This is a life or death election for women and girls all over the world. True, many precious human rights and civil rights are on the line. Those rights–and the lives they protect–matter deeply and urgently.
I chose the title of this essay to honor the Black Lives Movement and the civil rights story of which it is the most recent chapter, not as a challenge or a condition. And in many ways, the path to equal human dignity for women in the United States has tracks which run alongside the road to the vindication of rights for black Americans. It is not a coincidence that the last sixty years have seen great progress by women alongside the civil rights movement by African Americans. We are a much better country now than we were before, because every aspect of our public life is filled with contributions of talented black Americans and women, who have freedom to express the content of their character as they did not before.
But we still have miles to go.
This election is pivotal for women and girls because the most widespread civil and human rights violation in the U.S. and the world is violence and discrimination against women—and because the outcome of this election could either threaten or protect the lives and aspirations of women and girls. The mistreatment of women in our country and others is a crisis, but the potential that would be realized by greater empowerment of women is an historic opportunity.
Let’s look at the crisis first. One in every three women in America has been subjected to domestic violence, one in five to attempted or actual rape, and one in seven to severe violence. Between 40 to 100 million American women have been, at the very least, hit, and at worst, physically violated in the most intimate and traumatic way imaginable. Less assaultive, but no less threatening, physical and verbal abuse happens to millions of women every day. This is not how we should live.
Consider this–a woman in the United States is literally a million times more likely to be hurt by an American than by an ISIS terrorist. More women are killed each year in acts of domestic violence then were killed on 9/11. Which is not to say that we should not fight ISIS or other terrorists, but rather that we should fight for sanctuary and equality for women with the same intensity.
Economically, though great advances have been made and glass ceilings shattered, many elite jobs are still far less available to women than they should be. Across the board, women are paid 77% of what men are for the same work—dollars and cents sexism that hurts women and their families, including the men and boys.
Globally the treatment of women is worse. One in three women has been subjected to violence—which means that over a billion women have been abused. Tens of millions are forced to marry in childhood, and over 60 million girls are denied education. Nations impose second class citizenship and dehumanizing conditions on women that amount to gender apartheid. The violence against civilians in war falls severely on women, who are subject to sexual violence. In great parts of the world, women are walled off from economic opportunity in ways that they are not in the U.S.
Moving from crisis to opportunity, the single most important advance in the world of work is to include more women at every level. The best way to improve productivity, services, advancement from poverty, and peace and security is to have more women work on these problems. This is a matter of justice and plain common sense–every good person counts, and when you exclude women you shut out half (at least) of the good people you need.
Study after study confirms that shackling women locks up the whole world. The most impactful investment in development, and the one which most directly ends poverty and increases quality of life, is the education of girls. More women in national security and foreign policy leadership can mean the difference between war and peace because women are more likely to consider humanitarian concerns—and because peace agreements which women help negotiate last longer. True, women have gotten these decisions as tragically wrong as men. But when women are at the table, it is more likely that there will be less violence and less suffering.
Gender equality is more than a matter of pragmatism. Even though Thomas Jefferson didn’t include women in the “self-evident” truth that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are “unalienable rights,” we do now. And we must face the fact that we violate women’s fundamental human rights every single day when sexual violence and threats are part of daily life for American women while full equal opportunity is not.
These self-evident truths are why the U.S. Presidential election is in part a civil rights and human rights election about the rights of women in our country and all over the world. The physical security and the aspirations of women are uniquely threatened—not only in other countries but in ours. In the U.S., women aren’t yet fully equal and fully safe, from hardscrabble places of economic deprivation to boardrooms of our richest and most powerful institutions—boardrooms from which women are all too often excluded.
This presidential campaign has been to sexism what sit-ins, marches, and brutality to protesters were to racism in the 1960’s. We can no longer deny the power, reach and impact of sexism in this country—in its highest places, most elite institutions, and most powerful people—because it is right there for us to see on TV.
The vast majority of men do not abuse or discriminate against women, to be sure, and tens of millions of women in this country live lives of safety, freedom, prosperity, and authority. But numbers don’t lie—women are subject to more violence, fewer jobs and less pay than men. Those who treat discrimination and violence against women as a secondary issue for the back burner while we deal with other problems would have us accept gender abuse and discrimination as part of the background noise of American life, an everyday reality that does not deserve our urgent attention.
If we are to keep the moral promise that our nation makes to each of us and that we make to each other as citizens, we cannot accept this. Instead, the election can be an historic step toward ending the abuse and inequality of women in America and elsewhere.
So yes, it matters that Hillary Clinton is a woman candidate for President. It matters more that she is a women’s advocate who has worked hard for the protection, advancement and empowerment of women. It matters that she spoke out as a pioneer to say that “women’s rights are human rights” well before this was accepted, and it matters that her leadership helped drive women’s rights to the top of the international humanitarian agenda. It matters that she enacted policies and programs that make life better for women and girls here and all over the world when she served as a Senator and as Secretary of State. And perhaps most of all, it matters that the human dignity of women is something that people in both parties value and want to honor.
It’s as unfair to burden Secretary Clinton with the job of ending mistreatment of women as it was to expect President Obama to heal racial division. But it is fair to say that as President, Hillary Clinton would be able to make historic progress towards curing gender inequality and violence against women and girls here and throughout the world. Sanctuary and opportunity for half of the human race is not a secondary issue. It’s an issue that should decide who wins this election, and it should direct what we do afterward so that women and girls can fully experience the humanity that is their birthright.