Dear Hillary, You Are Every Strong Woman, And This Was Every Woman’s Fight
By Lauren Hayes
I am 24 years old, and I am a hurricane of loud emotion.
Through a campaign that feels like a chemical burn, I listen as pundits and voters alike dismiss you as unlikable and somehow, fundamentally, inexplicably corrupt. “Killary” and “Lock Her Up” and people who hate you with an unshakable, white-lipped fury that even they can’t usually explain.
I cannot understand it, because I don’t like you.
I love you.
How could I not?
You are my mother, born in 1954 to a poor family in Eastern Kentucky and fighting her way up, who raised a child on her own while pursuing a master’s degree, recalls her own work helping disabled children gain access to schools, and continues to devote herself to her career in Special Education.
You are my aunt, my ma’s sister, who is and has always been a mouthy firebrand. Who worked her way through law school in the mid 1970’s, refused to take “no” for an answer, became an attorney, and shattered glass ceilings. Who taught me to speak with strength and give no one a reason to dismiss me.
And they got to vote for you, Madam Secretary. They got to vote for you.
I am 19 years old, and my boyfriend sits at a desk behind mine in the International Politics course I convinced him to take with me. The professor is an old-school fellow with impressive credentials, and he is incredibly attuned to the consequences of race and class discrimination, colonialism, and the hegemony of the West, but he has a blind spot precisely the size and shape of womanhood.
“In my country,” he begins, apropos of absolutely nothing we are studying in class, “women who have abortions are considered whores. In this country, they just sleep with whoever they want and boom, get abortions.”
My knuckles are white around the curved edges of my desk. My heart is beating fast, so fast, and I feel my hand shoot up and my mouth is speaking before my brain has time to permit it.
“Sir, you know that’s not how it works, right?”
“That isn’t how abortion works. It’s an expensive, uncomfortable medical procedure. Women aren’t just running out to get abortions. Countries where abortion is illegal don’t see any drop in the number of women getting abortions, they just see the number of women dying from back alley procedures skyrocket. If it were just out of convenience that wouldn’t happen.” I’m raising my voice now, and I feel it reverberating in me.
“Miss Hayes, where are your sources?”
“The Guttmacher Institute; yours?”
“This isn’t — ” He puts his hands up in an attempt to calm . . . me, I know he must be trying to calm me, but that is ridiculous because I am not irrational, I am not even upset, I simply know this is the right thing and I cannot shut my mouth.
“They are in an untenable situation. They aren’t doing it because it’s fun.”
He smiles, as though he’s defusing the situation. “How do you know, have you had one?”
There is a silence like I have never heard before. Only blood rushing in my ears. My chest is tight and I can’t quite grasp what has just happened.
“That is absolutely none of your business.” Distantly, I feel proud of my mouth for being able to jump on what my conscious brain genuinely cannot process.
My eyes have not shifted from my professor through this entire exchange. They drop, now, to my desk.
As the professor turns back around, the girl who sits beside me in the next aisle reaches out and touches my hand. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Thank you.” I’m not really even lying. My boyfriend puts his hand on my shoulder. I’m grateful for it.
As the class ends and everyone files out, the professor motions me to his desk. I pretend I’m not shaking from adrenaline. He looks genuinely concerned, smiles slightly.
“I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” he says.
I jut my chin up.
“Nothing about that embarrassed me. It was just completely inappropriate.”
I walk out.
I am 16 years old, and my AP U.S. History class is taught by a man who could best be described as “extraordinarily partisan.” I’m back in public schools, after going to a religious middle school, and two years of being surrounded by Evangelical ideology has pushed me firmly in the opposite direction.
I’m mouthy, and this teacher, despite his strong conservatism, is happy enough to let the two or three liberal kids in class argue with him at length. Power to that man — he tended to encourage critical thinking skills, if only because we wanted to argue with him and we wanted to win. (I occasionally wonder if this was entirely intentional on his part.)
It’s 2008. You and Barack Obama are locked in a heated bid for the Democratic nomination. And as much as I would like to blame him for it, the illustrious Donald Trump was far from the first to attempt to discredit you in vitriolic and unapologetically sexist terms.
Five minutes left, and talk turns to the upcoming election. My teacher half-sits on an empty desk. One girl, pretty and smart, much better at math than me, popular and very used to being both right and well-liked, is sitting up straight and speaking quickly. The Democratic candidates are both complete jokes, she says. Obama has no experience and is maybe a Muslim.
Her nose scrunches up when she considers you. “Hillary sucks,” she says plainly.
Our teacher begins to chuckle and nod, face scrunching as he puts on a show of trying to contain himself. As she trails off, he adds, “Besides, if she can’t control her husband, how is she going to control the country?”
My heart drops into a familiar rhythm of not fair not fair not FAIR. I try to swallow past that tightness in my throat and this time I can’t say anything, because I’m too busy watching.
Her face goes red, and she laughs with him, but there’s a flash of something else in her eyes, just for a second. I wonder if she feels the same rage and sadness somewhere deep inside her that I do.
I’m 16, a young white girl with extraordinary privilege, and this is already exhausting.
I am 13 years old and my best friend Beth and I lie with our backs flush against the cool concrete of my suburban driveway. It’s late at night, the kind of late that felt a little like being drunk before you knew what drunk was.
I can’t recall the catalyst, but Beth turns over, looks me in the eye and says, “I would never vote for a woman president.”
The memory of the sudden dryness of my mouth and the incredulous bark of a laugh that comes out of me feeling like fire is indelible.
“What are you talking about?”
I am no feminist at 13 — at least, I don’t think I am. My conservative Christian school has taught me that abortion is evil, the gays are to be avoided and prayed for, evolution is a lie created by atheists to test our faith, and that the best kind of woman is the silently supportive one. But a year or two of this does not negate the lifetime of strong women who raised me, or the gnawing absence of the father whom this ideology considers to be the unquestionable pinnacle of the family structure.
“I don’t think a woman should be president. We’re just not good at that kind of thing.”
She speaks with absolute certainty and I just . . . don’t understand.
“Just because you wouldn’t . . .” I deflect, poking my finger into her ribs, trying to get out of this itchy feeling in my skin. She doesn’t laugh. I think of all of the boys in our class. And this hard little knot in my tummy solidifies, just a little. “So if it was between me and John, you’d vote for John.”
She giggles and lays quiet for a moment. “I don’t know. He wouldn’t be good at it.”
She’s right. He really, really wouldn’t.
“What about Queen Elizabeth? She ran England for . . . lots of years. Isn’t a woman president of Germany now? How can you say all of us are bad at ‘that kind of thing’?”
She pauses, and she thinks, and the silence kind of hurts in a way that I don’t have any words for.
“I just don’t think a woman should be above men. The Bible says so.”
That echoes in my brain for years.
I am 24 years old, and I am beginning to realize the power of my voice. I do my best to use it to lift others up and think of your composure when I am shouted down. You have weathered far worse storms than these, and far more frequently.
You are every strong woman in my life, Hillary Clinton. You have broken immense ground for us. I look forward to making you proud.
I am 24 years old, and the knot in my stomach has turned to fire.
With love, respect, and admiration,
Lead image: flickr/Mike Mozart