By the time I leave my office most Wednesdays, my daughters are sound asleep. It was different on October nineteenth. In the midst of class prep and grading, I called my wife to mention I planned to stay even longer—intentionally. Planned to lift my energy by taking in the final presidential debate. My voiced plan hovered between us oddly, its subtext a bit like hearing a death-row inmate request a final dinner of uncooked onions and turnips, while being beat repeatedly upside the head. Really? It’s your funeral.
My family, though, wound up coming to campus to watch the debate with me, to drink of the democracy debacle (along with hot tea) by my side. By this point, we all were used to the show: witnessing, in Trump, a human vying for our loftiest office while strapped into what amounts to rhetorical roller skates. Each debate has begun with him in a comfort zone, hugging the rink guardrail, but once forced to let go and drift from his opening salvo, it all went wobbly and spinning, leaving him grasping at anything that might stave off a date with gravity’s thud. I can appreciate this metaphor: my first roller-skating experience was equally atrocious. We were told to do the hokey-pokey in a school gymnasium smelling of a stray dog’s belly. A colonial blacksmith may have designed my ancient skates. And oh yes, I had a bad case of stomach flu. Not a pretty day.
We’d watched the first debate as a family, but skipped the second fright-fest outright. Knowing that the Access Hollywood fiasco would necessitate the Commission on Presidential Debates partnering with the Motion Picture Association of America, to slap “R” rating stickers on the podiums. Back when I was an already politically piqued seven-year-old (the age of my younger daughter), I presume my parents shuttled me away from our TV when debate talk shifted into first-strike capabilities, geopolitical nuclear containment, and Communist expansion. At least these dark topics sprouted from legitimate philosophical differences in governance. This election cycle, the trigger words we’re stuck with are “Tic-Tacs” and “Billy Bush.”
Trump’s boorish behavior left my daughters aghast—the rudeness and constant interruptions, no-no’s at our dinner table but allowable on a grand stage full of flags and disembodied words of the U.S. Constitution in the backdrop. At certain points they wheeled our way to ask: “Is he ever going to give us his plan?” and “Why does he just say everything is bad?” They are of course excited to see a woman on the precipice of the presidency, but what is illuminating and edifying for me is that this precipice feels fait accompli to them. Not because they’ve followed Florida’s lagging mail-in ballots, upswings in Latino voter registration, or a Utah spoiler candidate’s emergence. No: it simply, blissfully produces no shock value in them, this concept that a woman can lead our country as easily as one leads their school, or their city (Ft. Worth).
Other countries could be forgiven for being this blasé about us. Elevating a woman to head of state? You’re just now getting around to that?
While watching the final debate, I imagined (still in teacher prep mode) a game to play with my ten-year-old daughter, who is working her way into global geography: whir through flash cards of the world’s 200-plus countries, quizzing her as to which ones have already broken the maligned glass ceiling, and experienced female leadership.
Such a game could be broken down by continents. What African nations have already seen a woman leader? Central African Republic, Guyana, Rwanda…
Or perhaps these barrier-breaking accomplishments could be contextualized in terms of timeline. We started seeing women leading nations when? Over half a century ago. Right! And how many emerged in the 1960s? Three. Sri Lanka first, followed by India (Indira Gandhi) and Israel (Golda Meir). She might easily memorize the numbers and political pioneers in ensuing decades: four women leaders in the 1970s followed by a full half-dozen in the 1980s, spanning the globe from Iceland and Norway to the Philippines and Pakistan. Then we might marvel together at floodgates opening in the 1990s.
Have all female leaders been paragons of virtue: stalwart, incorruptible? Surely not. We can argue, respectively and reasonably, on the merits of any standard-bearer in high office. One book she often keeps by her bedside offers a cogent, capsule treatment of each U.S. President, legacy and setbacks alike.
Point is, that glass ceiling? It’s already been shattered abroad, many times over. Omitting this simple, discouraging truth to my daughters while we celebrate our own shattering suggests that such breakthroughs in leadership count only when we can claim them. We purport progressivism as part of our national identity, yet our way forward has been laggard. I don’t want my daughters dismissing this historic Election Day, but also don’t want them duped into believing the U.S. has been the lone or most luminous beacon to light the way in gender opportunity. This would be a half-baked brand of exceptionalism, undercut by historical experience. After all, numerous other nations (Bangladesh, Burundi, and Brazil, to name one first letter) instituted women’s suffrage much later, yet elevated women to positions of heads of state much sooner.
Nations from Scandinavia (Finland, Norway) to the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand, Senegal) have already installed, in fact, multiple female leaders. Anarchist leader Birgitta Jonsdottir’s Pirate Party called for a “crowd-sourced constitution” written by Icelandic civilians, upending the prime minister and precipitating his resignation. According to Pew Research, women currently lead the governments about 1 in 10 nations—not nearly ho-hum enough, but hardly an anomaly. There are shades of grey in the way head of state is defined, so numbers differ depending on the source. But the floor for gender glass ceiling cracks stands at about 59, almost twice as many nations as participated in snowboarding in the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Yes, let’s celebrate November 9th, for our localized breaking of glass. Let’s also exhale relief that we have finally—nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment and close to two after the Seneca Falls Convention—gotten through our giant glass pane. Knocked over one great rigging in our ever-shifting democracy. But we’d do well to recognize that an equity emergency remains. That we are merely one new member of an already impressive sorority—a sorority whose membership unfortunately has a short shelf life. With a few stray exceptions (Iceland, India, Ireland), most women who take the helm of nations have not led for long stretches. Perhaps this can be where our example exceeds that of others who broke glass before us: to go beyond a grudging, isolated acceptance of a woman’s ascendancy to high office, into a willingness to let this break truly transform our concept of country and self, ceiling by ceiling by ceiling. Let’s make sure —for my daughters’ sakes, for yours—our exceptionalism is not rooted in implacable, rigid resistance to change, but allowing the change we witness to attain equal loft in our own purpose and path.
Photo: Getty Images