MJ Hegar, Combat Veteran and Author
MJ Hegar fights for the rights of American women, no matter the battleground. From the skies of Afghanistan to the courtrooms of the Pentagon to the halls of Congress, the combat veteran is taking up arms against sexism and creating more opportunities for women.
Rashida Tlaib, Activist, Attorney, and Congresswoman (D-MI)
Ellen Malcolm, Founder of EMILY’s List
MJ Hegar, Combat Veteran and Author
Amy McGrath, Former U.S. Marine, Congressional Candidate in Kentucky
RASHIDA TLAIB: I love when a Muslim father comes up to me and says to his daughter, "She is a Muslim." We're constantly looking for permission to be in leadership roles. And we need to shake that out of our young girls, and in the meantime, keep asking women to run.
I grew up in southwest Detroit, born and raised. I am the eldest of 14. I grew up pretty much taking care of them. Even though I would cry every time my mom brought another baby home, I now realize it made me stronger. Both my parents are immigrants born in Palestine. Grew up with those kind of old-school traditional values. Everything was-- your life began after you got married.
And I remember hearing the stories of my grandfather in Palestine being shot 11 times because he wouldn't leave his land, telling me about how he felt so oppressed in his own homeland. I think my grandfather embedded in me really believing in the freedom to just live. So I knew I wanted to do something around activism. I know it's corny, but I always wanted to free the world.
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I remember my parents' home being surrounded by gunmen all around and being interviewed by the FBI for hours. It was the first time I felt fearful of my own government. And I just felt like nobody cared that this was happening to this family, who are Americans. There was just a heightened fear among the Arab-American community across the country. It really pushed me to be more involved.
I literally laughed out loud and I said, "I would never sell out and run for office." It took seven different people to ask me to run before I was convinced. And it was one of my colleagues. She said, "People like us never think about running for office. And that's the problem." I thought to myself, I'm not going to be forced out just because I'm Muslim. I'm going to be showing people that if you work hard enough, if you love your community enough, you can do whatever the heck you want.
Women are very conscientious of the responsibility of being in office. And we also have those insecurities that's embedded in us by society. Every woman I see, if there's a little spark there, I tell her, "Ever thought of running for office?" They kind of look at you like you're crazy. And six months later, they run for office.
ELLEN MALCOLM: You have to say, no, we're not going back to the 1950s. We're not going to live like they did in Mad Men. We're going to live today as empowered, free, equal participants in our country.
I guess in some kind of way, I just broke right out of the mold. My family was, ironically, all Republican, and were so flabbergasted that I became a Democrat when I turned 21 and wanted to do anything in politics. I moved to Washington, and started working at the National Women's Political Caucus in the late 1970s. And what we heard is a very similar story. Women would go to the traditional funders, and they'd say, "You know, I want to run for Congress." And the guys would lean back with their cigars, and they'd say, "You don't have a chance of winning, so I'm not going to give you any money." and because they couldn't raise any money, they couldn't begin their campaigns. And, of course, they couldn't win.
I hosted a meeting of the political women that I knew in Washington, and said, "How do we break through this?" And every single person said, one way or another, we have to figure out how to raise early money for women candidates. And then maybe the old boys would finally believe the woman could actually win.
BARBARA MIKULSKI: Everybody, I'm that lady that's running for the United States Senate. When elected, I'll be the first Democratic woman ever elected in her own right. And I tell you, I might be 4 for 11, but they won't overlook me.
ELLEN MALCOLM: Barbara Mikulski goes to the old boys' network. She says, "Will you support me?" And they say to her, "You're not going to be able to raise any money. Women can never raise money, and you're going to lose." And little old EMILY's List that had just began, sent out our first candidate mailing. And when that first public report came out, Barbara Mikulski had raised as much as the Congressman. Now, the old boys look at it and say, "Oh my goodness. She can raise money. We better get behind her." She wins the primary handily, sweeps through the general election, and becomes the first Democratic woman in the history of this country to be elected to the Senate in her own right.
In 1991, Anita Hill came forward and said that Judge Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked for him. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, and 14 white men basically went after Anita Hill. They attacked her and said horrible things about her. And working women said, "Where are the women on that committee, that understand what it is to be a woman in the workplace and be sexually harassed?" All of a sudden, we started getting inquiries, checks, contributions, telephone calls, from women across the country. And it turned EMILY's List into one of the most powerful political organizations in the country.
When we began in 1985, people thought we were crazy to ask people to write checks to two or three candidates. Ann Richards, Gloria Steinem, they talk to women and they say, "Now look down and look at your shoes, and think about how much money you paid for that pair of shoes. Isn't it worth it to you to spend that same amount of money to be represented in Congress?" A lot of younger women now are thinking, "Wow. The world is not working the way it should be," and they should go out and help change it. You've got to get involved. You've got to help us elect women who are going to fight back. When we see our women serving in office, when we see them leading the country, we can know that we're going to live as empowered, free, equal participants in our country.
