Cheerleaders, Hillary, and Me

There’s a transcript and article floating around the Internet of a young Hillary Rodham giving a student address at the Wellesley commencement in 1969. In her remarks she is eloquent and intelligent, and the cadence of her younger self foreshadows the powerful public figure of the present. So it got me thinking about who we are in our nascent adult stages, and how much of that is drawn forward in our fully blossomed versions.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about who I was in high school, but like most people, aspects of that time in my life have never left me. I had different phases, for sure. Goth, then punky hair that made me look more like a pineapple than a badass, then permanently nerdy overachiever. One group I never drifted to was cheerleading. In those days, cheerleading was more closely associated with looking pretty and being popular than performing athletically (times have changed — thank you, Title IX!) And being non-white, there’s a whole host of adolescent image issues that come with the territory, so, you get why it wasn’t at the top of my list.

So there were the girls who were cheerleaders, and the girls who were on student council, and then everybody else.

College opened up a whole new world and new ways to figure out who I was, and although the categories were exponentially more broad, eventually, people settled into tribes — some overlapping, some completely mutually exclusive. I was fortunate to have very strong tribes with overlapping ties — Asian American social justice activists, women’s studies scholars, writers, artists — and our passions, our common backgrounds, our sense of ways we wanted to contribute to the world (and our sense of humor) drew us together.

My sisters in women’s studies were some of the most highly engaged, thoughtful, intelligent, self-directed people I have ever encountered in my life. They still are. I’m grateful to still be in touch with some of them through the magic of Facebook (when we’re not cyberstalking our offspring). These women were from all walks of life, with different orientations and backgrounds, but all fearless in combining theoretical justice with activism and personal pursuits. Oh, and did I mention all these classes were hosted in the all women’s college of the university, where women in leadership roles were the norm? Modeling matters, folks.

But even within a sphere where the members of the community all see equality as a cause, there are disparities. Privilege comes in many flavors, even among sisters. I discovered this when lamenting the “job-hunting” process of senior year with a classmate, who sheepishly admitted she was just going to spent some time in Europe while she “figured out” what to do next, because she had some money in a trust fund, and well, you know. Except I didn’t even know what she was talking about. Growing up behind a cash register at a small family business for most of my youth, I had no idea there were people who had the option not to work. This isn’t the false modesty of the “immigrant work ethic,” it’s simple home economics. Work = eat = be alive.

For students like my classmate, there were many options. Take an unpaid internship, study abroad, spend time volunteering, run for student government, maybe even class president. For students like me, my time was spent rushing to jobs after class to pay for books, expenses, and that famous NYC experience (at least the cheap seats version — sixty cent Papaya dog, anyone?) No asking for handouts from Mom and Dad, who were putting in 12 hour days just to keep me in the Ivy gates.

On paper all my college sisters and I had “access” to the same education, but we were very clearly having very different experiences. There wasn’t a cheerleader in the bunch, but there was just as clear a divide between who was “naturally” poised for leadership and those who were “everybody else.” This is something to consider when you compare the tightrope that Michelle Obama has walked in the public eye — beautifully, bravely, with grace combined with steely unshakability — and Hillary Clinton, who has been harshly criticized for her outspokenness, but not brutalized the way Michelle Obama would have been if she had so much as dropped to a half smile in public appearances, and she did not choose to run for anything.

While many characterize Hillary as a woman in a man’s world, I see her as an extension of the world of sisters I came of age in. She embodies the reach for the brass ring, the achiever, the leader we all were told to become. She’s not the cheerleader who dated the football team captain, she’s the student council president who gave a knockout public speech and then married the Rhodes Scholar. And yes, she has earned every job, every accolade, and she has worked very, very hard to raise the bar for herself and everyone she represents.

And yet.

So have the many sisters who also went to the same schools, and studied really, really hard, and worked longer hours than their male counterparts for less money. And they are not quite in the position to run for president. They are the Huma Abedins and the Valerie Jarretts; the women who make Hillary possible.

This fall, I too, will do all I can to make Hillary possible. She is more than qualified, and she understands elected office as an obligation to serve the public, not herself. Her fight is my fight. And when she is elected to office, I hope there is a young Michelle Robinson out there, writing her valedictory address for a Seven Sisters school, planning her road to the White House, with or without a Rhodes Scholar by her side.