Nielsen speaks to Corps on women’s equality

September 3rd, 2020 | News, News and Features
Col. Suzanne Nielsen, professor and head of the Department of Social Sciences, recorded a video on women's equality for the Corps of Cadets to view during the Women's Equality Day observance Aug. 26 at the Cadet Mess Hall. Screenshot of video produced by Michelle Eberhart/USMA PAO

By Col. Suzanne Nielsen
Head of the Department of Social Sciences

(Editor’s note: This is the transcript of Col. Suzanne Nielsen’s video speech to the Corps of Cadets for the Women’s Equality Day observance Aug. 26 at the Cadet Mess Hall.)

Men and Women of the Corps:
I would like to start my remarks to you today with an admission. When I was first asked to speak on the topic of “Women’s Equality Day,” my reaction was one of ambivalence.  The truth is, that as a woman myself, I did not grow up with any doubts about my fundamental equality.  It never occurred to me that my gender made me less than equal to anyone, along any of the dimensions that really matter.
It did not make any sense to me to suspect that I was less than equal as a political or social being, or as an intellect. It never occurred to me to believe that somehow it would be right that my life choices should be less than those of any other human being as a product of my gender. So, why do we need “Women’s Equality Day”? Isn’t our fundamental equality — across genders — simply obvious?
It might be good to periodically remind ourselves that our first reactions are not always right. In my case, it did not take much reflection to recognize, unfortunately, that “Women’s Equality Day” has an important purpose. I may have enjoyed the luxury of growing up with no doubts about my equality, but that was a luxury, one that is not to be taken for granted. Just a quick look at the past and present reminds me that this is so.
This prized democracy of ours, the United States of America, built upon so many admirable ideals, is now 224 years old. Yet, only in much less than half that period — 100 years this month — have women had a guaranteed right to vote.  And of course, that right was not “granted,” but rather it was fought for, with conviction, by many who paid a price for acting as their consciences demanded.
1920 — the year of the ratification of the 19th Amendment — was really not that long ago. It still somewhat shocks me when I think that both of my grandmothers — two admirable, brave and loving women — were born in years in which women in the United States did not have the right to vote.
Of course, “Women’s Equality Day,” is not only an appropriate response to our past, it also resonates due to the realities of our present.
This is not my area of academic specialization, but it does not take much research to uncover a few basic facts. Why, according to the Census Bureau, did women earn only about 80% of what their male counterparts earned in 2017? Of course, differences in earnings are either more or less stark when race and ethnicity are also taken into account.
In good news, in 2020, the number of women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is at a record high. But that record high is 37 out of 500, which is still only about 7%. Finally, if women are 50% of the population, why do women constitute only about 24% of members of Congress?
Closer to home, I must also acknowledge how my own lived experience has been shaped by those who have fought for women’s equality.  If Congress had not passed a bill, signed into law by President Ford, requiring the service academies to admit women, I would never have graduated from West Point as a member of the 10th gender-integrated class. I would not have enjoyed a rich and full career as an Army officer, full of meaningful relationships, and rich with opportunities to grow and to contribute.
For those of us in uniform today, our first and foremost challenge is not political or social activism, since in choosing to serve, we agree to voluntary constraints on some of our political activities. But there is still so much that we must do. Our units, our Army, will continue to live up to its highest ideals and achieve new levels of effectiveness when we foster diversity and create inclusive cultures in which each person is empowered to contribute to the fullest.
As officers — and future officers — this is our charge. And the opportunity for reflection that Women’s Equality Day presents provides us with another opportunity to double down on our commitments.
Treating one another with dignity and respect is just the minimum. Diversity conceived generously — encompassing differences in socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, experiences, perspectives and, yes, gender — brings with it marvelous possibilities to make us better — to grow as individuals as well as organizations. It is our job to realize that potential.
Thank you for your attention and your time.