Because it’s Women’s History Month, I have been giving a good bit of thought about the place of women as leaders and agents of change in the current world. My thoughts have not been encouraging.

I read Kristin Hannah’s THE WOMEN almost as soon as it was published. While the novel is not about contemporary women’s experience but rather about the experience of women nurses in the Vietnam War and their subsequent treatment after the war, it gives some insight into how women’s contributions in combat are seen. Frances McGrath, a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps, served two tours of duty in the most brutal and challenging way, trying to save lives and when that was impossible, holding the young man’s hand as he died. When she returns to her country, disillusioned, looking for solace, she is denied access to the “rap” sessions to discuss her feelings, “because she was not a veteran. After all, no women served in Vietnam.” She may have stood for hours, providing surgical equipment to the doctors, blood soaking her boots, but according to some, she did not serve.

Last week I read the painful piece, “Safeguarding Black Women Educator’s Mental Health,” by Jain B. Johnson, Nakisha Castillo, Natalie V. Nagthal and Hawani Negussie (Inside Higher Education, March 1, 2024). The authors describe the experience as “battle fatigue.” The article was precipitated by the collective grief over the deaths of two powerful women who died suddenly last fall, Temple President JoAnn Epps and Volunteer State Community College President Orinthia Montague. This spring Antoinette (Bonnie) Candia-Bailey, Vice President of Student Affairs at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, died by suicide. The specter of these losses and the reality of the pressure and unfair scrutiny of non-white female academics has led to a number of high-profile resignations, the most public of which was Claudine Gay, President of Harvard. “Racial battle fatigue” was originally attributed to Black men, the consequence of the unrelenting fight against bigotry, overt and covert, leading to all sorts of deleterious health effects. The authors point out that this fight is exacerbated for women of color because of their “intersecting identities.” They suffer doubly—by being non-white and by being female.

The presence of women in the current war in the Middle East seems to echo the experience of female nurses in Vietnam. They are barely acknowledged, being recognized only as victims of the unrelenting fighting in Gaza. Every time casualties are totaled, the reporter usually adds, “and most of them women and children.” There is no recognition of what surely is the case, women just like men have been serving as combatants, protectors, and medical personnel, making a difference for both good and ill during this catastrophic fight. Where are the stories about their contributions?

Yesterday, the final woman standing in the race for the 2024 U.S. presidential contest finally suspended her campaign. Even though Nikki Haley was the first woman to win a Republican primary for the U.S. Presidency, she is now an also ran, just like Hilary Clinton. I am beginning to believe that it will not be during my lifetime that a woman will actually be honored by “Hail to the Chief.” That puts the United States behind England, India, Pakistan, Iceland, Bangladesh, Israel, Argentina, the Philippines, Germany, Nicaragua, Ireland, Indonesia, Ukraine, Costa Rica, Kosovo, Thailand, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Estonia, New Zealand, Barbados, Ethiopia, Moldova, Slovakia, Finland, Greece, Gabon, Togo, Lithuania, Tanzania, Samoa, Australia. I don’t think that’s a complete list, but you get the point.

These discrete data points and observations suggest that women’s presence in leadership in 2024 does not represent real progress. We continue to be over 50% of the population in the United States and in the world, but we are still either overlooked, out maneuvered by the male hegemony, or seen as only a pretext for sentimentality and loss. It really is time for that to change and maybe just maybe during my daughter’s lifetime, there will be a female president of the United States, women’s experience in war will be acknowledged as an experience of agency, not a prop, and I can quit feeling so annoyed that we are currently celebrating that female leadership in U.S. higher education has reached the pinnacle of 30%, when female enrollment in higher education has been over 50% since the early 2000s. It’s about damn time!