On the 2016 presidential election, a personal history & sociological rumination
“It’s okay, fine, even mandatory to take a political position and not care if you gain or lose readership.” ~ Rachel Kushner at Key West Literary Seminar, January 13, 2017
Table of Contents
1. The 2008 Primary as Sociological Experiment
2. Patriotism Abroad
3. The Culture Industry in the New Millennium & the Rise of Trump
4. Hillary Stood up to Trump, But Who Stood up for Hillary?
5. How I Do Feminism
6. A Privileged Life & a Fish Out of Water
7. My Father, the Feminist. Ivanka’s Father, ‘Grab ’em by the Pussy’
8. Dreams of Our First Female President
1. The 2008 Primarary as Sociological Experiment
The first time I voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the 2008 Democratic primary when I cast an absentee ballot from the American Church in Paris on quai d’Orsay.
I remember walking back to my flat along the Seine, bundled up in my winter coat, overwhelmed by a sense of civic pride in casting my ballot from across the Atlantic in this historic election. For the first time, our nominee for president would either be a woman or a black man. I was excited at the possibilities and the progress our nation was making.
My vote for Hillary was a vote of sisterhood and solidarity. The idea of a woman shattering the glass ceiling and holding the highest office in the land was nothing short of thrilling to me. I also thought she was the stronger candidate.
I was fascinated by the decision the American people had before them. Five years earlier I’d graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in sociology and I saw the election as a captivating sociological experiment. Which of these historically marginalized demographics would our country be more comfortable with as leader of our nation?
Sure, it was rudimentary, controlling for absolutely nothing, but I thought the result would be telling.
For me, the ballot was a win-win. I wanted a leader who saw the world from a different point of view by the very nature of her gender or his race. When Barack Obama won, it told me that the United States still preferred a man, regardless of the color of his skin, to a woman as Commander in Chief.
Viewed through the lens of history, it made sense. The 15th Amendment, granting African Americans the right to vote was passed in 1870. It would be another 50 years, in 1920, when women were granted that same right — a full 72 years after they’d begun their fight for suffrage in Seneca Falls, New York.
While my candidate didn’t win the nomination in 2008, I was happy to throw my support behind Obama and I proudly voted for him in the general election and again in 2012.
2. Patriotism Abroad
During those three months in Paris, I was also learning that being a foreigner abroad had a surprising way of drumming up patriotic feelings. A few days after voting in the primaries, I would wander into a cramped Canadian bar in Saint Germaine des Pres at midnight to watch Super Bowl XLII on the tiniest of TV screens amidst Parisians, tourists and American students studying at the Sorbonne.
I could have easily skipped the Super Bowl that year. It wasn’t as if I followed football closely, but part of me wanted to participate in this American tradition while I was so far away from home.
My heart swelled at half time as Tom Petty sang “American Girl,” feeling as though he was singing directly to me at that bar in Paris. When Eli Manning of the New York Giants threw a late fourth quarter touchdown pass for an upset win over the Patriots, the entire bar burst into cheers.
I was a fan of Manning’s. We’re the same age and we both moved to New York at roughly the same time circa 2003. He was a struggling rookie quarterback and I was a struggling rookie middle school teacher with Teach For America, the national teaching corps whose mission is to close the achievement gap in underserved urban and rural communities. Look at how far we’d come, I thought to myself. Tonight was a victory for both of us.
A pair of Frenchmen standing behind me high fived and embraced, saying to each other jubilantly in thick accents with big grins, “New York! You know what they say, you make it there, you can make it everywhere.”
I chuckled at their evocation of Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” a song that plays without fail at the end of the ballgame at Yankee Stadium, win or lose.
It was an exciting night and a moment of collective effervescence — one of my favorite sociological terms, used to describe the good feelings that arise in an individual when a diverse community unites around a single, shared experience or cause.
As I walked back to my flat on the empty streets of Paris that night, I was bubbling over with collective effervescence, proud to be an American and thrilled that I was here, in Paris, exploring this beautiful city on my own as a single, independent woman of 26.
3. The Culture Industry in the New Millennium & the Rise of Trump
When Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in June 2015, I had one reaction: This makes me wanna barf.
I may have even tweeted it as a reaction to the Page Six story that appeared on my timeline. Yes, I am a Millennial (albeit the eldest cap of that generation) who gets all of her news and information from her carefully curated Twitter feed.
I was done with Trump as far back as 2011 when he became an outspoken voice of the birther movement falsely accusing our first black president of not being born in the United States and therefore insinuating that he was ineligible to hold office. Not only was it a cruel lie, it was outright racist. Full Stop. Period. End of Story.
I’ve tuned out Trump ever since, turning off the television anytime his face appeared. I had absolutely no room for someone who I considered an arrogant and unapologetic blowhard and bigot. I have found nothing funny, entertaining or compelling about him since.
My small protest throughout the primaries was to continue to drown out Trump to the best of my abilities. I abstained from publishing his name on social media or elsewhere, feeling that any attention given to him was too much. More to the point, I thought it was dangerous and ill advised.
