For as long as I can remember, I've relied on the inspirational company of heroes. When I was in grade school, I read every biography in a blue-book series of famous figures in American history: Dr. King, Helen Keller, FDR, Harriet Tubman, and many more. All of their stories told my soul I could change the world, a message that was especially important for a kid in a broken home craving a role model to emulate.
As I grew older, my role models evolved and meant more to me in different ways. Keller was about overcoming tremendous obstacles, King was about inspiring people to change through words of love and non-violence, etc.
And yet, besides these figures, I had real-life heroes around me, and most of the time, they were women: Mrs. Mabry, my 8th grade English teacher, who saw something in me and pushed me harder than I'd ever been pushed, not accepting anything less than my best; my grandmother, who lavished me with love but encouraged me to think outside the box and always consider others; and Mrs. Wright, my high school history teacher who impressed upon me to challenge everything, even my own opinions, on a constant basis.
It wasn't because they were women that I took them on as role models; it was because I needed role models, and they happened to be there.
When I joined the Army and went infantry, it still didn't occur to me that gender should factor into picking a role model or mentor. One of my sergeants was a great guy, and I ended up following his lead through my enlisted years.
But when I started attending West Point three years later, I had access to what one would describe as a tremendous and diverse database of mentors and role models.
And my pick happened to be my math instructor, a lieutenant colonel who was very professional and had solid leadership skills. And again, gender didn't matter. She just happened to be someone who inspired me by her example.
Yet, I began to notice an anti-woman sentiment not only at West Point, but in the mood of the country when it came to holding up women as role models.
You see, a female officer at the Academy was always respected, face to face, but in the privacy of our room, I'd hear classmates (mostly male, but some female) be ridiculously critical of our women who were officers as opposed to men, who weren't judged as harshly.
In fact, men who were hard asses were seen with more awe and respect. You may not personally like the man, but you admired him as a leader.
Women officers, on the other hand, were respected and got the job done, but no cadets (at least, none of the male cadets) wanted to be like them. "Bitch" was not an uncommon term to be thrown around.
Outside of the Academy, it didn't seem to be much different. Admiring a high-ranking male politician was acceptable. Admiring Hillary Clinton? God forbid.
But this is especially pronounced along gender lines.
If a young woman in middle school or high school hangs up a poster of Barack Obama in her room, this is seen as acceptable. It's fine for women to admire men and want to be like them.
If a young man (the same age) hangs up a poster of Hillary Clinton in his room, this is seen as odd (maybe even troubling -- is he gay? Oh no!).
Society tells us young men can't think of women as role models unless they're a family member, whereas young women can admire and seek to emulate anyone, regardless of gender.
If you're a young man, and if you have a poster on your wall with a woman, she had better be half-naked in a bikini, even if the Ronald Reagan or Gen. Patton poster next to it obviously features the man fully-clothed.
Young men are not to taught to think of women as role models. They are taught to think of them as either family members or sexual objects. There is no other category presented.
And if you do happen to get a boss that's a woman, suck it up and get through it. You can always go to the bar, after work, and complain about that "ball-busting bitch" to your friends.
Men, even in my own generation, are still taught that it is bad to be a woman. Pussy, bitch, fag, etc. are all used on a regular basis by men towards other men to insult and discredit them because after all, what is more insulting than downgrading a man to a woman, from masculine to feminine?
That's how it's viewed.
Hillary Clinton recently left her position as Secretary of State as one of the most successful and popular diplomats in history. She is widely touted as the inevitable Democratic Nominee for President in 2016.
A few miles away, several dozen women gathered to give personal testimonies in the Symposium on Women in Combat. They attended to tell their stories of overcoming adversity, hanging with the men (with relative ease, might I add) and engaging in combat successfully. Their actions made them every bit as brave and effective as their brothers-in-arms.
And yet, between Clinton and these uniformed women, how many young men and boys would lift up their hand to say they want to be like them someday?
Time and time again, we perpetuate the belief to children from an early age that women are weaker, less intelligent and less capable than men. Women belong in princess costumes making us sandwiches while they clean the house.
And young women notice this immediately: "Is that my destiny? Am I meant to cater to men?"
I posted a picture of a woman I really admire on Facebook back in 2010 with the caption, "One of my personal heroes," and the very first comment was from a classmate mocking it based on gender.
This is a common reaction and illustrates a vicious cycle: define a woman's role from an early age, tear down those who attempt to transcend it, observe their lack of success, attribute it to "women are weaker than men and belong in the home," and use this to further limit girls from an early age.
It leads to other things: if a person is commonly perceived as weaker, they're more likely to be exploited and attacked. Is it really that much of a coincidence that women make up 91% of rape victims and men make up 83% of Congress?
We have a major problem in this country of marginalizing women based on ridiculous criteria, beating down any woman who rises above it and then pretending like there's no connection between our attitudess and not only the lack of women in power, but the number of women who are victimized.
It may seem like a ridiculous protest slogan, but it's absolutely true: The patriarchy is real, and it needs to be destroyed.
We need to get rid of the vicious slander that a young man wanting to follow in the footsteps of a great woman isn't right in the head.
We can no longer take women who worked hard to get out of the home to contribute so much in so many brilliant, impactful ways and stick them back in tired roles.