Capt. Gail Harris reflects on a long road and personal journey that led her to the Women’s March in Washington, DC.
All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
– Edmund Burke
This past weekend, for the first time in my life, I participated in a political march. Since I came of age during the Civil Rights era and had never participated in a march or demonstration, this was a major departure for me.
Now my lack of past participation was not because I believed it was illegal or morally wrong. Simply, it was my destiny to choose a career where I was frequently the first woman and/or African American at my job. So I was of the mindset I could change things by excelling in my work, by proving doubters and haters wrong.
I had conceived my dream of being a Navy Intelligence Officer at the age of 5. At the time (1955), there were few black male officers in the Navy let alone female. Federal law also restricted women from serving in combat jobs. But my father didn’t tell me that my dream wasn’t possible. Instead, he said I could be whatever I wanted, because America was a country where dreams were for everyone. He did say that doors might be closed initially, but if I studied hard and prepared myself when they did open, I could hit the deck running.
My father set me on this path, and one day he would give me the best piece of advice when I called him up and started whining about being unfairly treated as a woman in my job. At the time I was the first woman in Navy history to be assigned to an operational (combat) organization as an intelligence officer. Those first few years were pretty brutal. But my father told me to stop whining and complaining. He said everyone was prejudiced against something or some group, and everyone had to deal with being discriminated against at some point in their career. He told me that if I couldn’t stand the heat, get out of the Navy and get a job as a janitor. Most importantly, he told me that if someone had a problem because I was a woman or Black, it was their problem, don’t make it mine.
A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.
– Nelson Mandela
There was one other major defining event during my first assignment. At one point I was given no official duties. The attitude of the Commanding Officer was they didn’t know what an intelligence officer was supposed to do, but whatever it was, I was not qualified. Bottom line, they wanted the honor of having the first woman, but they didn’t want me to do anything.
One day at my lowest point, I broke down and cried in my office. There was a knock at the door. I wiped my eyes, straightened my shoulders, held my head up high and opened it. Standing there was a grizzled Navy Chief. Chiefs and Admirals run the Navy. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Ma’am” we Chiefs have been talking. We want you to know that we think you’re the best junior officer in the squadron.” He smiled and walked away. That single moment, along with my father’s advice, gave me the strength to persevere. My story had a happy ending but it was by no means easy.
The fact is, there has been so much progress made in the area of equal rights and opportunity since the 1950’s when the modern Civil Rights movement started. I thought my work was done. But my view began to change right after President Obama’s first election. Although many rejoiced and felt our nation had finally erased the stain of slavery upon our nation’s honor, I began to feel unease. I can best describe what I was feeling as “a disturbance in the force”.
I grew up in New Jersey, but both my parents had been born and raised in the south, so my brother, sister, and I spent summers in Alabama growing up. I experienced first hand not being able to stay in hotels or motels as we traveled, or eat in restaurants, use the rest rooms, go into the lobby of movie theaters to buy candy, etc. My mother had decided to move back to Alabama for her last years, so I spent a lot of time visiting in recent years. Although all of the restrictions concerning hotels and accommodations no longer existed, I started noticing more Confederate flags and hints of … well nothing I could put my finger on. Until one incident.
Although many rejoiced [when President Obama was elected] and felt our nation had finally erased the stain of slavery upon our nation’s honor, I began to feel unease. I can best describe what I was feeling as “a disturbance in the force”.
My mom’s health had started to decline. When it became obvious her days were numbered, one of my friends who lived in Washington DC, asked if she could come see her. They had built up a strong friendship over the years. Now my friend happens to be white and is also a retired Navy Captain. When she came down, we went to the grocery store to get some supplies. A tropical storm was approaching and we wanted to be prepared in case we lost power. We were laughing and joking about buying stuff like cookies and ice cream, things we didn’t normally eat because we were watching our weight. I happened to look up, and saw looks of hate and disgust on the part of some other shoppers. I whispered in my friend’s ear, “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable but we’re causing a commotion in here”. We couldn’t contain our amusement and both started laughing hysterically. It made the folks even madder. We wisely decided to leave, paid for our supplies and left without further incident.
Some may say, “Gail, maybe they thought you were two lesbians.” Nope. I realized at that moment, in all of the times I’d traveled to the new south, I had never seen a black person and a white person sitting together at the same table in restaurants or hanging out. We had broken an unwritten social code. It was obvious to any observer we were old friends who treated each other as social equals. I submit, if you can’t wrap your mind around the fact that they found repulsive the sight of two old, old women simply hanging out drooling over buying fattening food, then you wouldn’t understand why a large part of Trump’s support came from white supremacists. Those attitudes are so backward to most Americans, many may prefer to believe I misread that situation. But I know “hate” when I see it.
