Ever since Edna Pontellier walked into the ocean off the coast of Louisiana in Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," feminism has been an exercise in treading water. But for young women of our generation - most of us who still cruise along in a boat between childhood and adulthood - staying afloat by our own means is not as much of an issue as it was even a decade ago. Gender issues rear their willful heads mainly when we let them. It's a gender-fulfilling prophecy: If a woman sees herself as equal to a man, she will be. The life choices we make more frequently reflect our interests rather than societal or gender-based expectations.
The phenomenal run of Hillary Clinton, unfortunately, brought out the worst in our genderless generation. For a young woman, supporting Hillary was like drinking during prohibition - many wore Hillary buttons, but they wore them under their jackets. Hillary bumper stickers clung timidly to the backs of cars. She was the Democratic Candidate Who Shall Not Be Named, and her torrid campaign served as a symptom of the kind of gender discrimination that became acceptable the first time Obama uttered the word "hope."
Young women owe Hillary. She walked into water and on top of it for us, and although she didn't win the nomination, she didn't succumb to the mighty undertow trying to drown her, either. Instead of hope, she espoused resilience, sacrifice and headstrong fearlessness. She came to lead the savvy, transitional generation of our mothers and grandmothers who have struggled against anti-feminist currents to raise us to do things other than stew at home with a can of Tab and the latest issue of People. But as exhibited by the vitriolic media treatment of Hillary and the stigma that came with supporting her candidacy, our forewomen still swim in choppy waters.
Take, for example, Lilly Ledbetter. Ledbetter worked for 19 years as a supervisor at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala. All was relatively calm for her at work until one of her co-workers tipped her off that she was being paid up to 40 percent less than her male counterparts. To add insult to injustice, there was a clause in Ledbetter's contract that forbade her from discussing her salary with anyone outside her immediate family.
Ledbetter took her case to court, suing Goodyear for discrimination. She initially won $3.8 million in damages in the lower courts. But the controversial case went to the Supreme Court and was ultimately overturned on an unavoidable technicality - the court determined that in order for her argument to be legitimate, she would have had to file a claim 180 days after her first inequitable paycheck, even though she was unaware for 19 years that she was underpaid. Ledbetter testified that many of her co-workers resented her presence and status at the plant, including one manager who told her that the "plant did not need women," according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's dissenting opinion on the case. And according to Ledbetter, her problem isn't unique to male-dominated industries. "I find that in every group, women come forward ... they're physicians, they're surgeons, they're teachers, professors, nurses, all walks of life. It's not just the first-line supervisor like I was. It's all walks of life are being shortchanged if they're female," she told U.S. News and World Report in April.
Just because she's been oppressed by the now-18-million-times-cracked glass ceiling doesn't mean Hillary Clinton deserved to be president. But in a country in which an accomplished, decorated politician is gleefully derided and an honest, hard-working career woman can still be denied a fair wage, we have a long way to travel. But in not giving credit where credit is due - to Hillary Clinton and beyond - we're our own biggest enemies.