Barbara Kingsolver wrote in the Guardian this weekend that when she was a girl of eleven, she asked her father if a woman could be President, and he answered her with an unequivocal No. Something to do, he said, with menstruation, aversion to power, and a natural attraction to motherhood. It became for her part of the litany of things she could not do because she was a girl.
“The slap-downs were often unexpected. Play drums in the band? No. Sign up for the science team? Go camping with the guys? Go jogging in shorts and a tank top without fear of being assaulted? Experiment boldly, have a career, command a moral authority of my own? Walk home safely after dark? No, no, no.”
My parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to dream big. They said, “Yes, you can be President! Girls can be anything they want to be!” But their wishful thinking could not overpower the blatant messages I got from observing reality. Despite their fairy tale answer, there remained the persistent facts: No woman had ever been President. No woman had even been a serious candidate for President. Their encouragement was akin to them saying, “Of course you can go to Mars!” It was fantasy, in the realm of remote possibility in a far off someday. It was, “Never say never, but don’t bank on it.”
Only I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that society’s silent messages had overshadowed my parents’ answer until I was 15, and Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as Vice President shook my foundation. A cloud lifted and an idea rang in my brain, “Oh, I guess they were right, I guess that is not foreclosed.”
Only when I saw a flesh and blood woman speaking from behind the podium, on the debate stage with George Herbert Walker Bush, answering questions of substance like any other candidate, did I sense my own personal glass ceiling break a little. Only then did I believe that maybe a trip to Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t as far fetched as a trip to Mars. Only then did I realize that I had never believed my parents.
The disappointment of Mondale/Ferraro’s loss reverted back to “the way it is.” That didn’t shift again until Bill Clinton began making Cabinet appointments. Here were women in roles previously filled only by men in the entire history of our country. Every photo of every President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Attorney General was another gray haired man. By 1992, I was an aspiring lawyer, and when Janet Reno, who died today, was named Attorney General, I felt the same blasting away of the old truth that important jobs were reserved for men.
“An Attorney General named Janet!” I celebrated. A friend asked me, “What does it matter?” He meant that all government officials were the same, that it didn’t affect our lives day-to-day. All I could tell him was that it mattered to me, to my personal sense of worth and possibility.
Yesterday I was in Las Vegas, canvassing neighborhoods to encourage voter turnout, handing out a paper that included the local polling place. At one of the last houses on my list, I met an older man and his granddaughter. She scooted outside and sat on a jumble of red rock gravel, while he demanded in a raspy voice that I tell him one reason I liked Hillary Clinton. (Before I could answer, he railed against Bill Clinton and some business dealing in Arkansas.) When he finished, I said, “ You asked for my reason: Hillary Clinton wants to help us get more good jobs, health care, and education, and that she cares about families like yours and mine.” Then, mindful of the little girl listening to this dialogue, I added, “When I was a little girl, I didn’t believe I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. If Hillary is our President, all the little girls in America will know that they can.”
With that, I thanked him for his time, and turned back toward the sidewalk.
“Wait!” the girl stopped me. “Can I give one of those papers to my mom? She votes!” My heart lifted as I handed her the paper with the address of her polling place, and I spoke to her as though I was speaking to my own 8-year-old self, “Yes, you make sure your mom votes on Tuesday.” She took the paper and hurried inside.
I like to imagine that little girl walking into the house with the voting paper, waiting for her mom to come home from work and handing it to her, urging her to vote. I like to imagine the conversation they might have about it. I like to imagine that my words might have taken hold inside her head, that she will believe, “Yes, young one, you can be and do anything.” I will be thinking of her tomorrow, and hoping she gets the message she deserves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The only step we need to take tomorrow is vote. If you have to be late to a meeting, or school drop-off or pick-up, be late. It’s not much of a sacrifice compared with those who came before us.