I was 5 years old when I learned the lesson that I couldn’t be “whatever I wanted.” I remember finishing Sunday school and standing in the church lobby with my parents and a couple of female Sunday school teachers. One teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. No one had ever asked me that question before. “A priest,” I replied. Then the adults laughed (out of shock, it seemed). Clearly, it hadn’t dawned on them that that would be my answer. “A priest?” The teacher repeated. “Women aren’t priests.”
Confused, I asked, “What do women do?”
“Women are nuns.”
“What do nuns do?” I asked.
“Help the priests.”
This was a problem because being a nun was not what I wanted to do. I did not want to help the leader – I wanted to be the leader. Nonetheless, I received the message loud and clear: Being a priest was not an option for me within the Catholic Church. Though no one came to my defense, not the teachers, not even my dear mother, I don’t blame any of them. We are all part of a system of traditions and socialization. Tradition and societal messages contribute to the normalizing of unequal treatment and unfairness, which, in turn, maintains the status quo and makes an innocent answer implausible even to those who are the direct subjects of societal discrimination.
By second grade, I daydreamed I’d be a musician; I wanted to write and sing songs. I didn’t dare share that dream with anyone. In the fourth grade, I wanted to be the first female president of the United States of America, and I knew one day we would have a woman president. However, I feared I might be the second woman president. “No one remembers the second,” I thought. I kept that dream secret, too, for fear of being told I couldn’t do it (mostly because my grades weren’t that great!).
Now that I’m an adult, being president is no longer a goal or a dream for me, yet I continue to believe we should elect the most qualified and best candidate, period. When we do finally elect a woman for president, sexism, stereotypes and discrimination will not magically disappear. The world has already seen women leaders and presidents in other countries, and sexism and misogyny have not gone away. Racism certainly didn’t end after Obama became president. When we as a nation elect a woman to be our president, she will have broken the ultimate barrier. At the same time, she will be judged harshly and differently than a man – her looks, clothing and haircuts will be “hot topics” and the majority of women will still face glass ceilings, be clustered in lower-wage jobs and face a slew of other unfair obstacles. Though I hope we will close the wage gap in my lifetime, closing the wage gap does not close the gap between male-dominated industries often earning more respect and far higher wages than female-dominated fields.
As a teenager, I was misinformed about feminism and shied from it until one day a friend called me out. So, I looked feminism up in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and read, “fem•i•nism: the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.” It turns out that I was a feminist and didn’t know it. It didn’t mean “women who hate men” or any other distorted and inaccurate meaning. I had previously based my notion of feminism off a TV talk show (hey, I was a kid). It wasn’t until after I read the definition that I realized the speaker on the show, whether intentionally or not, was misrepresenting feminism’s true meaning. Anyone can be a feminist; ending sexism can never be achieved without men on board. There have been numerous outspoken men who have championed equality of the sexes. Sex discrimination is the oldest form of human discrimination, and women and girls are the largest group to be actively discriminated against worldwide.
The road to equality isn’t a straight one, and we are all a product of our time. It is critical for people all over the world to continue striving for justice and realize that justice is bigger than our individual causes. No matter what strides we make, we must always remain vigilant. We can never become complacent and think the struggle is over. We do not live in “the land of the free.” How can we when federal benefits and protections are not afforded to same-sex married couples, when in many states two consenting same-sex adults cannot legally marry, when the prison-industrial complex continues to expand, and when profits are increasingly more important than people, animals, the land, clean air and clean water? Thinking we’re free doesn’t make it so; rather, these erosions go unchecked and unchallenged. No matter what era, the insidious erosion of human rights will continue if we do not take action against it. It is unfair to continuously pass the burden of righting our wrongs to the generations to come.
This is a critical time. We are a human collective with finite resources on a finite planet. As citizens of the world, we need as many brilliant minds as possible to contribute to global solutions; this can only occur if we champion human rights. When we judge, restrict or minimize people’s ability to explore and use their talents, the world misses out on new ideas, innovations in the arts and sciences and great leaders.
We must strive for a world in which everyone has the opportunity to satiate curiosities, explore and dream.
Andrea Netherwood lives in Seattle, Wash.