The co-existence of the centennial anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with the continuing calls for the dismantling of systemic racism creates a new level of consciousness for me about how long the arc of progress is toward equality of people in this country. I truly believe the ultimate destination is not in question: we ARE all created equal in the eyes of our Maker, and for millions of us, in each other’s eyes. But the road is l-o-n-g and it is tempting to get frustrated or worse, cynical. We are making progress and it seems important to celebrate what we can, as fuel for the continued march ahead.
I graduated from high school in 1974, so mostly experienced the late ‘60s as a young adolescent: too young to be into much of the activism, but old enough to have very vivid memories of the sense of struggle for the ‘soul of our nation,’ much as we sense today. My mother was a working professional – as one of my friend’s mother called her, a ‘superwoman,’ though the significance of that didn’t register with me until years later. Even my grandmothers had worked outside the home as young adults (teachers), so I grew up with a clear understanding that we females had capacity to follow whatever life’s work called to us. I was a young adult before I realized that my experience wasn’t universal.
Many years later my own adolescent daughter told her grandmother, “I don’t really think I’m a feminist…,” to which my mother lovingly replied, “that’s because you don’t have to be, sweetheart.” [NOTE: I think my daughter might characterize her view differently today!]. That exchange is a powerful memory for me, because it captures the reality of this progress: strides toward equality are made and energy is consumed processing those strides, institutionalizing gains. And then resistance is reasserted (not always hostilely – sometimes just as a response to change) and progress slows. In a nation as prosperous as ours, it is a reality that revolution seems too high a price to pay for progress. Even evolution is too much for some, but honestly feels like the preferred trajectory for the majority of Americans: of course we want to march toward full equality of each and every person…we just don’t want the process to mess up our family, our neighborhood, our job, our community. I find myself imagining the dinner conversations for those early suffragists: were their husbands okay if the ladies had a protest march, as long as dinner was on the table?
Our patience – or lack of it – is directly correlated to what is at stake for us as individuals and families, right? Systemic racism becomes intolerable when a young person of color confronts the disadvantages that distort or destroy their potential and undermines the contribution they can make to society. Because of the exposure I had to professional women as a child, I didn’t understand the realities of workplace discrimination until I was IN IT. Then the lessons came in waves: Sexually harassed? Yes. Humiliated by derogatory comments in meetings? Sure. Ignored in discussions and hearing men repeat my ideas verbatim, only to have them lauded as valuable? You bet. I so vividly remember one exchange: a senior executive at the corporation asked me to come to his office; he wanted to ask my advice on how to help his young professional daughter, who was working in a ‘male-dominated culture’ and finding it hard to take. Nothing in his life experience had awakened him to the reality that my life was exactly the same as his daughter’s – he had never had to be inconvenienced or moved to explore it before. I was honored that he asked, and I truly believe we each gained wonderful perspective from what became an ongoing relationship – a professional friendship.
And for most of us, most of the time, that is the way change happens: our personal experiences help evolve our thinking, and what once seemed unfamiliar becomes the ‘new normal.’ The suffragists, the civil rights activists, the young people pushing us to think about climate change – they are the ones who push us to evolve our thinking faster. Some of us appreciate the push, and some of us really don’t. That is the nature of political discourse. There are even some who work hard – often out of the public view – to undermine or slow down this evolution of the public’s thinking. But in the long arc of history, we are on the right path: not smooth or direct enough for some, too steep and inconvenient for others. I have deep appreciation for the impatient among us, who push. I have empathy for those among us who struggle with anxiety about change, who stall. My own faith in the goodness of people requires me to focus on ensuring that we all have access to good information, to facts, to personal experiences that are the fuel for positive change.
“If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl,
But whatever you do
You have to keep moving forward.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.