I had envisioned things going differently.
I’d imagined gathering my two daughters in front of the television and celebrating together as our country elected its first woman president. But that was not to be.
Earlier this month, my seven-year-old asked me: “Mama, has there ever been a woman president in our country?”
“Not yet, honey,” I responded.
She seemed shocked. “You mean—never?”
We’d come really close this time, I explained, because Hillary Clinton had almost won.
“But Mama. She did win. More people voted for her.”
I had to smile at the wisdom of second graders.
With inauguration day just hours away, I’ve been thinking about how Hillary’s campaign will shape my daughters’ attitudes and ambitions going forward. There’s no doubt that Mrs. Clinton was an accomplished and formidable competitor. Considering some of the challenges girls and women face in our society, it’s all the more impressive that Hillary got as far as she did.
My daughters are becoming more aware every day that being female in our world carries some tricky expectations. Whether via television, movies or social media, on the school playground or within their peer groups, girls are exposed to plenty of mixed messages like the following: women should be smart and well-spoken, but also compliant and non-threatening. They should be sculpted and athletic-looking, yet soft and feminine at the same time.
No matter how diligently we may work to counter these messages as parents, they have an unmistakable impact on our daughters: many girls begin to struggle with self-esteem as early as elementary school. Over the past year, as Hillary made history and became the first female major party nominee for president, I began to witness a troubling transformation in my second grader. My oldest daughter, whose confidence in herself had once appeared rock solid, suddenly seemed to shrink under the weight of a thousand insecurities.
One crisp autumn morning as we got ready for school, there was a marked hesitation, a tremulous edge to her voice that hadn’t been there before. Gone was the goofy, brash personality I’d come to expect from my firstborn. Now there were tears over what to wear, anguished declarations about her appearance, and worries about how others might perceive her.
In front of the mirror, she moaned, “My legs look horrible in all of these pants! I hate my hair!”
At breakfast came the whispered questions: “Will the boys think I’m weird if I run fast at recess? What if I’m the only girl wearing capris today?”
The sadness and uncertainty in her voice pained me. My daughter’s angst felt all too familiar.
On my nightstand, there’s an old plastic soccer trophy, dated 1985. In small black letters, it reads my name and the words, “Most Aggressive Girl.” I was seven years old then—the same age my daughter is now.
I know why I kept that trophy. It reminds me of a feeling I once had, a feeling I must’ve lost shortly after I traded in those soccer cleats and planted my feet firmly on the path to adolescence. It was the innate belief that I deserved to pursue what I wanted, without fear or concern about what other people might think. It was pride in my body as an instrument I could use to accomplish my goals, whether these were kicking a soccer ball, learning to play piano or writing a creative story. It was unbridled joy and delight in seeing the world as my oyster. That feeling is an ancient memory to me now, as much a relic as the jelly shoes and slap bracelets that were all the rage when I was young.
Growing up, I somehow concluded that “aggressive” was not a desirable personality trait for a girl, that being accommodating and nice was preferable to speaking my mind. I started caring intensely about what other people thought of me, about how I looked and acted on the outside, as my confidence gradually slipped away.
I don’t want my daughters to lose their spark. But how can I convince them that it’s both possible and worthwhile for a woman to be strong and ambitious? As close as Hillary came to winning the presidency, her campaign also highlighted the fact that society still views tenacious, tough women in a negative light. If you’re decisive, outspoken, and happen to be female, you risk being called “nasty.”
Would these negative perceptions have changed if Hillary had won? I’m not sure. But a Hillary victory would certainly have given new life to conversations with my own daughters. Watching a woman ascend to the highest office in our country would have enabled me to say with conviction: “Look, see! Many people disagreed with her—even disliked her—but that didn’t stop her, and she won. She is strong and capable, and so are you.”
For now, my oldest daughter and I are working through things, as best we both can. We talk about how someday in the near future, we will have a woman president. I remind her that she can run as fast as she wants and wear what makes her comfortable, and that it really doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t like it. We are exploring different activities, like tae kwon do and gymnastics, that make her feel strong. And I’ve shared some of the challenges I went through around her age and how I might handle them differently today.
After the election, Hillary pledged to keep working to improve our country. In the same spirit, I am encouraging my daughters to keep being awesome and pursuing their own ambitions, whatever this means to them. Maybe it means sprinting across the blacktop at recess, feeling the wind rustling through their hair, and not worrying about who is watching. Maybe it means speaking up about the issues that are important to them, even if doing so ruffles some feathers. Or maybe it simply means having the courage to own their space in a world that often seems hell-bent on making girls feel smaller.