Still, no matter how hard I tried, his voice seeped in through every crack and crevice like a noxious fume. The media, entertainment industry and American public collectively salivated over Trump with wide, lascivious eyes, savoring his name as it tripped across their tongues.
I became increasingly flabbergasted by the tepid rebuffs and conciliatory reporting of Donald Trump, so much of it applied with star-struck awe or horror. Comedians and late night talk show hosts guffawed at their dumb luck, lauding him “good for comedy.” Liberals had a field day on social media, expressing their outrage and dismay through a competition of clever punch lines and memes. The culture industry at large held Trump in a warm embrace.
The “culture industry” is a term coined in 1944 by a group of Jewish German sociologists and philosophers from the Frankfurt School, known as critical theorists. Two of its leading thinkers, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, penned Dialectics of Enlightenment during their exile in the United States from Nazi Germany, where they argue that the culture industry is a tool of mass deception masquerading as enlightenment, composed of film, television, radio, magazines, popular music and, therefore, all art. Today, this would most certainly include the Internet and social media.
“The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry,” Adorno and Horkheimer write. From the Frankfurt School’s point of view, the culture industry was a tool to subdue the public during their leisure hours after the economic forces of capitalism subdued them in their working hours. The result being the submission to “the total power of capital.”
For the culture industry’s part, this became possible when high art transformed into mass produced popular entertainment through standardization and the mechanics of industry. Disseminated to the public rapidly through new technology, the culture industry was “democratically [making] everyone equally into listeners.” The effect, Adorno and Horkheimer conclude, is that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness.”
In the 1940s, they were criticizing the tyranny of technology as it shifted from the telephone to radio programs and from silent films to talkies. (“The basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest.”)
Even then, the critical theorists were seen as cranky and antiquarian (Adorno famously loathed jazz music). To abide by their theory is to surrender pleasure in almost any amusement.
However, as we forge ahead through the new millennium, with western democracy and capitalism in a state of crisis, the culture industry, with the added velocity of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, has reached a new crucible. I can’t help but think that critical theory is especially prescient in the world we live in today.
What I observed throughout the election was that whether it was a news brief on NPR, a pundit analyzing the election on NBC, the punch line of a joke on a late night talk show, the cold open on SNL, the headline of a New York Times or CNN.com article, what my friends were railing about on Facebook and what the Twittersphere was hyperventilating over on Twitter, everyone was talking about the same thing.
As a populace, we were ground into submission by this constant barrage. While it may appear that we have more choice than ever before from which we get our news, the culture industry’s swindle is in presenting us with “the freedom to choose what is always the same.”
At the advent of the Internet’s primacy and social media, the publishing industry predicted that their future was in the decentralization of media and the move towards niche products. This may have happened. There are more websites, blogs, media outlets, voices, avatars and pundits in the public cultural sphere than ever before.
Each one of us has the ability to add our voice to the conversation through multiple channels. However, what may have begun as a radical, unregulated cacophony of diverse voices and platforms has become a rigid structure. This happened precisely as the industries figured out how to monetize this new medium and they continue to do so with ever-growing sophistication.
What we consume and create on the Internet is filtered through the elusive algorithms of a handful of powerful Silicon Valley companies: Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter. They are the economic forces of the culture industry in the new millennium and they make their profit by exploiting their users through the illusion of control and choice when, in fact, the choice is being made for them. In order to be heard, we have to play by their rules.
From publications to for-profit companies to personal brands, there’s competition for clicks, likes and capital, forcing all of these competing outlets to winnow down their strategy into what gets the most traffic. This is how sameness bleeds through everything we’re exposed to. It’s the standardization and mass production that the critical theorists warned of.
There is something to be said of the information silos created by the left and right during the election. I’d personally never heard of Breitbart News before Trump’s win and I still can’t name any of the major right-wing publications off the top of my head. I don’t watch cable news. My media consumption consists of The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, NPR and, on occasion, NBC News.
Still, this optic of choice is an illusion. As Adorno and Horkheimer explain, these preferences “do not so much reflect real differences as assist in the classification, organization and identification of consumers. Something is provided for everyone so that no one can escape… Even the aesthetic manifestations of political opposites proclaim the same inflexible rhythm.”
Social media is often lauded for its ability to democratize voices. If Adorno and Horkheimer were concerned about radio and movies as authoritarian tools of submission, then surely the participatory nature of social media is a positive progression. There are plenty of instances of these platforms giving voice to social movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.
That’s precisely the potential the critical theorists saw in latter day forms of art and expression. Their criticism of technology was not “attributed to the internal laws of technology itself but to its function within the economy today.”
In the new millennium, the culture industry has been constructed so that opting out is not an option. Technology today holds the false promise of freeing us from the bondages of worker and consumer through mobility and entrepreneurship. In reality, it’s only tightening the vice grip on our dependence of and allegiance to its sovereignty. It’s the stranglehold of a choke collar that, once clamped down, will not give way, but can only be tightened.
