In 1968 we didn’t know the presidential election results until Wednesday morning. One of my teachers let us go watch the only TV in the school drama department. Richard Nixon was declared the winner. I burst into tears and sobbed as if the world was going end. I was afraid and angry. The Reverend Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated that spring.
At 15 years old, I was paying close attention to the election. My parents were active Democrats. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racist discrimination in voting were in effect in a U.S. presidential election for the first time. The Vietnam War was raging on television. American boys were coming home in body bags as we watched the funerals of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy.
I quickly became an activist on that 1968 Election Day, as I suspect many of the high school students will do who are out in the streets already protesting the 2016 election. Richard Nixon also ran a divisive campaign deploying the racist “southern strategy” in direct response to the progress made with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
As was predicted, the Vietnam War soon escalated with the war spreading to Cambodia and Laos. Attending the first Moratorium Against the Vietnam War on November 15, 1969, a few of my Catholic school classmates and I took the train to DC chaperoned. I would go on to the next demonstration, be tear gassed at the Capitol, and was arrested along with thousands of others near the Justice Department as Attorney General John Mitchell watched from the roof in 1971.
U.S. combat troops were pulled out of Vietnam in 1972, and Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president to resign in shame in 1974 because of Watergate.
I have been an activist my entire life, from a foot soldier in the anti-war demonstrations to later being a union organizer of women working in hospitals and garment factories. Politics was in my blood. I worked on local and national political campaigns, including Geraldine Ferraro’s bid for VP, and I have learned how to attract attention and to get people to vote. Soon I was mobilizing millions to protect the planet on Earth Day 1990 and battling for rights, opportunities, and respect for women and girls at work, at home, and in the community with campaigns (for example, Take Our Daughters to Work Day, the NGO Forum on Women in Beijing ’95, Mobilize for Women’ s Lives, YWCA Week Without Violence, Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, and the Adelante Movement.)
Raising the power, profile, and pride of girls and women to believe in themselves has been the focus of my activist life. I have been a witness to dramatic changes in women’s lives. Women own businesses and hold jobs in every sector of the economy at every level from entry jobs to CEO. The only jobs we haven’t yet secured are U.S. president and Catholic priest. When I was a girl, the only jobs for women were teacher, nurse, nun, and mommy. The right to family planning and abortion is the law, and the Violence Against Women Act is on the books, as is our right to business credit in our own name. We are going to have to hold on to all the rights we’ve won and push through to the next level of women’s leadership, public safety, and policy innovation to secure our children’s future. Women’s voices and vision must be equally heard and incorporated into all planning, products, programs, and policies for us to meet our local and global challenges.
In the long march to full and total equality, we almost made it over a huge hurdle on Election Day with close to 60 million votes. Hillary Clinton, an experienced, dedicated warrior and perfectly imperfect public servant won the popular vote but will not be our president. Millions of people hoped to have a woman in the White House, hoped that a woman experienced in life, love, power, humiliation, and betrayal would fully understand our needs. Those include: safety from all terrorists in the home and abroad; respect for our bodies and opinions; and economic independence so we can care for our families. Unfortunately, the surprise was millions of women and men (no surprise) want to stay with the “Mad Men” patriarchy rather than going with the dramatic historic change of the first woman president.
Women around the world are already standing up to Trump’s blustering, noisy, dragon-like, egocentric energy. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon told her Parliament on Thursday, “I am not prepared to be a politician who maintains a diplomatic silence in the face of attitudes of racism, sexism, misogyny, or intolerance of any kind.” And Angela Merkel issued a warning in her congratulations: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”
We can all stand up and speak our truth and values. In response to Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, a dozen brave women stepped forward to confirm the predatory behavior he had admitted about himself, and millions more shared their hidden sexual assault stories on social media for the first time. I too was cheerfully walking home from 8th grade (13 years old) in my school uniform and had my pussy grabbed so violently hard from behind that I feel down on the sidewalk. The pain, fear, and surprise felt like boiling water being poured over my head. Before I could get up the older boy ran away. I never told anyone because I was ashamed. My father kept telling my skirts were too short, and I thought it was my fault. Shame about assault, money, and mistakes keeps us off balance. We need to be standing in our truth, making sure Trump knows we are watching every move he makes.
More than ever, we must remain confident in the knowledge that we belong and must be safe in every room, on the job, and wherever we live and work. We now have an inexperienced bully President who will try to shame us for our weight, looks, and opinions as he attempts to dismantle environmental protection, immigrant families, and human rights. We owe it to the activist in all of us to stay physically, emotionally, and mentally strong. America will have a great woman president in my lifetime—of that I am sure. There is nothing like the urgency of being 63 years old to get on with the business of women’s progress. I am excited to welcome the energy and brilliance of the new generation of activists, and I will be in the streets at the “Women’s MARCH on Washington” January 21, 2017 at the Lincoln Memorial.
The fox is in the hen house now. Let’s out smart him.
Believe in You, Nell Merlino Activist & Author
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