As a progressive, feminist mom of a 15-year-old girl, I worry about a lot of things that are probably not on the minds of my more conservative counterparts. Will my daughter be able to fulfill her dreams, regardless of living in a world that endeavors to hold her back? As a woman, will she be taken seriously in whatever career path she may ultimately choose to follow? Will she be valued and respected for her contributions to society, rather than merely viewed as an object? Will she continue to have a modicum of self-worth, self-respect, and self-confidence, or will she fall into the trap of so many promising young girls, and become overwhelmed by the messages of pop culture and the media, encouraging her to doubt herself, her viewpoints, and her values. Will she understand that her body is her own and that she knows best about what is good or bad for it — that it is her choice and her dominion? Will she appreciate that she has a voice, and a brain — that she can figure out her own values and opinions without them being shaped by the men in her life?
For every persistent woman, there are countless other women with so much potential and so much to offer society, who sit down and shut up.
We know what happens when women assert themselves and reveal themselves to be smart, self-confident, and strong. They are belittled, maligned, disliked, and even despised. It’s much easier as a woman to fall in line: Don’t rock the boat. Don’t speak up. Don’t fight for your rights. A smart, hardworking little girl should have the same opportunities when she grows up as any boy sitting next to her in school. We know, however, that this is not the case. It is the rare little girl that grows up to succeed in the upper echelons of our society — to become a CEO of a major corporation, or a senator or, even rarer still, a president. And it takes more than being smart and hardworking to achieve to these levels of greatness. It takes grit, determination, and yes, gobs and gobs of persistence.
The obstacles are many: a strong and successful woman is not “likable,” is often perceived as bossy or shrill (or as Sen. Kamala Harris was just described for doing her job by competently interrogating Attorney General Jeff Sessions — hysterical), does not receive nearly the same amount of money as a man for the same job, and is all too often forced off of her career path in order to do the extremely important business of raising society’s children. The United States has yet to do what so many other countries have been able to do —support women and families through paid family leave, paid sick leave, and affordable childcare. And with all of these roadblocks, how often does success happen? Let’s put it this way: rarely enough that it is remarkable and a shock to our collective system when a smart, hardworking woman actually does achieve. For every persistent woman, such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Nelly Bly, and Sojourner Truth; such as Hillary Clinton, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor; and such as Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sheryl Sandberg, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, there are countless other women with so much potential and so much to offer society but, instead of persisting and speaking up and out for what’s right, they sit down and shut up.
Part of the problem is certainly that persistence can be a lifelong and often lonely mission. Many persistent women will not even live long enough to see their labors bear fruit. Much like an artist who achieves fame and praise after death, many of our heroines throughout history had no idea that their diligence and dogged determination would only pay off after many years of toiling in the trenches — the true legacy of persistence. Change does not come easy and white male domination in this country is deeply engrained. It is highly inspirational, however, to consider the stories of women like Anita Hill. Yes, when she bravely came forward to inform the American people that a sexual harasser had been nominated to the highest court in the land, she was dismissed by the (all-male) Senate Judiciary Committee, who proceeded to approve Clarence Thomas’ appointment. Hill apparently lost that battle, as Justice Thomas continues to preside in the Supreme Court decades later. However, I suspect she takes solace (at least I hope she does), that by raising awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace, over time the laws and public viewpoint did change to make it more plausible (and effective) when Gretchen Carlson and others accused their boss at Fox News of similar misconduct. The same can be said about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a debilitating mass shooting, and went on to be a leader in the fight for common sense gun laws. Yes, she has not won the battle yet, but her persistence has not gone by unnoticed, and is an inspiration for so many other women who are now fighting against the NRA in favor of gun violence prevention.
Hillary Clinton’s devastating electoral college loss has been seen by many as a setback of epic proportions for the women’s rights movement. It is only a setback though to the extent that we fail to use the defeat as a catalyst to persist and fight even harder. Clinton has told us as much repeatedly (she says her mantra is resist, insist, persist, enlist) since the day after the election when she conceded to Donald Trump. As she told the nation’s girls, many of whom stood by their pantsuit-wearing mothers as they cast their vote for the first female president, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”
I hope those girls were listening and, as more and more women run for public office, perhaps one of them will grow up to be our first female president. Indeed, Clinton may not live to see her efforts to elect the first female president pay off, but she can feel confident that her persistence has paved the way for future women to see that such a lofty goal, while audacious, is possible and worthy of effort.
When it comes to my own 15-year-old daughter, there is no crystal ball to see where she will end up in life and whether I can successfully instill in her my feminist and progressive values. Indeed, she is at the stage of most teenagers, where if mom thinks it or says it or does it, “it” is inherently suspect and even an embarrassment. Will my daughter ultimately be a persister or will she, like most women, quietly take her place in our culture? Who knows, but a small glimmer of hope emerged yesterday. I stay out of the way by and large when it comes to school. Nevertheless, my daughter has set a goal of getting into and attending a prestigious college 3000 miles from home. What’s more, this goal has made my daughter much more focused on academic success, which she now realizes is essential if she wants to be accepted to the college of her choice. Yesterday, my daughter confided in me she had not done well on one test this semester and it had brought her grade in Spanish down to a “B”—her only B this year. She said she was upset about it, but then told me she had asked her teacher if she could retake the test. The teacher told her she could not. As I was thinking to myself, “well, then, I guess that’s that,” my daughter added, “But I wrote her an email and explained why she should make an exception.” A few hours later, my daughter came in to tell me—excitedly, and with some surprise in her voice—“The teacher said I can retake the test tomorrow!” My daughter retook the test, and it brought her grade up to an “A.” Had she taken that first “no” for an answer, that wouldn’t have happened. Had she not taken that additional step, and advocated for herself in a persuasive manner, that wouldn’t have happened. I told my daughter that I was proud of her—not so much for the “A” but for her willingness to speak up for herself. I am hoping that she will take that ability to self-advocate and continue to use it in life, even if it’s a more public setting, and even if it places herself toe-to-toe with a difficult male colleague.
Yes, there’s no crystal ball for knowing whether persistence ultimately will pay off, when it comes to parenting or politics or, for that matter, life—but it sure beats the alternative, and history bears this out.