So much of how we absorbed and digested the election has been filtered through the Internet and social media because that is how we absorb and digest most things these days. I’ve long been suspicious that we’ve all gravely fooled ourselves as a society into thinking that social media is a positive tool for connection and communication.
We all use it. We all know its benefits. Let’s get those out of the way up front. It’s a tool for self-promotion, staying in touch with friends and acquaintances, and sharing and acquiring information. It’s also a fun diversion.
More than anything, though, it’s a mirror. We look into our phones and we’re looking for ourselves. Not other people — but how other people react to something we’ve posted. It’s become such a deeply embedded extension of narcissism, a trait we clearly can’t escape as human beings, that we’ve all bought into the idea that it is an appropriate manner to view the world and communicate.
This election was exhaustively described as divisive. That’s because everyone is talking and no one is listening. When was the last time you read a political opinion that you disagreed with on Facebook and by doing so, it made you change your mind? When have you ever had a productive debate in the comments section? What catharsis have you achieved by venting your private frustrations in a public forum for all to scrutinize without your knowledge? What urge are you addressing by prefacing your statements with “I don’t usually post things like this, but…?”
We are starved for connection and empathy, but we are not getting it from social media. Instead, we sanctimoniously unfollow, unfriend, block, mute, or worse, I suppose, troll or lament being trolled. But we are not communicating.
It’s one thing to post a snarky comment or spew something hateful directed towards a social media avatar in a comment thread on your computer screen, but it’s far different to look someone in the eyes, another human being, made of soft flesh with blood coursing through his veins, fallible and vulnerable, and actually listen and engage in civil discourse. So much venom is removed in doing so, yet somehow, we’ve stopped doing this as Americans. The result is dehumanizing, racking us with fear, cowardice, paranoia and isolation on all fronts.
This inability to communicate nullifies the effort poured into social media. The effect of everyone talking without listening is the equivalent of everyone listening to their own version of the truth propagated by the culture industry’s algorithms. We’re still listeners and consumers, but in the new millennium, it’s under the insidious guise of self-expression and communication. We’re producing little more than white noise and wasting an awful lot of time and energy.
“Distraction becomes exertion,” Adorno and Horkheimer warn.
The American public, propelled by the culture industry, gracefully dove into the swirling cesspool of election discourse. We’ve become a nation of pundits, with a loose grasp on facts and an aversion to critical thought, baited just as easily as the president-elect, fed by a constantly churning cycle of outrage. We feel an overwhelming urge to participate in this immolation through whatever means of publication we possess, making our fickle knee jerk reactions known to the world with the potential of infinite reverberation
This ecosystem has created fertile ground for the frighteningly rapid proliferation of so-called “fake news,” but, please, let’s call it what it is: propaganda. Fake news is a little too benign. After all, that’s what we’ve labeled programs like The Daily Show and SNL’s Weekend Update for decades. In that case, perhaps we had it coming.
It’s proven such a corrosive phenomenon that on Christmas Eve, a Pakistani defense minister threatened nuclear war with Israel via Twitter because of a fictional quote on a propaganda site attributed to a former Israeli defense minister. There is now concrete evidence that Russia used these tools to influence the outcome of our election, according to an intelligence brief released on January 6.
We are living in Dr. Strangelove 2.0. And we’ve appointed a commander in chief who relishes the blurred lines between true and false, fact and opinion, wrong and right.
Donald Trump has proven himself a master manipulator of the culture industry. To him, they handed over $2 billion worth of free press, more than twice that of Clinton and six times that of his closest Republican rival Ted Cruz, accounting for half of all presidential campaign coverage. One cannot deny that Trump was very, very good for the culture industry’s bottom line.
Where did this American appetite for Trump’s foibles originate? Was it justly served to us because we devoured it with deep satisfaction? Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this phenomenon is merely “a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need… unifying the system ever more tightly.” It seems that entertainment was easier to digest than substance, fact and analysis.
In casual conversation, I’ve heard time and again that at least Trump isn’t boring like Hillary, that people can’t wait to see what he’ll do next, from SNL’s latest parody to the inauguration to his tweets, say what you will, these next four years will be entertaining! Yes, at least we will still be entertained while the world crumbles around us! we rejoice in chorus. There will still be plenty of fodder for your Facebook feed.
“Entertainment,” Adorno and Horkheimer warn, “fosters the resignation which seeks to forget itself in entertainment.” It’s the symbol of a snake eating its own tail.
Despite the post-election bloom of intelligent op-eds repudiating Trump, I get the sinking feeling that the culture industry is happy he’s still around to foment over. After all, they created him and they’ve been having a fun, wild ride at our expense this whole time. As the plot gets stranger by the day, it feels like we’re zealously absorbing the news of what’s happening to our country like a thrilling comic strip or spy novel.
With so much information at our disposal, the culture industry’s over-arching narrative of the 2016 presidential election was astoundingly uniform. As a result, we were stripped of our ability to comprehend the high stakes of our vote.
