Polaneczky: Actually, women did win in 2016

This season, Buffalo Bills quality control-special teams coach Kathryn Smith became the NFL's first female full-time assistant coach.

EVERYBODY KNOWS that the American president is regarded as the most powerful man in the world. But in 2016, all the polls and pundits promised that Hillary Clinton would become the most important person in the world.

Instead, America will welcome 2017 by inaugurating the most misogynistic president in U.S. history. With support from a swampful of millionaires, military men, and an attorney general dismissive of gender fairness, Donald Trump will slap a bull's-eye on women's health-care access, employment equity, and reproductive choice.

America's halcyon days, he told CNN, were "the late '40s and '50s," a time when "we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do."

Including keeping ladies in their place. That's why we later needed a women's movement.

So why am I weirdly hopeful about the fate of U.S. women, despite Trump's rhetoric?

Because women have come too far for anyone, including men, to expect a backward walk.

Consider: This year, more people voted for a female presidential candidate than for any Republican male candidate in U.S. history, or for any male Democratic candidate other than Barack Obama.

That's huge.

Hillary Clinton wouldn't have snagged the nomination if she hadn't already been both a U.S. senator and a secretary of state - positions she wouldn't have held if a tiny handful of other women hadn't paved the way.

The next session of Congress will include 21 females in the Senate. It's not parity, but as recently as 1978, only one woman was in that august body. And America didn't have its first female secretary of state until 1997.

I know - baby steps. But even slow progress is still progress.

The last year also saw crowning achievements of other women who, like Clinton, stood on the shoulders of female pioneers.

In May, Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson was appointed to lead the U.S. Northern Command, becoming the nation's first female combatant commander. The gig is a prerequisite for serving as the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so Robinson is the first woman even to qualify for consideration.

Back in 1994, when women were officially forbidden from competing in combat, Robinson's career trajectory would've been a pipe dream. Thanks to laws that widened women's access to military careers beyond supporting roles, she has the same chance as any other brave patriot to serve her country at the highest level.

Women scored big in 2016 athletics, too. Who can forget the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, whose gravity-defying leaps, twists, and spins earned a stack of gold medals? Or the female U.S. swimmers, cyclists, and rowers who powered their way to more medals than the U.S. male Olympians?

Buttressing their glory was Title IX, the 1972 amendment that guarantees gender equity in federally funded educational programs. Without it, many Olympic women would never develop their formidable talent.

Case in point: In the 1972 Olympic Games held right after Title IX passed, 84 women competed for the U.S. Forty-four years later, in Rio last summer, that number was 292 - the highest number of female athletes ever to represent a single nation.

Suddenly, don't those baby steps kinda look like long jumps?

In case you're wondering, I'm not saying that women who are fed up with the country's default button being set to "male" should be happy with crumbs. It's stupid that every battle for equality has required marches, protests, and lawsuits that no man has needed just to get into the party.

But if we let frustration freeze us in 2017, that'll let the new administration chip away at what should always be ours.

It takes inspiration to stare down discouragement, though. So here's a final example of a young woman who in 2016 slipped easily into a role that I figured would be filled only by someone with a Y chromosome.

Meet Kathryn Smith, 31, the NFL's first female full-time assistant coach. She got the gig with the Buffalo Bills after spending a season as an administrative assistant to head coach Rex Ryan. Before that, she worked for the New York Jets for 12 years.

Ryan said she deserved the promotion "based on her knowledge and strong commitment. She's going to do a great job."

The same way other legendary NFL coaches did when they were coming up. How cool that Smith has a chance to show what she can do, even with ovaries.

Interestingly, it didn't occur to Smith that her gender would be big news in the league.

"I do recognize that my role has some significance, but that has never been in the front of my mind or been my motivation," she told Sports Illustrated in August, at the Bills training camp. "I didn't really look at it in that light until after the fact."

Her ease is rooted in her generation's experience and expectation of equal opportunity. I've gotta believe those roots are now too anchored to be yanked out by the new administration.

Unless, that is, the new White House is spoiling for a fight.

Thankfully, American women - from past suffragettes and ERA advocates to the brand-new citizens of Pantsuit Nation - have the fight thing down cold.

Better get yer dukes up, 2017.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie