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The Hillary Lesson

A Book Excerpt from "Don't Call Me Princess"

Oh how I wish that ten years after May 2008, when this piece was published, I could write that Hillary had triumphed, that sexism and ageism were vanquished in politics. Because if I worried about what our daughters might have learned from the race for president back then . . .

Berkeley’s Fourth Street is my town’s version of a strip mall: there is little you might need there, but much to want: handcrafted Japanese paper; diaphanous Stevie Nicks– inspired frocks; wooden toys imported from Europe. One recent morning, as my four-year-old daughter and I strolled to our favorite diner, she pointed to a bumper sticker plastered on a mailbox. A yellow, viraginous caricature of Hillary Clinton leered out from a black background. Big block letters proclaimed, THE WICKED WITCH OF THE EAST IS ALIVE AND LIVING IN NEW YORK.

“Look, Mama,” she said. “That’s Hillary. What does it say?”

Let me state right off that I don’t consider Senator Clinton a victim. Her arm is so limber from the mud she has lobbed during her political career that now the whole president thing is doubtful, she may have a future as the first woman to pitch for the Yankees. So it is not the attacks themselves that give me pause, but the form they consistently have taken, the default position of incessant, even gleeful (and, I admit it, sometimes clever) misogyny. Staring down the sight line of my daughter’s index finger, I wondered what to tell her—not only at this moment, but in years to come—about Hillary and about herself. Will the senator be my example of how far we’ve come as women or how far we have to go? Is she proof to my daughter that “you can do anything” or of the hell that will rain down on you if you try? Voting against Clinton does not make a person sexist—there are other reasons to reject her. But contemplating the life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one T-shirts, the stainless-steel-thighed Hillary nutcrackers, the comparison to the bunny-boiling Alex Forrest of Fatal Attraction, I struggle over how, when—even whether—to talk to girls truthfully about women and power.

I beamed when my daughter announced her first career choice, firefighter, ridiculously proud (given she was barely two) that she felt no barriers to what was historically a male-only job. Nor did I indicate at the time that there would be any for her. Of course, I didn’t really expect her to pursue that dream (she has already moved on to scuba diver) but the truth is, if she did she might face a life of isolation and hostility, much like Rebecca Farris, who, in 2006, after her promotion to engine driver in a firehouse in Austin, Texas, came to work to find her locker smeared with human excrement. At least no one suggested she iron her stationmates’ shirts.

In the white-collar realm, I suppose I should celebrate the announcement last month of the first woman named chief executive of a top U.S. accounting firm, but maybe I’m just a glass-half-empty kind of gal: I mean, the first? In 2008? Are they kidding? Meanwhile, now that Meg Whitman has stepped down as CEO of eBay, there are a measly twelve women who lead Fortune 500 companies; their percentage of female corporate officers has also dropped over the last three years. And while women make up 48 percent of new lawyers (and have hovered in that range for around a decade), the percentage of women who are law partners at major firms remains stuck at a pitiful eighteen.

Right now, my daughter doesn’t know about the obstacles she may face someday, and I’m not sure of the wisdom of girding her in advance. Even the supposedly “girl positive” picture books, designed to address this very issue, pose a dilemma. Take Elenita, a magical-realist tale, given to my daughter by a family friend, about a girl who wants to be a glassblower. Her father says she can’t do it: she’s too little, and besides, the trade is forbidden to women. The lesson, naturally, is that with a little ingenuity girls can be glassblowers or stevedores or [fill in

the blank]. Nice. Still, I found myself hesitating over the “girls can’t” section. My daughter has never heard that “girls can’t be” or “girls can’t do.” Why should I plant the idea in her head only to knock it down?

The same quandary crops up with older girls. They are sports stars, yearbook editors, valedictorians. We have assured them the world is theirs, and they have no reason to disbelieve us. Like Clinton, our daughters are no victims. And yet, all is not quite well. Not when achieving CEO, MD, or PhD status can still come appended with a second alphabet of b-and c-words. Not when a woman who runs for office is accused of harboring a “testicle lockbox.” Clinton, whatever else she may be, has become a reflection, a freeze frame of the complications and contradictions of female success. Her bid for the White House has embodied both the possibilities we never imagined for our daughters—shattering not just the glass ceiling but the glass stratosphere—and the vitriol that attaining them can provoke. Both are real; so Godspeed, girls.

Perhaps by the time my daughter is of age, the ambivalence toward powerful women will have dissipated. Judging by the attitudes of today’s young adults, however, I’m not optimistic. According to a J. Walter Thompson survey of workplace issues published last month, while many men in their twenties show no preference, a full 40 percent would rather have a male than a female boss.

The bumper sticker my daughter saw on Fourth Street struck me as “viraginous,” yet a virago can be defined either as a harpy or as a hero. I have a few years before I have to explain that to her. In the meantime, I did what any good mother would do when confronted with a thorny subject: I pointed to the bakery across the street and said: “Hey, look, honey! Want a cookie?”

From Don’t Call Me Princess. Published with permission of Harper Paperbacks. Copyright © 2018 by Peggy Orenstein.

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