"We literally could not have fought this war without women."
That's what John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel, recently said about the contributions of female soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he could just as easily have been commenting on World War I -- a victory supported by over 30,000 women -- and the tipping point for women's right to vote. After decades of battling for suffrage, it was the role of women during war which President Wilson acknowledged in 1918: "We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toll and not to a partnership of right?"
Today, as we celebrate the 19th Amendment and Women's Equality Day, thousands of women continue to partner with men as soldiers overseas. These courageous women have sacrificed to serve their nation -- and through their participation, have proved not only the quality of women's contributions in war, but the necessity of their involvement.
As World War I ushered in a new era of equality for women because of their service, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan present us with a similar opportunity. Indeed, we stand at the next frontier of justice for our nation's women: equal participation in leadership -- not only within the military -- but throughout our democracy and its institutions.
Twenty-first century warfare has transformed the frontlines, and military leaders have circumvented policy to bring women onto the battlefield in order to confront these challenges. Several years into war, it is clear that the gamble has paid off. Representative John McHugh, who previously supported restricting women in combat zones, recently said in the New York Times, "Women in uniform today are not just invaluable," he said, "they're irreplaceable."
Just as women have proven priceless on the war front -- their leadership is equally needed on the domestic front.
Our current situation here in the States -- from the flailing economy to the incredible loss of jobs and homes to the failure of services for those in need - threatens not only our national security, but the security of individuals and families every day. Enlisting our nation's women to serve as leaders here on the domestic front is critical to our success.
As the upcoming White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women's Leadership illustrates, women are desperately needed on the frontlines of our institutions and government, where decision-makers are determining the nature and direction of our economics, our politics, and our society as a whole. In every sector, women are woefully short of parity in the highest eschelons of leadership; they are only 17 percent of Congress, 17 percent of law firm partners, 18 percent of news publishers, and a mere 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. When they do get to the top, they continue to earn far less than their male counterparts -- on average, the wage gap persists at 73 percent. Among women of color, both positions of leadership and salary are even less.
Some might say that the challenges America faces far exceeds the issue of gender parity. Yet without women's vision and voices, we can never effectively solve the crises that confront us. As we learn from the battlelfeld, diversity in our leadership - with women leading alongside men - is the only way we can succeed. And unlike women's participation in combat, there is no law prohibiting women from being at the frontlines of leadership -- from executive boards and judicial seats to the helms of our media and academic arenas. We need only the political and social will to do so.
Through women's service in war -- the most masculine of our endeavors -- our quest for equality advanced greatly a near century ago. Today, women still stand ready to serve, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders placed their trust in women to lead. It is time we do the same at home.
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Add Women, Change Everything (Penguin, 2008).
is a White House Project initiative to engage young women
in the political process as voters, as activists and as candidates for
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