THE END OF FIRSTS - Women are rising in America but why has it taken so long?
The news that the Miami Marlins named Kim Ng (pronounced “Ang”) as its General Manager is groundbreaking because she is the first woman in the history of Major League Baseball to rise to that level. The fact that Kim Ng is an East Asian American also makes her achievement noteworthy. Her promotion is to be applauded but in the year 2020 it is a sad commentary on American society that we are still celebrating “firsts” for women.
The news comes on the heels of Kamala Harris’s election as the first Black and Asian American woman elected to the position of Vice President of the United States. I don’t know how Kim Ng’s promotion in the world of sports compares to other countries, but I do know how far the United States lags behind other countries when it comes to women in politics.
First, we were slow in granting the right for women to vote. According to the Pew Research Center, there were at least 20 other countries that allowed women to vote in national elections before the United States passed the 19th Amendment in 1920. Unfortunately, that right did not extend to all women. Most African-American women in the South, like African-American men, were blocked by poll taxes, literacy tests and other racial barriers, while Native Americans and Asian immigrants were largely excluded from citizenship entirely. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to rectify this problem, but barriers still remain for all people of color due to systemic racism.
Second, we have failed to elect a woman president when more than 70 nations around the world have elected or appointed women to lead their governments in the last century.
New Zealand was the first nation to allow women to vote in parliamentary elections in 1893. However, women were barred from standing for election until 1919. The first elected female prime minister was Helen Clark, elected in 1999. She served for nine years and is New Zealand’s 5th-longest-serving PM. The current PM is Jacinda Ardern, who recently won re-election largely because of her brilliant leadership during the coronavirus, which has only seen 25 of its 4.8 million citizen’s die.
In the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was part of the Russian Empire, women were granted the right to vote and stand for parliament in 1906. The world’s first female members of parliament were elected in Finland the following year. So, not only were women allowed to vote but they were also elected to high office right away.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland passed suffrage for women in 1918, but it was limited to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. Men could vote when they turned 21 unless they had fought in the Great War, in that case they could vote when they turned 19. In 1928 the Equal Franchise Act granted the right to vote to all persons over the age of 21 on equal terms. In 1979 the country elected its first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who served until 1990. Theresa May, who served from 2016-1019, was the only other female PM in the UK.
When Kamala Harris strolled out onto the stage on Nov. 7 after she and President-Elect Biden were declared the winners of the 2020 election, I stood and danced and cried as she walked to the microphone in her white pantsuit. The first thing I thought of was Hillary Clinton, who wore white when she accepted the nomination for president. The second thing I thought of was the large group of Democratic women legislators who wore white during Trump’s State of the Union speeches in 2019 and 2020.
White is commonly known as the symbol of the suffragist movement in the U.S., along with purple and yellow. Purple stood for loyalty, white for purity and yellow for hope. When the suffragists marched in formation down the street in their white dresses, it contrasted sharply with the crowds of men in dark-colored suits. In other words, bright versus dark; order versus disorder; hope versus despair.
Kamala’s election is ground-breaking on many fronts and it does bring hope during a time of disorder and darkness. In her speech she recognized the long list of women who paved the way for her, like Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1969 and the first African-American of either sex to run for president in 1972; Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate; Jeanne Shaheen, the first woman elected governor in NH in 1996 and first woman elected as both a governor and U.S. senator; and Hillary Clinton, the first woman nominated on a major party ticket for president.
Kamala spoke to the younger generations who now have a role model in a very high place (although still not the highest place) and can set their sights and dreams on similar achievements. She boldly proclaimed, “I will not be the last.”
When will we achieve the ever elusive “first” female President of the United States? What is wrong with the United States that we cannot recognize the historical achievements of women all around the world who have excelled as heads of state?
So many women in history have broken the glass ceiling and have proven they are equal to men, like Francis Perkins, who was the first woman to be named to a presidential cabinet in 1933. She was Labor Secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt and served until 1945, the longest serving secretary in history. Perhaps president-elect Joseph R. Biden will help to retire the vacuum of “first” as he fills his cabinet, fulfilling his promise that it will reflect the wide diversity of America, including assuring there will be gender parity. He has made a good start with Janet Yellen, who would become the first Treasury Secretary after 231 years of white male secretaries, including Alexander Hamilton.
No doubt Kim Ng will also prove her worth, but probably receive a lower salary than her male counterparts. It is time to address pay inequity in American, which would help level the playing field and start to address racial inequality. Asian women earn $0.95 for every dollar a white man earns. White women earn $0.81 for every dollar a white man earns. Women of color earn $0.75 for every dollar a white man earns.
My hope is the presidential glass ceiling will soon be shattered and in the future everyone, regardless of sex, color, race, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, and gender orientation, will have equal opportunity to achieve their life’s goals based upon the quality of their work and the content of their character and “firsts” will become a thing of the past. I just hope this happens in my lifetime.