Today I sat mesmerized, by a part of a political convention I haven’t watched live in many years – the official roll call of delegates, at the Democratic National Convention. I watched the entire thing, all the way to Wyoming, when the roll call went back to Vermont, and Bernie Sanders nominated Hillary Clinton. With a rush of unexpected tears in my eye, I witnessed the nomination of the first woman for U.S. President by a major political party.
I was deeply moved as I watched our democratic process at work, hearing each state delegation proudly declare their accomplishments and unique attributes. “Home of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” said Ohio. “The state where the big choice is red or green (as in chiles)” said New Mexico. “Birthplace of eight U.S. Presidents,” said Virginia. I watched in awe as each delegation cast their respective votes for the two candidates, but then agreed on the party’s choice, a woman, for highest office in the land.
Last night I listened as First Lady Michelle Obama gave her remarkable, inspirational and powerful speech, a call to action, which demonstrated leadership, discernment, and wisdom. I recalled that, several years ago, when someone asked me to choose who, among any living person, I’d like to have lunch with, I answered Michelle Obama. I’ve always admired her intelligence, humor, parenting, and integrity, and thought her unique role in history would make for a fascinating (and fun!) conversation.
With all the chaos imbedded in this election, it seems that the historical significance of this week is being overshadowed by politics. It seems that younger generations of women may not appreciate how big a deal this really is. To think about the progress of change for women from Hillary to Michelle, leading to the opportunities now open to the next generation of women is remarkable.
I think about my mother, valedictorian of her high school graduating class in the early 1940’s. She received a degree, with honors, from the University of Michigan, with a double major in chemistry and biology. The only job she could land was a lab technician/administration position at Dow Chemical, junior to younger and far less educated men. She became so bored that she quit and joined the Navy as a WAVE. At Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, she met my father, an OCS instructor. Within a year, my parents were married and shortly thereafter, when my mother became pregnant with my oldest brother, she was out of the Navy and her professional career was over.
I thought about my own career. During my law school days in the early 80’s, women comprised less than 30% of the student body. I was constantly asked (even by one law professor) how, as a woman, I planned to fit in any kind of legal (or otherwise) career with marriage and family. After I graduated, my first job was clerking for a judge at the Santa Clara County Superior Court. When I rode the elevator to my office on the 8th floor, older men (usually judges or other lawyers) would say things like “Honey, can you push 4 for me?” When I was conferring with judges and lawyers in the courtroom or chambers, I was asked to fetch coffee and make photocopies.
When I began my corporate career, there were few women in positions of power. The one woman in upper management at my firm had devoted nearly every waking hour to her career, giving up marriage and family, and she was tough as nails. She became an important mentor to me, and when I was pregnant with my son, she decided to make me a role model, fighting successfully for me to take a two-month maternity leave and return to work on a part-time schedule. All of this was perfectly legal at the time, but rarely done for fear of career repercussions. I credit her with blazing trails and opening doors for me, facilitating my successful career.
My mentor relayed stories to me from her career, and the sexism (both overt and veiled) she encountered. She was taunted, shunned from the “old boys network” where important client and corporate decisions were made, and relegated to menial work. She worked tirelessly, and tenaciously stood up for herself and her clients, developing a reputation for being “difficult” and a “b*&!” for behavior that would’ve been applauded as “assertive” or a “go-getter” in her male counterparts.
I see many similarities between my mentor and Hillary Clinton, who are about the same age. My mentor was a whip-smart, organized, capable, stubborn, tough, thick-skinned woman, qualities she needed to excel in a man’s world. Although warm and funny with trusted friends and associates, her learned steeliness suggested a cold-heartedness to others. I suspect that many of the criticisms of Hillary’s personality also stem from the survival tactics she has adopted over the course of her long legal career and in the public eye. It takes a tough woman like Hillary Clinton to scale a mountain like the presidency.
So, today I pause to celebrate and savor the remarkable accomplishments of strong female role models on display in Philadelphia this week. Younger generations may find it unsurprising that we are on the cusp of electing our first female President, but that in itself speaks volumes to the great progress women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have wrought in my lifetime.
Who knows? Maybe next year, after she leaves the White House, Michelle Obama will have time for our dream lunch, and we can compare notes, and reflect on our lives and the progress of women in this country, and I will personally thank her for her inspirational leadership. After all, the message of today is, a girl can dream big, right?