One estimate is that white supremacists made up about 30% of Trump’s support base. Of course I don’t believe all who voted for Trump were racists, but his campaign did attract a lot of support from that demographic. I do believe large numbers of white supporters voted for Trump because of issues like the economy, yet were willing to overlook some of the racist, sexist, anti-Muslim aspects because of that. I still think CNN commentator Van Jones’ election night comments on the “white lash” issue were right on point. I think a large number of people felt they had to endure a Black President for 8 years, and by golly, they were not going to put up with a woman for another 8.
I’m comforted by the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million. What that tells me is that the majority of Americans reject racism, sexism, and those against religious tolerance. I know from personal experience, just because someone is conservative politically doesn’t mean they are a racist or sexist. In fact my biggest supporters during my career came from that demographic. Their attitude was if you could do the job you were okay with them.
Yet, the election campaign revealed a great deal of hostility and lack of respect by both the candidates and the media towards women and women’s issues. This has been much written about so I won’t go into details here. But what all of this showed me, was there was still a lot of work to be done.
During the march on Washington I was asked several times why I was there. I referred people to my favorite song from the Broadway musical, Wicked, Defying Gravity. I said I was fortunate enough to have achieved my dreams. I defied the gravity of forces trying to pull me down because I was female and/or African American. I was there to ensure that the next generation of women and minorities also Defy Gravity. I don’t want the clock pushed back on my watch.
We are a nation of immigrants who came here to pursue their dreams. Many early immigrants came because they not only wanted to pursue their dreams, but they sought religious freedom and freedom to achieve success, even if they were not born to a privileged upper class. I can certainly understand the need to control numbers of people who want to enter the country, but I can’t understand denying someone solely because of their religious beliefs or Mexican heritage.
I didn’t know what to expect from the march. I can only say my experience was awesome. There were people of all ages, races, religions, and belief systems. The one common denominator was a desire to be free to pursue dreams of a better life.
I went to the march with one of my best friends and her two adult daughters who flew in from Idaho and California. We stayed with someone who is a member of one of my professional organizations. We had never interacted at our organization meeting, yet she and one of her neighbors opened up their homes and their hearts to my friends and I.
I was there to ensure that the next generation of women and minorities also Defy Gravity. I don’t want the clock pushed back on my watch.
Some reporting says Black women were left out and didn’t participate. Not true. There were a ton of Black women and other women of color present both on the stage as speakers and in the crowds. Some reporting says the crowd was hostile to Black speakers. Not so. After about 2 – 3 hours of being crushed up standing with 500,000 others, we wanted to stop the talking and start the marching. I was one of the ones screaming “March, March!” as they announced new speakers.
The crowds were so large and most of us were so far away from the stage we had no idea who was speaking. Many folks couldn’t hear the speakers. Physical discomfort was having a major impact on me. I’ve got a bad back and bad knees and was suffering mightily. Even the younger marchers were starting to complain. But once we started marching and moving, we all felt much better.
The march itself was electric. There were nine in my group. In order to keep from getting separated we held hands like elementary school kids. People were positive, enthusiastic, and peaceful, but determined to make a point. Many of the police were cheering us on and wearing pink pussy hats (I still cringe using that word but guess it’s now normalized). When we got to the White House, Secret Service agents were giving out restaurant recommendations to the marchers.
Did we change anything? Not yet. But what I think it showed was a huge demographic exists, not just in the US, but globally, that wants to Defy Gravity and not be held back because they’re women. They don’t want male dominated governments dictating what they can and cannot do with their lives or their bodies.
If this movement can be sustained, they will persevere.
As for me I’ll end with the words from the music of Wicked.
So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Ev’ryone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I’m flying free
To those who’d ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
I’m flying high
And soon I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!
Gail Harris, Lima Charlie News
Captain Gail Harris (U.S. Navy, Ret.), was the highest-ranking African American female officer in the US Navy at the time of her retirement in 2001. Her 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War, to El Salvador, to Desert Storm, to Kosovo, and she was at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. Gail also writes for the Foreign Policy Association, is author of “A Woman’s War”, serves as Senior Fellow for the George Washington Center For Cyber & Homeland Security and is a Senior Advisor for the Truman National Security Project.
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