MJ HEGAR: I've always wanted to be a pilot and I've always wanted to be a combat pilot. So when I say that I should have the right to be in combat, I'm saying that I should be afforded the opportunity to use those skills and to fight and defend and protect the things that I believe in.
I wasn't raised as a military brat, but my dad was in the Air Force. In junior high, when I was playing soccer, I got a little distracted watching an F-16 fly by, and I was like, that is so cool. And then all of a sudden, the ball hit me in the head, so I thought to myself, well, I guess that's my passion.
I reported in to my first commander thinking he would be a mentor. I saluted him, and he didn't even look me in the eye. And said, the first time that your time of the month gets in the way of your job, I'm going to replace you. Now get out of my office. And I was like, this is a test. This is a test, I'm sure it is. Because nobody actually says things like that, right?
When we got the call to go on my first mission, it was an American soldier, we were told he had a gunshot wound to the arm. When we got there, he had almost completely bled out. And five minutes into it our return flight, our medic was telling us, he's gone.
It was really difficult to go from being excited to get my first pick up to losing an American soldier onboard an aircraft. And I remember-- sorry.
I remember wanting to become a real rescue pilot, and then realizing what that meant, that killed that sensation immediately. So it's not about wanting to be in combat. It's about if combat has to happen, I want to be there to help.
I felt warm, and I saw my aircraft commander's reaction, and I looked down, and sure enough, I had bled all over my arm and my leg. I had about 15 pieces of shrapnel in my arm. The bullet fragmented when it came through, so I had to kind of prove to them, no, no, no, I'm fine, I'm not in shock, I'm fully functional.
After we sort of crash landed, we were receiving a lot of small arms fire, but we didn't know exactly where it was coming from. So I saw somebody came out from the cover to shoot out as. I raised my rifle and started returning fire without any hesitation. I belonged there. I have that warrior spirit, and it came out.
The commanders in the field were having to find loopholes to attach women to units that they could assign women to. There was no doubt women had been in combat for thousands of years, but the last 10 years, women had been proving themselves in combat.
LEON PANETTA: Today, we are eliminating THE direct ground combat exclusion rule for women.
MJ HEGAR: Until we change the culture of women being treated inferior and women being looked at as less than, that culture will continue. And women being allowed to compete for these positions is a big step in that direction. My goal is to open the competition to woman. And any woman who can hack it should be given the opportunity to serve her country in the way that her heart and her soul is telling her to, just like the men, and answer that calling.
AMY MCGRATH: A lot of times you're going as a fighter pilot, you go up in the air and you're waiting for something to happen. The other times, it can be quite scary. Flying a fighter jet is the most intense job you can do on the planet.
I grew up in Kentucky. Youngest of three children. My mother was a medical doctor, and that was very rare. This was the 1980s. And I was always very proud of her. So when she wasn't there at night because she was on call, I would just say, well, mom's saving lives.
I was very much a tomboy who just wanted to play sports. I have an older brother who would be one of the captains, and he would always pick me first. And all of his friends would say, why are you picking a girl? And he would say, well, she's the best player. I knew that if I was beating all the boys in football or basketball, that there was nothing I couldn't do.
He wrote me back a very nice letter that was fairly condescending, which basically said, you're a girl, and Congress doesn't believe that women should be doing these things. And I said, well, so what? You know, they just haven't met me yet. I can do this.
So I wasn't deterred. Pat Schroeder was a Congresswoman at the time. She was considered so radical. And what she said was, the military of our nation exists to fight and win the nation's wars. And we should have the best people in those positions. Stick to your dreams. I'm working on it.
The executive officer comes in and looks at me and looks around the room and says, we've got to put you in a jet. And I had just barely gotten my qualification. So we suited up, pulled out into the runway with six air-to-air missiles loaded up to possibly launch and shoot down an airliner. Thank god we didn't have to shoot anyone down.
I think that 9/11 changed the mindset of all of us. It was on. This is what we had trained for. We were going to go into combat. Our job was necessary, and I was prepared.
The Marine Corps was the toughest thing a woman could do in the military. And that is exactly what I wanted. I remember going into Afghanistan and looking out at the men who were working and having them look at me-- and the wonder in their eyes. And they had never seen a woman who was treated with the same type of respect as all the other Marines, a woman as an equal. When you go to these other countries, especially as a woman, and you're just doing your job, that's showing people American values. That's changing minds.
My commanding officer pulled me in and told me, and my heart just stopped. I thought to myself, all right. I worked my whole life to do this. Flying, itself, is dangerous. You have to make sometimes life and death decisions when it comes to ordnance. When you can come through with putting the bombs on target on time, that's when you know your training and your work mattered.
Now we have all of these former military women running for Congress. Well, it's about time. We see what's happening in our government. We basically say, I fought for my country, and I am a woman, and I'm not going to stand for that. Is it going to be easy? No, it's going to be a challenge. And I love that. I mean, that's me. That's what Marines do. I don't want to be there just to fill a seat. I want to make a difference.