As a veteran of the US Air Force who studied military law, I’ve thought about the ethical dilemmas that arise when a superior issues a potentially illegal order before. So has former acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates, fired this week for resisting an order she deemed unconstitutional.
During Yates’ confirmation hearings to become deputy attorney general in 2015, Senator Jeff Sessions, whose nomination as attorney general is pending now, asked if she understood her obligation to evaluate the lawfulness of a president’s orders. Yates answered that she did indeed understand, and that she would be ready to exercise her judgment about the constitutionality of presidential orders.
This week, Sally Yates did exactly what she promised to do. She assessed an executive order, found it violated the Constitution, and declined to defend it. For this, Yates was dismissed as “weak” by the White House, accused of “betraying the Department of Justice,” and fired. Her offense? Refusing to yield to President Trump’s demands and instead fulfilling her obligation to uphold the Constitution.
It should come as no surprise that Sally Yates, an accomplished, principled woman, was the first high-ranking official in the Trump administration to lose her job for thinking independently. She stood up to a president unwilling to acknowledge the vital role of dissent in US government, law, and politics.
Women have often been dissenters in the United States. When I first encountered women's history, I was transfixed by the resistance on the page. I still have my tattered copy of Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion. The strength and vision of the women who led the US civil rights movement brought us grassroots organizing and a radical vision of democracy (Ella Baker), resilience in the face of violence and discrimination (Fannie Lou Hamer), and a new understanding of equal protection under the Constitution (Pauli Murray). Each effort inspired changes that made the United States a more perfect union.
The long gray line describes the gray-clad West Point cadets who pledge to protect the Constitution with their lives when they become officers in the army. Sally Yates and the women who joined the first mass protest against the Trump administration stand fast in a long pink line that values duty, honor, and country as much as the soldiers of the long gray line. Critics who dismiss dissenters as trivial or misguided—or who think they will be forgotten—misunderstand our history and Constitution. They also underestimate women. If what's past is prologue, we will remember, persevere, and be heard.