We the people of the United States of America approached the election as entertainment-starved dimwits hypnotized and manipulated by the gladiatorial spectacle of politics as reality television, while the fate of our nation hung in the balance.
And we haven’t diverted our eyes yet.
4. Hillary Stood up to Trump, but who stood up for Hillary?
The only person to successfully stand up to Donald Trump throughout the entire campaign was Hillary Clinton. She was magnificent during their three debates. As I sat on my couch, cringing in collective discomfort with the rest of the country, she stood steely, calm, poised and eloquent in the face of this hateful, lying, ill-prepared, ill-informed, predatory bully.
She was presidential. A smart, hard-working, resilient, pragmatic woman who has devoted her entire life to public service, it was beneath her, an embarrassment, to even have to share a stage with that man. Her brilliant performance at the debates was the first thing I thought of at the painful realization of her loss. How could anyone view him as a stronger candidate after watching the debates, let alone enough Americans to award him the Electoral College?
Hillary stood up to Trump, but who stood up for Hillary? All too often, coverage of her and even her glowing endorsements, came with a qualification, a version of this meek apology, “She might not be a perfect candidate, but…” This line of reasoning poisoned her public persona and buoyed the ridiculous “lesser of two evils” narrative, knocking the wind out of her supporters who wanted to raise her up, but couldn’t do so without an apology.
Throughout this fractured election, there were the hypersensitive former Bernie supporters who wouldn’t let it go, the frightening Trump supporters, the legions of the merely unengaged and ill-informed and those so deluded to think that a third party candidate was a viable option.
What I’d like to know is when we’ve ever had a “perfect” candidate? One for whom everyone loved every aspect of their policy and their personality, down to how much or little they smile behind a podium? Hillary’s flaws were on par with any other successful presidential candidate in history, but this country wasn’t going to let her, a woman, get away with that.
Whether subconsciously or blatantly, this country had a different set of standards for Hillary and every time she came close to meeting them, we inched the bar higher, ever so slightly, so that she would never be able to cross it. For Trump, we left it on the ground and held his hand as he tripped over it. The message this sends women is: you will never be good enough. From us, perfection is expected, and anything less is up for searing criticism. What this has revealed to me is a misogyny in this nation that runs so deep, I was wholly unaware of its existence.
Sure, there were the liberal op-eds, fired as warning shots, like Paul Krugman’s foreboding column in September about the dangerous false equivalencies applied to the candidates or a couple of weeks later when Nicholas Kristoff chided journalists about their coverage of a “charlatan.”
All of this proved too little too late, anyway. They’d already created the monster. He was alive, the damage done. Even CNN pundit and former Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who proved an outspoken firebrand with her refreshing and unequivocal denunciation of Trump, burst onto the scene too late.
She didn’t really get serious until the day before the election when she finally declared that she was voting for Clinton in her pivotal swing state of Florida. The race, she decided, was too tight for her to write in her mother’s name and cast a “symbolic protest vote.” However, throughout early voting, that’s precisely what she threatened to do and proudly tweeted about her followers doing just that. Hindsight’s 20/20, I guess.
Every potshot by pundits — like Chuck Todd calling Hillary “over prepared” at the first debate when she shone like a star to his dismissal of her concession speech as “emotional” when she kept it together gracefully under impossibly difficult circumstances and exhibited astonishing leadership and poise — served to undermine her strength and authority.
There’s always been a dishearteningly wide swath of the American public who simply do not to vote. I don’t know what to say about them. I’m still at a loss over Trump supporters, but we know his base, and I’m starting to understand how his insipid manipulations slipped into the consciousness of more moderate voters. I’m perplexed by the spineless, power-hungry Republicans who ultimately chose not to cross party lines after a year of unceasing vacillation and hand-wringing.
What really upsets me, though, is the democratic base failing to ignite in support of Hillary, and especially those who childishly voted for a third party candidate out of some naïve sense of protest. Not only did they fail Hillary by biblical proportions, they failed our country. Only one of two people was going to win this election. And the wrong candidate won.
Who can deny that if Hillary Clinton was seated as president-elect today that the world would not feel as frighteningly unhinged as it does?
5. How I do Feminism
I have never felt that being female has held me back from any opportunities, hopes or dreams. In fact, through the years, I’ve only grown emboldened by the perceived and real challenges of my gender. I’ve made a living on my own terms for the last six years as a full-time independent writer and owner of a small media company. I love negotiating contracts. I love calling the shots. I love surprising people by my independence, confidence and ability.
I live for doing exactly what I want when I want. I’ve always identified as a feminist, acutely aware that my lifestyle today would be inconceivable without the groundbreaking women who preceded me generation by generation.
While it can be lonely or confusing at times, I find it overwhelmingly exciting to be a single woman in the world today. I believe I’m in the vanguard, defining what it means to be a modern woman as a member of the first generation earning educations and entering the workforce at roughly the same rate as men.
We are here because our mothers fought for reproductive rights and equality in the 1960s and because our grandmothers fought for suffrage at the turn of the century. It’s all recent history and it’s radical.
