Hillary Clinton may have lost the election, but the symbolism of her candidacy is its own kind of victory. For many women in the United States of a certain age, it resonates.
For those of us who were born into families or religions that, for whatever reason, value and praise the achievements of sons over daughters; for every girl who was the smartest in the room, but whose talents went unrecognized, a Clinton victory was somehow going to make up for shortcomings in our personal histories.
For women like my own mother – who wore her Phi Beta Kappa Key (the emblem of an academic honor society) pinned to her blouse in the 1950s, as was the style, and was asked if it was her husband’s; or her sister, my aunt, now 87, who prayed she’d give birth to boys because she knew they’d “have an easier life than girls,” since smart women in New York City could realistically aspire to be only teachers then.
For little Jewish girls in the suburbs told their temples “didn’t do” bat mitzvas in the 1970s, and for their Catholic friends who wanted to be altar girls, but were told altar girls didn’t exist because if a woman set foot on the altar they would “contaminate” it. For a little girl who earned a crossing guard spot in elementary school in Connecticut and was told she couldn’t do it because she’d be exposed to the elements, but then watched as, years later, her parents let her little brother wear the badge.
Clinton supporters in tears
For all of these women, Clinton was going to be a consolation prize. We were finally going to win, if not personally, symbolically.
When we were children, there was a televised Battle of the Sexes in tennis. We watched Billie Jean King, the top women’s tennis player, take on what we then called a “male chauvinist,” Bobby Riggs, who’d baited her with misogyny. It was the largest audience for a match at the time, and both milked the drama – riding in on a litter and rickshaw, respectively. He taunted her the way we had been teased by bullies on the playground, then she wiped the floor with him, 6-4;6-3;6-3. For little girls who had been bullied and teased and taught “can’t” and “no” all our lives, it was, as they say, everything. That was 1973. The parallels with this election – the name-calling, the revenge for Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments and alleged behaviors, the overqualified opponent – all seemed like gender-affirming possibilities.
On election day men and women brought their daughters and sons to polling places in anticipation of history. They shared selfies and stories of the dreams of women in their families who had already passed away. Voters lined up for hours to place “I Voted” stickers on suffragette Susan B. Anthony’s grave. It had all the drama of that tennis match, it was just a matter of waiting for the polls to close and the long, bitter election to be over. And then reality hit.
For many women, the night was filled not only with our own dread and sorrow, but also with comforting our next generation with the words and rationalizations we’d long since internalized as women living in the United States. We told high schoolers refreshing their browsers hoping for a different outcome that life is full of disappointments; reassured college freshmen who phoned in tears from campus that life’s not a meritocracy. These are the clichés of our generation that we’ve been repeating to our female friends, and to ourselves, for decades. It’s our refrain. We’d hoped it would be different. We’d hoped for a girl to win.
But this setback feels different, inexplicable, because if not Hillary, the most competent, most qualified, most likely to succeed at this, then who? And when? We were expecting an Ace, but got a blistering return instead.
In fifth grade, in my suburban elementary school, the teacher surprised us by handing out paper and asking us to write “I Have A Dream” essays for Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. I dashed mine off and quickly ran outside – once you finished you could go to recess and talk to your friends.
When the papers came back, everyone got one but me. Instead, I was told to go down to the principal’s office. I was in trouble, I thought, because I’d handled the assignment recklessly; a latchkey kid because my mother went back to work in the city, I wrote almost entirely about re-runs of shows I watched on TV alone in the afternoons.
I wrote that I had a dream that Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble would go bowling, while Fred and Barney, their cartoon spouses, would stay home on The Flintstones. That Alice would tell Jackie Gleason that she’d punch him “straight to the moon,” the catchphrase of The Honeymooners. I mentioned Lucy and Ethel and Fred and Ricky from I Love Lucy, too.
When I got to the school’s office, the place only kids with disciplinary problems were sent, I saw another student there, from a lower grade. She was African American. They handed us both our essays, then turned on the PA system. We each read our wishes aloud to the entire school.
Her wish was for tolerance, couched in a second grader’s language and comprehension of racial prejudice. Mine concluded with the hope that there’d be a female president one day.
It’s difficult to fathom that here we are nearly half a century later, in America, and neither one of us has had her wish come true yet.The author is a writer in San Francisco, follow her at @IWishIHadTyped.