Whatever the reason, International Women’s Day, celebrated on Monday, commanded greater attention than normal. The appearance of President Biden, Vice President Harris (the first woman to hold the job) and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (the first African American in that role), alongside two women receiving their appointments as four-star generals (the second and third in history), made a powerful statement about what America truly looks like. As Harris put it, “Recruiting more women to our military, adjusting policies to retain more women, enforcing policies to protect women and ensure they are heard and advancing more women on fair and equal footing with, without any question, make our nation safer. And that’s the work ahead.”
Biden picked up on the theme. “Women who join today’s military aren’t told ‘no’ when they apply to fly fighter jets or attack helicopters just because of their gender,” he said. “They aren’t told ‘no’ when they want to apply to Ranger school, or infantry officer basic training. But they all know that there’s much, much more work to be done to ensure that women’s leadership is recognized and we have more diverse leaders who’ve reached the top echelons of command.”
The president made clear that he understands the importance of female role models:
We need the young women just beginning their careers in the military service to see it and know that no door will be closed to them. We need women and men throughout the ranks to see and celebrate women’s accomplishments and leadership in the services. We need little girls and boys both who have grown up dreaming of serving for their country to know this is what generals in the United States Armed Forces look like. This is what Vice Presidents of the United States look like.
In a similar vein, Harris’s delivery of the administration’s address to the European Parliament for International Women’s Day added importance to the message: “Simply put, our world does not yet work for women as it should,” she said. “Covid-19 has threatened the health, the economic security, and the physical security of women everywhere. The pandemic has overloaded health-care systems, making it even harder for women to access the care they need.” Given that women make up 70 percent of the global health-care workforce, Harris said, they were most at risk during the pandemic. “Other women have been forced out of the workforce entirely,” she said. “Women working in often overlooked sectors have been hit the hardest, especially those working in low wage jobs and those working in the informal economy.”
As it is said that women’s rights are human rights, so, too, is it becoming clear that women’s economic progress amounts to the United States’ economic progress. Harris told her European and American audiences:
I believe we must ensure women’s safety at home and in every community. We must ensure that women can access high quality healthcare and that those health needs particular to women are addressed. We must treat women with dignity at work and put in place the structures needed so that women can both care for their families and excel in the workforce. Finally, we must give women equal voice in decision-making, for this is essential to free and fair democracies. And this is not just an act of goodwill. This is a show of strength. If we build a world that works for women, our nations will all be safer, stronger, and more prosperous.
The difference between the United States’ two major political parties could not be more stark. Diversity, for the Democratic administration, is an essential component of its personnel selection process and provides the full range of experience needed to govern a contentious, multifaceted country. It is neither a burden nor a sign that we have abandoned merit. The fate of women and their ability to fully participate in society will determine how secure, prosperous and free we will be as a nation. If women are pushed out of the workforce, if they lack affordable childcare that allows them to work or if they fail to get the full protection of the law, we are not going to “build back better.”
Biden’s signature on two executive orders — one to establish a gender-equity panel to come up with a government-wide strategy to empower women and another to review actions taken by his predecessor regarding sexual assaults on college campuses — suggest he is aware that, as with race, the nation in recent years has been going in the wrong direction on gender equality.
Republicans, however, still cling to a racist and misogynistic leader and paint efforts to update our language and attitudes on race and gender as “political correctness” — or worse, as part of a broader “cancel culture.” Their only identifiable political goal these days seems to be suppressing voting, which disproportionately impacts minorities, the elderly and single working parents (usually women). (It is noteworthy that on International Women’s Day, the Georgia Senate passed new legislation to eliminate, among other things, no-excuse absentee voting.) As a result, their appeal shrinks with every passing election.
In a multiracial democratic society, such a party lacks the political and moral capacity to govern. A party that makes a virtue of exclusion, cruelty and cluelessness may be on the road to extinction — just like the British royal family. But unlike the royals, Republicans don’t even amuse the tourists.