During my winter in Paris, I remember sitting at a café near the Pantheon on a crisp afternoon sipping a café crème and studying the enormous banners hanging from its frescoed pediment. They displayed portraits of important French women through history for their current exhibit.
The central banner read AUX GRANDES FEMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE, To The Great Women, the Grateful Homeland with a portrait of Simone de Beauvoir and, beneath her, in French, her famous quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The exhibit’s title was a riff on the building’s 1790 bronze inscription on its frieze, dedicated “AUX GRANDES HOMMES.”
Surrounding de Beauvoir were Solitude, Olympe de Gouges, George Sand, Louise Michel, Maria Deraismes, Marie Curie, Colette and Charlotte Delbo, each with her own quote.
At the time, I was reading de Beauvoir’s philosophical roman à clef The Mandarins and I had a copy of her classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex back home. I was fascinated by feminist thought precisely because I knew my reality as a woman born in 1981 — and not 1908 as de Beauvoir or 1804 or 1772 as Sand and Solitude — meant that I was alive in a time when I would not experience the subjugation that they did. It was because of them that I lived the liberated, freewheeling life that I did. I was curious about them, their philosophies, their lives and the battles that they fought.
At home today, I have a small collection of feminist literature in my personal library. It’s the radical theorists I love the most, even if I can’t relate to or even fully comprehend them. I just love that their voices exist. Whether it’s Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse or Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary?, the titles alone amuse me, and they’ve proven to be an equally amusing, accidental and telling, test of the men I’ve invited into my home, whether they take the books in stride, become uneasy or fail to notice at all.
In Paris, I was having a grand time paying homage to the French and ex-pat intellectuals and artists of yore that I held in such romanticized high esteem. I’d already visited the shared gravesite of de Beauvoir and her husband, the existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, in Montparnasse, the same cemetery where Emile Durkheim, the grandfather of sociology (and coiner of my favorite term “collective effervescence”), is also buried.
I’d stood before the door of every flat Hemingway lived in and slurped French onion soup and sipped kir royales at every café he frequented. I spent my days sashaying through Paris’s great museums and down its famous shopping avenues. Along the way, I bumped into the ghosts of Picasso, Apollinaire, Descartes, Voltaire, Rodin, Chanel, Lanvin.
The walls of my tiny flat on the Seine were lined with books and, coincidence of all coincidences, my landlord was a professor of sociology at the Sorbonne who informed me that Matisse once lived in the building. Oh, and I was in love, with a handsome, funny, sweet Alpine man. Life was an utter ball, a fairytale.
As I sat alone at the café by the Pantheon on that winter afternoon, I was overcome with gratitude for the women on those banners. Thank you, I thought, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for fighting for women so that I can live this life today.
6. A Privileged Life & a Fish out of Water
I have lived a privileged life. I am the eldest child of a white Southern Baptist woman from Georgia and a white Jewish man from Tennessee. I was born in Newport Beach, California and raised in a middle class household with a younger sister and brother by parents who love each other and are still married today.
I earned good grades in high school, finished college and graduate school with honors and have managed to support myself without too much financial difficulty my entire adult life. I’ve rarely struggled with happiness for long stretches at a time. I’ve never been abused, injured or seriously ill. Barring an unexpected death in my extended family, I’ve made it thus far without any major, life-altering tragedy or trauma, aside from heartbreak, I guess.
I’ve also been a fish out of water most of my life. That’s what happens when your family moves across the country repeatedly throughout your adolescence, and when you decide to keep doing so as an adult, either out of habit or because you don’t really have an anchor anywhere. Since Newport Beach, I’ve lived in Nashville, Tennessee; Montgomery, Alabama; Cartersville, Georgia; New York City; Key West and now Miami, Florida, which I’ve called home for the last six years. It’s the longest consecutive stretch I’ve lived anywhere, tying with where I was born.
A sense of impermanence follows me everywhere I go. As a constant newcomer, I often view life from the sidelines as an observer more than an active participant, a sort of embedded journalist in my own life. I know my uprooted childhood is why I chose to study sociology as an undergraduate, desperate to understand how one’s environment affects her life.
It’s why my career path has led me to travel and journalism, pursuits that require observation and throwing oneself into the unknown — or as Nora Ephron famously surmised, being a “wallflower at the orgy.” It’s also probably why most of the men I’ve fallen for are foreign born. They’re equally outside of their skin in this world and that’s a place where I can find security.
My interfaith family has also played a role in feelings of being an outsider. My mother converted to Judaism and we were raised Reform in laidback Southern California. My siblings and I were all Bar and Bat Mitzvahed and confirmed. Sometimes there was a Christmas tree or lights, but it was strictly secular, a nostalgic connection for my mother to her past, and an ornamental amusement for us as children.
We grew up geographically and emotionally close to my father’s side of the family, all of whom migrated to California from the South before I was born. Both of my grandparents were deeply involved in the Jewish community and I grew up watching my grandmother run the Jewish Senior Center in Seal Beach well into old age.
