The U.S. election is today (thank heavens, for how much more of this could we take?), and the historic nature of it keeps disappearing beneath the media circus of it all. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and whatever you think of the two candidates, let's please taking a moment to appreciate the history-making fact that there is, finally, a viable female candidate on the presidential ballot. Whether she wins or loses (perish the thought), that is a big step forward for America.
When my grandmother was born, women could not vote; the 19th Amendment giving us that right wasn't signed into law until 1920. When my mother was born, it was still legal to deny us jobs, housing, banking service, mortgages, and the power to make our own health care decisions; the first laws addressing these issues weren't signed until the 1960s. When I was born, it was still legal for a man to rape his wife in all 50 states; the first state law against it wasn't signed until 1973. We've come a long way, baby...and, sadly, we have not come nearly far enough, as the depth of the misogyny unleashed during the campaign season we've just endured has surely made clear.
Today, there are women in America wearing white as they head to the voting booth, in honor of the Suffragists who fought so hard to give us this right. Although I've already voted with a mail-in ballot, I'm wearing white here in Devon too. While I am, of course, praying that we'll see a woman in the White House at the end of this process, we're making history today regardless of the outcome. Women have run for president before, but never as a major party nominee, and never with a chance in hell of succeeding. It shouldn't have taken this long, it shouldn't have been this hard, but we're finally here.
For women of my generation (and older), this is more momentous than some of our younger feminist sisters and brothers can perhaps conceive. The world that we were born into was very different from today. As novelist Barbara Kingsolver writes in The Guardian:
"How did it even start? I was no feminist prodigy, just a shy kid who preferred reading to talking; politics weren’t my destiny. Probably, I was trying to work out what was possible for my category of person -- legally, logistically -- as one might ask which kinds of terrain are navigable for a newly purchased bicycle. Up until then, gender hadn’t darkened my mental doorway as I followed my older brother into our daily adventures wearing hand-me-down jeans. But in adolescence it dawned on me I’d be spending my future as a woman, and when I looked around, alarm bells rang. My mother was a capable, intelligent, deeply unhappy woman who aspired to fulfilment as a housewife but clearly disliked the job. I saw most of my friends’ mothers packed into that same dreary boat. My father was a country physician, admired and rewarded for work he loved. In my primordial search for a life coach, he was the natural choice.
"I probably started by asking him if girls could go to college, have jobs, be doctors, tentatively working my way up the ladder. His answers grew more equivocal until finally we faced off, Dad saying, 'No' and me saying, 'But why not?' A female president would be dangerous. His reasons vaguely referenced menstruation and emotional instability, innate female attraction to maternity and aversion to power, and a general implied ickyness that was beneath polite conversation.
"I ended that evening curled in bed with my fingernails digging into my palms and a silent howl tearing through me that lasted hours and left me numb. The next day I saw life at a remove, as if my skull had been jarred. What changed for me was not a dashing of specific hopes, but an understanding of what my father -- the person whose respect I craved -- really saw when he looked at me. I was tainted. I would grow up to be a lesser person, confined to an obliquely shameful life."
I, too, had that conversation -- not with my father (I didn't have one), but with my grandmother; and not, I blush to confess, about any such lofty ambition as becoming president. What I wanted was to be a radio DJ like Cousin Brucie, whose New York-based show, full of British pop music and Motown, I listened to religiously. I must have been six or seven when my grandmother sat me down and explained that, being a girl, this would be impossible. Girls, she said, could be housewives, teachers, nurses, or secretaries, and that was pretty much it.
It was only then that I realized that, no, there were no women on any of the radio shows I listened to, or in any of the other wide-ranging jobs I fantasized about holding one day. I mean no disrepect towards teachers, nurses, secretaries, or stay-at-home parents; there are awesome women and men in all those roles, but those weren't the things I was dreaming of. My jobs of choice were DJ, explorer, motorcycle racer, artist or veterinarian (pretty much in that order). And like Barbara, I went to sleep that night in tears, feeling the world collapse around me.
I know little about my grandmother's politics, as it wasn't a subject we talked about. But as I grew older, my mother -- a soft-spoken, unrebellious kind of woman -- became a passionate supporter of equal rights, aware her own life had been unhappily constrained by traditional gender scripts. She worked hard, with few leisure hours, and yet she made time to volunteer for her local branch of the League of Women Voters, fighting past the shyness she felt as a working class woman in a middle class organization (or so it was her neighborhood) because of her conviction that women must use the vote to gain equality and independence.
My mother died fifteen years ago, but as I sat down at my kitchen table with my overseas ballot and checked the box by Hillary Clinton's name, I found myself feeling surprisingly emotional. I completed the form, sealed the envelope, and said out loud:
Photographs above: The black-and-white photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) The final two photographs are of my grandmother & my mother in 1940s; and my mother & me in the 1960s.
Video above: "Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage," a fabulous parody of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Released by Soomo Publishing in 2012, the video is "an homage to Alice Paul and the generations of brave women who joined together in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment."