I belong to a Facebook page where many wonderful women and some wonderful men who are military veterans from various generations have recently helped lead movements to reduce sexual assault in the military, ensure that victims are treated with humanity and respect, and increase the chances that the perpetrators will no longer be protected or excused.

They have done valiant work. Earlier this week, hopes were high when a number of women United States Senators and some sexual assault survivors met together on Capitol Hill. Despite disagreements among the Senators about what kind of legislation is needed—whether to continue for still more years the ineffective effort to get the military to handle the problems as it should or whether to have oversight from outside the military—it was a history-making event.

Those veterans working and hoping for change were understandably disappointed when no vote on the legislative proposals was taken, and the Senate is not scheduled to reconvene until December 9. The veterans can of course be forgiven for wishing for change, and it is sad to see those who already lost one kind of innocence by being assaulted by trusted military oomrades and then lost other kinds of innocence by having their integrity and human worth impugned when the perpetrators' misdeeds were ignored or, in some cases, the perpetrators were even held up as model servicemembers, now losing their innocence about the pace of change when bureaucracy, power, politics, and sexism combine.

One veteran on the Facebook page in question wrote today that "All Rosa Parks said was 'NO.'... And the rest is history." No doubt his intention was to inspire his colleagues to keep saying "No!" we must not forget that Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her bus seat that day in 1955 simply because she was tired. She was already a recognized leader of the local NAACP, and of course that organization had taken a leadership role in fighting for civil rights. So her "No!" emerged from a broadly-based, longstanding movement, and it helped propel that movement forward, but just look how racism continues to thrive nearly six decades since her famous bus ride.

And consider the Second Wave of the feminist movement, which began more than four decades ago but has utterly failed to get the U.S. to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (which Canada did, impelled by a handful of brave and brilliant women within a few weeks), has utterly failed to get the U.S. at the federal level to mandate any paid leave for new parents or caretakers (again, contrast this with Canada's 12 months of paid leave), has failed to achieve equal pay for work of equal value, and has failed to stop sexual assault and other violence against women and children.

Veterans from World War II and subsequent wars are often only now beginning to tell anyone that they were sexually assaulted in the military, and widespread recognition of the magnitude of the problem—at least tens of thousands of cases in the past year, with rare prosecution and even rarer punishment for the perpetrators but common and vicious victim-blaming and psychiatrizing of the targets—is only a few years old, with media and Congressmembers' attention peaking in the last year or so.

When I used to do work in court cases, I used to warn people: "You probably think that once you get into court and have a chance to tell your story, the judge will recognize that you are telling the truth, will see how horribly you have been treated, and will see that justice is done. It is dangerous to believe that. So many things can keep that from happening that I urge you to think of it as 'the so-called justice system,' not the justice system." Of course we all wish that violence, injustice, and inhumanity would vanish like the morning dew when the warm sun of truth is shone upon it. But that ain't how it works.

Those of you who are fighting for these changes and for others, never doubt the value and power of what you have already achieved! Yes, you are exhausted, but you have already done great things. Massive public education is an essential step toward change. Legislators and judges and bureaucracies like the military are slower to respond. But this nation and the world now knows a lot of essential truth that was hidden before what you have done.

I am guessing it must have been in the 1980s when the fabulous, Black feminist activist lawyer Flo Kennedy (see the great picture of her on wikipiedia under Florynce Kennedy, and read her book, Color Me Flo) came to Toronto to speak at an event with Gloria Steinem. Kennedy, who tended to wear jackets with long fringes on the sleeves and cowgirl boots and hats,coined the phrase often misattributed to Steinem: "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle," and it's reported that when, on their joint speaking tours, a man would ask if she and Gloria were lesbians, she would respond, "Are you my alternative?" She was hilarious, but what I remember most was something she said that night, with which she ended her speech, and she said it in deadly earnest. I remind myself of it every chance I get, and I can only paraphrase from memory what she said with eloquence, but I want those who are struggling to end sexual assault in the military and, for that matter, those who are struggling to end any injustice, to know the gist of her message. I think she was at least six feet fall, and from the podium, she looked down at us, her audience, and said that feminists keep telling her they're burning out, they're tired of working so hard and seeing so little change. Eying us sternly, she said something like, "Nobody told us it would be easy. And nobody told us it would be fast. And of course we get tired. But for the sake of our daughters and our sisters and our mothers and all those who will come after us, we cannot afford to burn out!" Amen!

©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan                 All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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