We were members of a Reform temple that shared its synagogue with a church and held interfaith Thanksgiving services uniting both congregations. We attended family services around bonfires at the beach in Corona del Mar with potluck dinners. My sister, brother and I ran wild in the sand with our friends, both Jewish and not.
Our rabbi had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963 and maybe even in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He showed us pictures, told us stories and taught us the importance of standing up for civil rights. Because the Jewish people were persecuted, we had a historical connection and a duty to be allies of the disenfranchised, to always speak up.
We were taught that tzedakah, a small till that we typically dropped into metal boxes every week to plant trees in Israel, did not translate to donation, but to justice. That was the community of my childhood and probably the last time I felt like I truly fit in anywhere.
Meanwhile, my mother’s side of the family remained largely foreign to me. My grandmother’s name was Ivah Rhee Coker. She was a spitfire, an evangelical Southern Baptist woman who sang in the church choir and could recite scripture at the drop of a hat with tears welling in her eyes.
She could invoke “Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior” and tell us we all had “delusions of grandeur” in the same breath. A small woman, with a high-pitched, theatrical, crackling voice, she wore her fluffy white curls cropped short, her frailty apparent to me from my very first memories.
When we visited her in Monroe, Georgia, a rural town an hour west of Athens, we might as well have touched down on another planet. People lived on farms. There were wide swaths of green pastures with tiny red brick houses that completely bewildered me. What did they need all that land for?
People talked funny, looked funny, they dressed funny, their names were funny — Vida Malida Gertrude, Perry Hugh, Doyle and Percy Mitchell, Emmet Joe, Bobby Jack, Flossy.
And Jesus was on the tip of everyone’s tongues. Grandma Coker lived in one of those small red brick houses and it had a nauseating, sour smell, like burnt butter left in a frying pan. A picky eater as a child, the only things I found appetizing at her house were boiled hotdogs and lima beans. Everything else — her eggs, creamed corn, grits, collard greens, country ham — was disgusting to my finicky, adolescent Southern California palette.
It wasn’t until years later, as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in Athens, that I really got to know my Grandmama Coker. By then, she was at the end of her life, bedridden in a nursing home where I’d visit her. Once, I interviewed her for a sociology of aging paper. I learned that she was born in 1917 and didn’t have children until she was 31, practically ancient in that day, which I found reassuring even then at age 21.
She told me stories about being in the WAVES, the women’s naval reserve during World War II, in Washington, D.C. and meeting my grandfather. She told me about her wedding night, what it was like being a wife and raising my mother and my aunt and uncle. She was funny and brave and vulnerable. For such a righteous woman, she also had a foul mouth, “shit ass” being one of her favorite expressions.
I finally understood the complexities of this woman who was an enigma to me my whole life. Today, I can recognize her in my mother and in myself, and I’m grateful for that because she’s a part of my heritage.
My unanchored life began at age 13, a few months after my Bat Mitzvah in Newport Beach, when my family moved to Montgomery. We arrived late at night and our first stop, for some reason, was the Waffle House. This brightly lit, greasy diner, the greasy people inside it, and the shadowy, alien pastoral landscape outside the windows was my first impression of our new home.
That’s where my sense of loss became too heavy to bear and I wailed away theatrically in protest, but also heartbroken at the loss of my Southern California idyll and fearful of this unknown place that seemed too much like where Grandma Coker lived.
Since then, I’ve shed so many tears in transit, swapping one life for another, flipping and flailing, trying to find my way back to familiar waters. In the South, I was a liberal Jewish girl amidst devout Christians with conservative values. As a schoolteacher in the Bronx, I was a middle class white woman from suburbia amidst lower income African American and Latino city kids. Working on boats in Key West, I had a master’s degree and a career under my belt amidst men from the rural Midwest without college educations. And today, in Miami, I’m an American-born, English-speaking woman amidst bilingual, pan-Latin immigrants, many of whom English is their second language.
Still, within each of these populations, I’ve found community, friendship and love. The tremendous lesson I’ve learned from my uprooted life is that Americans of all walks of life have far more in common than meets the eye. This echoes the theme of Hillary’s campaign, that there is more that unites us than divides us, and it underscores her slogan, “Stronger Together.” It rings true to me.
That’s why this election has broken my heart. It breaks for my students in the Bronx who I read poems with and who I taught civics to during the 2004 presidential election. They now have a president-elect who’s declared their birthright a living hell.
My heart breaks for my Latino friends in Miami, crestfallen by a country that their families turned to for a better life that’s now elected a man intent on snuffing out Lady Liberty’s lamp.
My heart breaks for my gay best friends, the smart, sweet, sensitive men in my life who were born knowing they were different, unsure of whether they’d ever be accepted, and who only just gained the monumental right to marry the person they love. They now have a vice president-elect who advocates for gay conversion therapy and threatens to repeal their fledgling civil rights.
