In her acceptance speech as the democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton said, “…I’m so happy this day has come. I’m happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. I’m happy for boys and men. Because when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit! So let’s keep going. Let’s keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have!”
Whether she has shattered the glass ceiling or merely cracked it, her nomination has inspired females of all ages and occupations to go further in reaching their dreams. And each time a woman pushes on that ceiling, the crack will grow until it eventually shatters.
Clinton has repeatedly said, “We are stronger together.” This is not only true on a national level.
North Carolina has plenty of limitations placed on women, but it also has stories of women who have broken through the boundaries and made it easier for others to do so dating back as far as 1917 when Lillian Exum Clement Stafford became the first woman in the state to open her own law practice. She also became the first female to win a seat in the state House of Representatives. During her time in public office, she introduced 17 bills — many controversial, many that made lives better for women and families, and many that became laws.
Susie Sharp was the first female judge on the NC supreme court in 1949. Then, in 1974, she was elected chief justice of the state supreme court (with 74% of the vote!). While inspiring to other women and breaking traditional gender norms, Sharp didn’t try to advance equality as much as some of NC’s other powerful women like Elizabeth Dole.
During her career in Washington, Dole enforced the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1975, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and, as Secretary of Labor, negotiated raises in the minimum wage and “oversaw efforts to break “glass ceiling” restrictions that prevented movement of women and minorities into high executive positions.” In fact, it was Kay Hagan who ran against her in 2008, becoming the first woman to defeat a female incumbent.
Before Hagan though, Eva Clayton was serving in the U.S. Congress, the first black woman from NC to do so. Elected in 1993, she served for ten years, winning four re-elections handily.
2008 saw another victory for women breaking through boundaries. Bev Perdue (who had become NC’s first female lieutenant governor in 2000) became the state’s first female governor . While she had an inauspicious first two years, her strength grew as she battled with the Republican-controlled House and Senate about the budget, especially in the area of public education. However, she opted not to run for reelection in 2012, ostensibly so she could continue her fight for better education in the state.
It is in the field of education that June Atkinson shattered another NC ceiling in 2005 when she became the first woman elected State Superintendent of the Public Schools of North Carolina. She’s held the position since then winning two more re-elections.
With these pioneer “ceiling breakers” comes the fact we still have more work to do in state government. Currently there are 26 women in the State House and 12 in the State Senate – making up 22-percent of the total seats in the North Carolina State Assembly.
All of these women have critics and supporters. All of them have aspects of their records or careers or even family life that we may not agree with or condone. However, we are not asking them to be our family member, friend, or confidante. We are asking them to enter into an arena where women haven’t fought before, so that we can more easily enter into it or other areas that have trapped us.
It’s true that women face more limitations — earning 79 cents on the dollar, faced with limited access to affordable childcare, and people who don’t believe a female can do the job as well. However, we stand on the shoulders who come before us when we reach our own personal and professional heights.
Jennifer Brick is a freelance writer and former teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.