Let’s take time today to celebrate a very great milestone for women.
Tomorrow we need to get to work.
Confession: I cannot write this morning without crying. I have been crying on and off for about 18 hours now and I expect the tears will keep flowing for some time yet. They are tears of joy, and power, and hope, and so many other emotions that are beyond words. Because last night, a woman won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. And not just any woman. One of the most brilliant, amazing women of any generation, ever. More on her brilliance later. Right now, just for a moment, I want to focus on what last night means to me as a woman.
I am very lucky and very privileged. My childhood unfolded in the heyday of second-wave feminism. Women were fighting for the right to step out of traditional roles and into new ones, the right for all of us women not to be defined by our relationship to men, or even our children, but to be seen and heard for who we are, with the freedom to take our places in the world and in all walks of life, as we chose, not as society chose for us.
Thanks to those great feminists, I grew up believing I could do anything. But yet debates raged. Many friends continued to argue that biological differences meant that women and men would always be better fitted to different roles, to some things more than others. That women were weaker, softer, less physically able, less reasonable, more emotional and therefore less fitted to decision-making and public life. Yes, really, those sort of conversations were common as I grew up. And over time it became clear that, despite taking our places in the professional world in significant numbers, few of us had managed to achieve real power or recognition.
Do you know what it’s like as a woman to grow up in a world that tells you ‘you can do anything’ but where every action hero is a man, where almost every leader and decision maker is a man? Where, if you speak up in a family debate, your older brothers chastise you and tell you to stop being bossy and how it used to be great before you came along because they could do all the talking? To work in professions where you, and the women around you, are praised for your work but men are continually promoted to positions of leadership and power? Where women make up 60% of the workforce but less than 10% of leaders? Where men talk over you in meetings, get visibly annoyed if you speak up, and where male executives make it clear they just want you to shut up and be compliant? Where the women who do achieve professional status and power are criticised for their dress and appearance, their voices, their bossiness, their softness, their bitchiness, their weakness, their emotions?
Now I am not going to pretend any of this adds up to anything like the oppression and injustice inflicted on people of color, or LGBTQ people, or people without rights and voices in developing nations, or women in countries and communities where they cannot even show their faces or drive a car. As a white person, I cannot really claim to understand oppression and cultural bias in the heartbreaking and life-threatening ways millions of others must live and deal with every day. But I do understand something of the confusion, the tiny ‘But’ that cries out in the heart every time you receive a message, subtly or overtly, that tells you, ‘That equality and those rights you think you have? Well, just remember their limits.’
And I also know what it’s like when you come across someone who stands up to all of that, who fights against all of that and who breaks through all of that. Someone who is smart, compassionate, hard-working, fair-minded, tough, resilient. Someone who looks and sounds like you and speaks to the deepest dreams and aspirations of your heart — not just for yourself but for all humanity. What does that feel like? It is God. Damn. Freaking. Inspirational.
That is who Hillary Clinton is — has always been — for me. I first sat up and took notice twenty years ago when she led the fight to implement universal healthcare in the US. The more I learned about her life, her work, her brilliance, the more I was inspired. She was so tough, so determined, so professionally able and she married all that with caring, with humour, with grace and fair-mindedness. She listened to people, she considered and weighed evidence, she maintained clear and deep values that never wavered, even as she adjusted her detailed policy positions based on new information and changing imperatives. She reached out to people who were different to her, and who held different views to her and she engaged them in dialogue and was reasonable and prepared to compromise to achieve change.
The things Hillary cared about were things I cared about. The causes she fought for were causes dear to my own heart. The way she spoke, behaved, worked — in all of it I could see something of myself as a woman. Here at last was a successful female role model I could identify with — she was tough, she was caring, she was smart, she was attractive, she was a professional, and a wife, and a mother.
Like so many of us, she put many of her talents, ambitions and effort into her husband’s career rather than her own and yet was criticised for not being more traditional, more like the women of the past. (Let’s face it, Hillary has always been criticised for everything). Yet in the face of all the criticism and the barriers that still existed for women, she had achieved real power, without becoming a caricature of feminity or compromising her talents and her truth.
Here at last was a role model I could embrace with all my heart and all my admiration. Here was someone who reflected myself back to me and showed me all that was possible despite all those ‘get back in your box’ moments I’d experienced. No one has experienced more of those that Hillary herself I suspect. No one in public life has taken more criticism or been the subject of more hysterical fear-mongering, misinterpretation and overt hatred. As a woman, her response to all of that is also inspiring and speaks to my heart. I look at her example and the voice inside says, “If she can take it, you can too. If she can remain gracious and fair-minded, you can too. If she can keep going, you can too.”
I can only begin to imagine what the nomination and election of a black man eight years ago meant to black people and other people of color. How it spoke to the dreams of their hearts in the face of all the racism, oppression and injustice they have lived with for generations. I rejoiced at Barack Obama’s achievement, even as my heart broke for Hillary. I rejoiced as they forged an alliance together — because yes, we are stronger together — and I am so grateful for the presidency of such a wonderful, inspiring, gifted and socially awake man. But now, now at last I get to rejoice for the woman I have admired — and yes, loved from afar — for so long.
As I watched the roll call yesterday I, like many other women, had tears streaming down my face. I shared some of my emotion and elation on Facebook:
This year’s American election will be one of the most important ever, for America and the world. And for all the reasons I have stated, I believe with all my heart that Hillary Rodham Clinton is not merely the lesser of two evils but is everything we need. A woman. A woman who listens. A woman who evaluates evidence. A woman who reaches out to people with opposing views to forge compromise and alliances in order to enact change. A woman who cares about ordinary people, people of colour, women, children, everywhere. It has taken far too long for a woman to reach this point. I am so glad we made it at last… and tonight I want to rejoice because, as a woman, it means so much to me to see a woman reach this highest place. And not just any woman. This woman. Hillary Rodham Clinton!
I hope that today, women and girls all around the world are feeling inspired and hopeful and empowered just like me. I hope we will all take time today and this week to recognise and celebrate the importance — both real and symbolic — of this moment in history. And then I hope we all use that inspiration to find our voices, get organised, get active in whatever way our circumstances allow because we need to get this woman elected. The country needs her, the world needs her. It needs all of us to find our voices in support of her voice, because she has been ours for so long.
Thank you Hillary. I’m with you!