My heart breaks for my fellow women, persistent strivers, achieving small victory after small victory, celebrating quietly, not to attract too much attention or lose sight, marching forward, blazing our own trails. We now have a president-elect who sees us as little more than sex objects whose bodies are to be controlled.
And my heart breaks because I know people, friends in the South and in Key West, who voted for Trump, people who I love. And by doing so, whether they care to see it this way or not, have not only embraced and condoned his message of hate, but empowered it to the highest office in the land.
7. My Father, the Feminist. Ivanka’s Father, “Grab ’em by the Pussy.”
Whether any of us would have used the term growing up or not, my father is a feminist. He named me Shayne, his firstborn, his daughter, after his favorite cowboy movie (and added the ‘y’ as a creative mark of femininity, I suppose). When I was eight years old, he enrolled the two of us in a father-son day at the University of Southern California where we ran drills with the football team on their practice field. I was the only girl. That day, without having to say a word, my father taught me that girls can do anything boys can and we don’t have to ask permission.
Growing up, he taught my siblings and me to be athletic, ambitious, hard-working, creative and kind. He taught my sister and me that we were naturally beautiful. In his speech at my Bat Mitzvah, he charged me to “always question authority,” a mantra I’ve never forgotten. He stressed the importance of doing work that helps people and wanted us to grow up to be doctors or lawyers. When we all chose wildly different paths and changed course along the way, he and my mother provided us with nothing but support and the utmost confidence, so long as we “never let the grass grow under our feet,” a favorite saying of his. And his enduring love for my mother, a fiery, outspoken, gregarious and creative woman, continues to speak volumes to me today.
When the 2005 Access Hollywood tape leaked of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, millions took to Twitter to share their stories prompted by writer Kelly Oxford. In the tape, Trump asserts that he can “grab ’em by the pussy… I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
As I scrolled through Oxford’s thread, at first I thought to myself, I’m lucky, I’ve never been sexually abused. Then I noticed that many of the confessions were surprisingly quotidian. The anecdotes are powerful and disturbing. You can see for yourselves here.
They started to remind me of stories my mom told me about growing up in Monroe, going swimming in the backyard pool of a neighbor’s house. The old man, who was a strict disciplinarian of his own children, would get in the pool and splash around with the kids, picking them up and launching them into the water. He was known to slip his hands where they didn’t belong. One afternoon, he grabbed my aunt between the legs and she jumped out of the water calling him an old son of a bitch.
Then, I remembered being in sixth grade when a boy snapped my bra or he might have even touched one of my newly budding breasts. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly, but I do remember feeling violated, confused and mad. I told the teacher and she took it seriously. We went to the principal’s office. It was embarrassing and I still remember thinking, am I making too big a deal out of this? Fortunately, the principal took it seriously too and made the boy apologize and promise never to touch me again.
Another time, when I was 26, working on boats in Key West, a group from Italy chartered one of our catamarans for a sunset sail. I stood at the gangway greeting passengers with my captain, a good friend. The man in charge of the group was the last to board and when he did, he reached out as if he was going to shake my hand, but he groped my breast instead. I was stunned. After he boarded, I blurted out to my captain what he’d done. He responded with a startled, “Seriously?” and shook his head. Then we went about the charter, business as usual.
I brushed it off and didn’t think twice about pushing the issue. After all, the guy only touched my breast for a second, right? What would have happened if I confronted him or caused a fuss? These were paying customers and we were leaving the dock. We just wanted to finish our workday and get paid. One of our company’s photographers snapped a picture of me on the bow as we pulled out of the marina that evening. It’s a pretty picture, but whenever I look at it, I always think, right before it was taken I was groped by a fat little Italian man.
Those are the only two times in my life I’ve felt sexually violated, aside from the occasional ass grab, which sadly is all too common. And I am lucky. There probably isn’t a single woman who hasn’t had similar experiences, or far worse. The awful mix of shame, confusion and violation is all too real, even in seemingly benign cases. In spite of the stories I just recounted, I’ve never actually felt afraid that my body was in danger of assault.
That is, until our country elected Donald Trump president. The morning after the election felt like a physical affront on my body. I lay in bed, my eyes swollen from crying, clutching my breasts and my vagina in a protective crouch. I love my body. I am proud of my body. I am in awe of the power and pleasures of my body. It’s who I am to my very core. It’s mine. And my country just elected a man knowing full well that he thinks it’s okay to touch women without consent.
As Americans, we cannot take for granted the hard fought rights of women. We cannot forget that there are still places in the world today where sex trafficking and genital mutilation exists, where violent rape runs rampant and goes unpunished, where domestic violence is a fact of life, where women have no autonomy over their lives or their bodies. And we cannot be so arrogant to think that the misogynistic attitudes that enable such behavior do not exist in our own country.
We must continue to push for progress. There is no room for negotiation here. The two most important factors in the emancipation of women is freedom over our sexual and reproductive lives and the ability to earn a fair wage. The right to an abortion has been a constitutionally protected right since 1973, a right that’s been self-evident my entire lifetime. While women still earn only $0.79 to a man’s dollar, we’ve come a long way since we were unable to apply for a line of credit without our husbands’ approval.
