“I’m so excited! Finally, a woman is the presidential nominee of a major party in America! I get choked up just thinking about it! Now we can tell little girls they can be ANYTHING they want to be!”
This is a deeply tragic statement and has nothing to do with the political views or reputation of the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee. Were this statement referring to the most upstanding, moral woman in the world, it would be, perhaps, only slightly less tragic.
I’m not going to say these are the worst of times or that the nation or world is going to hell in a handbasket. We’ve certainly seen more strife in the course of world history than what is happening now, but things could certainly be a lot better. And the real tragedy isn’t the lack of character of the two presumptive presidential nominees; it’s the character of the nation, for the candidates we elevate are only reflections of the national zeitgeist.
We’ve always been able to tell little girls they can be anything. Certainly, at some point, someone told Mrs. Clinton that she could be president. Perhaps that wasn’t when she was a little girl, but the fact remains that the idea always precedes the reality. If we tell ourselves that the reality must precede the idea, not only are we being illogical, we’re halting any progress.
In 1867, just shy of five years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and two and a half years after the end of the Civil War, while the South was still very much a slave culture, a woman named Sarah Breedlove was born. Sarah’s mother died when Sarah was only five and her father left her orphaned just a few years after that. She was abused by her brother-in-law and later widowed at the age of 20; not the makings of a success story and certainly not the sort of privileged childhood Mrs. Clinton had, but Breedlove worked hard and from “the cotton fields of the South… to the washtub… to the cook kitchen” she rose to being the head of a multi-national hair product business that employed tens of thousands of women and was later eulogized as the first female self-made millionaire in America.
Now, while Breedlove was unquestionably motivated, she didn’t do all of this on her own. No one ever does. In particular, she had her second husband and business partner, cheering her on the whole way. To have told 7-year-old Breedlove or even 20-year-old Breedlove that she’d one day rise to such heights would have seemed ludicrous. Even if she’d been a white woman born into better circumstances, her success would have seemed quite unlikely in those days, but that didn’t stop her or those around her telling her she could succeed. The fact that there had never been a woman who had achieved what she did, didn’t matter either.
And the list goes on: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first female governor in the U.S., elected in Wyoming in 1924, just four years after suffrage; Oprah Winfrey, born to a single mother and raised in rural poverty. More importantly, one could argue, are the millions of unsung heroines who make the world a better place every day, be it one classroom, one community, or one household at a time and against the odds.
Little girls can grow up to be anything they want but if we’re waiting for one of them to achieve some certain status before we can tell the rest that it is possible, it will never happen. Furthermore, if we wait until something is achieved before we begin telling our children that that thing is achievable, how does that further progress? Accomplishment without risk is no accomplishment at all.
So point to Hillary Clinton as someone who achieved her goals if you must (although I can name a thousand women more deserving of emulation than she is), but don’t let her success be the marker for our daughters. Whether she wins or loses her bid for the presidency she should not be the reason they strive for their goals. In fact, regardless of her political views or character, the arc of her life, which could best be summed up as her pursuit to become the first female president of the United States, should not be lauded. Instead, we should be teaching our daughters, lo, all of our children, to strive for something much bigger than that. While anyone can be “the first (fill in the blank: woman, black, Asian, Hispanic, gay, etc.)” anything, it is not the census form box we check that matters, but what we do with the opportunities we’re given. I’d much rather that my children grow up to be the best janitors or convenience store clerks they can be than senators or CEOs without integrity.