100 women were taken to an area hospital. Coincidentally, Woodrow Wilson — to whom Alice Paul had pled for consideration only a few weeks before (receiving a lukewarm “it will receive my most careful consideration”) — was arriving at Union Station at about that time. Hardly greeted with the normal fanfare for a newly-arrived president-elect, one of Wilson’s staff members was said to have asked where all the people were to welcome their incoming president.
“Watching the suffrage parade”, replied a police officer.
Indeed, they were. Reports of the violence spread quickly through newspapers across the country, giving the suffragists the most favorable public support they had seen in decades, probably ever.
It would take seven years to achieve ratifcation of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting all persons, regardless of sex, the right to vote, but the catalyst for change came from a group of women who refused to be silenced, even in the face of brutality.
Fast forward to 2016. To many Americans, things are, ostensibly, pretty good for women. That’s what they’re told. They can work, they have the right to vote, to own property, to invest — what more could women want?
Even as a large number of states are implementing laws that severely curtail a woman’s access to reproductive healthcare and right to an abortion, even as girls and women are consistently the targets of street harassment, assault, and rape, even as women are consistently paid less than their male colleagues for the same work and can only watch in frustration as less-qualified men leapfrog them in the career ladder, even with all this and more, women are still told they have it good.
“Women are beaten in Saudi Arabia. They can’t drive. You should be grateful.”
Ah, yes, so grateful. These are the same men who would throw a fit if they felt they were getting shafted in the workplace and would likely respond to you with rage if you said, “Look, there are men living in mud huts all around the world. You should be grateful. Stop complaining.”
The pervasiveness of gender inequality in our society is directly linked to the lack of representation for women in our government. Despite making up just over half of the U.S. population, women form only 19.7 percent of Congress.
It’s not for a lack of skill. For decades, women have earned more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men every year. Since 2006, a full decade, women have earned more doctorates annually than men. Last year, women accounted for just over 60 percent of college graduates.
The issue is the lackluster recruitment of women to run for office coupled with the exasperating confidence of mediocre men who feel they’re the best people for the job. Time and time again, far more qualified women have been put to the side to make way for less-qualified men to take a seat at the table when it comes to American politics and governing.
It’s how you wind up with all-male Congressional panels discussing women’s reproductive healthcare without so much as a good faith measure to ensure the perspectives of, you know, women are included in the process.
It’s how you get a moron for an elected judge who hands out a paltry prison sentence of six months for Brock Turner, who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and was caught in the act.
The examples of women being screwed over by their own government because of a severe lack of representation are far too numerous to list here, but the point is all the same: men would not stand for their voices being silenced in governing, yet women are supposed to accept that we live in a post-sexist, post-feminist society. They’re supposed to be grateful.
Last night, Hillary Clinton became the first woman in American history to clinch the presidential nomination of a major party. Although there’s five months of hard work ahead, all signs point to her defeating Donald Trump in the fall.
When the Associated Press announced her victory last night, I couldn’t help but think back to that evening in 2008 and the conversation I had with that sad soul who felt threatened by the idea of a woman running the show.
I thought of the progress made by women in this country, the historical context, and I cried. I couldn’t help it.
I thought of the teachers I had growing up and my friends who put in hard work at their jobs and my partner who is set to attend business school this year — all women who deserve so much better than what they are currently being offered by this country.
I thought of the girls who will grow up in a country only knowing a woman president in their short lifetimes.
And I thought of Alice Paul and Inez Mulholland and every other woman who has fought for equal rights over the past 240 years. They marched that day not knowing if they would get the right to vote, not knowing if they would see women in Congress. They marched without the knowledge that over a century later, a woman would be elected president.
They marched because they wanted a better day for their daughters and granddaughters. And after they were beaten and hospitalized, they got back up the next day and kept marching. If there’s anything that I wished personified America, it’s that kind of spirit.
Last night, the second-highest glass ceiling was shattered for women in this country. In November, the highest — seemingly scratching the surface of heaven — will be splintered into pieces and used to pave the road to a better future for all Americans, regardless of gender.
I can’t wait.
Charles Clymer is an Army Veteran and writer based out of Washington, D.C., where they live with their girlfriend and two cats. They proudly identify as gender-nonconforming and prefer the pronouns they/them. They have been published in several places and quoted by Time, Newsweek, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. You can follow them on Twitter here and on Facebook here.