That’s why the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is important and why we need better policies around family leave, childcare and supporting single mothers, who are the demographic most likely to live in poverty.
That’s why Donald Trump and the Republican’s fixation on overturning Roe v. Wade is about so much more than their hollow argument of religious high ground. It is about controlling women and ensuring that we are subordinate to men.
Trump’s malice towards women comes from every angle. It extends beyond his degrading remarks of our appearance to bragging about sexual assault and threatening punishment to women who have had an abortion. He is the embodiment of misogyny writ large.
Hillary Clinton famously said in a speech as First Lady in 1995 at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It is not an idealistic or empty slogan, but a sociological truth. There is a correlation between the health of a society and its gender equality measure. That is, a society where women’s rights are protected is a stronger society overall.
As Hillary said in that speech over two decades ago, “If women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations do, as well. That is why every woman, every man, every child, every family, and every nation on this planet [has a stake in women’s rights.]”
As the leader of the free world, the president of the United States is supposed to uphold the moral bar of decency and lead by example. The example that Donald Trump has set means that my body is up for grabs.
8. Dreams of our First Female President
Starting in late September, I devoted roughly 30 hours of my life volunteering for Hillary’s campaign. It was the first time I’ve ever gotten involved in the political process and I did it because I wanted to play a role in electing the first female president and stop the unthinkable from happening by amplifying my vote. I registered voters, made phone calls and knocked on doors to get out the vote for Hillary. For me, Hillary Clinton was not just the best candidate for the job, she was a symbol of female power and a hope for a more inclusive future.
And I’ll admit, I hung some irrational, girlish dreams on that hope. When Hillary Clinton is president, I thought, it won’t matter when a guy dumps me and breaks my heart. We women will officially have bigger dreams to build and dragons to slay than winning the affection of an unworthy partner. Hello, Hillary is president!
When Hillary Clinton is president, I’ll never have to explain or question the independent life I’ve created for myself that I love. It will simply be self-evident that women can do whatever we want and Hillary will build the infrastructure to support us.
When Hillary Clinton is president, we won’t have to apologize anymore for simply being female. We can be girly or not girly, frivolous or intellectual, bombshells or tomboys, promiscuous or celibate, CEOs or mothers, nice or not nice. We can be all of these things at the same time. We can just be. Hillary’s going to validate our existence once and for all.
When Hillary Clinton is president, she is going to heal the world of hatred and terror simply by employing her feminine intelligence and maternal instinct. Just you wait and see, I thought to all of the skeptics, you might not love her now, but you will. Hillary Clinton is going to be one of the greatest presidents of all time.
The more I watched Hillary throughout the campaign, the more my awe and admiration for her grew. After the first debate when she kept her cool and poise as Trump bumbled through lie after lie, talking over her and interjecting, “Wrong!” as his best line of defense, I found myself idly daydreaming, how can I be more like Hillary?
Her biography is fascinating to me. I am well aware of the arguments against her and the hatred pointed at her, but I will never understand it. For me, Hillary is the picture of an intelligent, courageous and beautiful woman who was ahead of her time from day one, who has persevered and fought the good fight, who found the love of an equally intelligent and fascinating man, who chose to keep her marriage intact despite a painful and public infidelity, who is a mother and grandmother, who became an expert in domestic and foreign policy, who held high offices with high approval ratings, who has continually reinvented herself and broken boundaries, and who’s done all of it against an unrelenting stream of vociferous critics for over three decades. As Obama pointed out during the Democratic National Convention — echoing Ann Richards, state treasurer and later governor of Texas, during the 1988 DNC — just like Ginger Rogers, Hillary does it all “backwards and in heels.”
Hillary Clinton is a portrait, a living and breathing embodiment, of one version of how a modern woman can have it all: career, family, love, success and power. She has led a robust and purposeful life. The arc of her story is one of resounding success. She may not have won the presidency, but she was the first woman to be elected as a major party candidate.
I’m buoyed by the fact that she won the popular vote by a margin of 2.9 million with nearly 66 million votes cast in her favor. There are more people in our country who believe in Hillary’s message of inclusivity than Trump’s message of hate. And lest anyone question whether she was the right Democratic candidate, let’s make it absolutely clear that she beat Sanders by a margin of 12 percentage points and 3.8 million votes in the primaries — not exactly a close race.
Hillary’s legacy is intact. And whoever becomes the first female president of the United States will have Hillary Clinton to thank for blazing that trail and shouldering the brunt of those slings and arrows. Hillary Clinton will go down in history as the feminist icon of my generation and I will always look to her for inspiration.
These words, the last spoken by Hillary in her presidential bid, are my mantra for 2017: “Let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose heart. For there are more seasons to come and… more work to do.”
It’s time for each of us to figure out what our work will be.
Shayne Benowitz is a Miami-based journalist and contributor to the Miami Herald and The Telegraph,