When Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee for President of the United States, I’ll admit I cried.
I looked at my daughter and my tears came. Nothing in my childhood prepared me for that moment.
While witnessing a historic triumph for women, I thought about all the instances of sexism I endured throughout my life, dating from when I was a little girl.
“Why don’t you look like her?” My uncle asked me that question regularly. He was referring to Christina Applegate, who then starred in the role of Kelly Bundy on the popular sitcom “Married with Children.”
I was 7 years old.
I was also a curious, chatty child. I wanted to be a part of the all-boy cousin club that ruled my grandmother’s backyard. I was a bit of a tomboy with grass stains and bruises to show for it.
Kelly Bundy was the stereotypical dumb, beautiful blonde. She was a teenager who dressed scantily and was the brunt of everyone’s jokes.
I wasn’t that. I was dirty, rowdy, and always had something to say.
Even at 7, I knew Kelly Bundy was stupid. But I also knew she was valued for the way she looked and acted. My uncle was signaling to me that I would be better loved if I was more beautiful and perhaps less intelligent (code for more pliable).
I stopped playing in the dirt shortly after.
Looking back, it’s clear to me how inappropriate it was of my uncle to make a connection between a little girl and an overtly sexualized television character. At the time, I simply wondered what was wrong with me.
My uncle was a middle-school science teacher.
The wood kept splitting in the wrong place. No matter how many times I tried, I wasn’t very adept at making birdhouses. My specific memories of the woodworking are hazy—I believe I was using a sawing tool. However, memories of my teacher’s comments on my despair are crystal clear.
His low, gravelly voice came from behind me. “You better start wearing shorter skirts if you want to get anywhere in life.”
I was 12 years old.
He was my 7th grade woodshop teacher.
The saddest part of this brief exchange was how little it registered at the time. It was icky and made me feel unsafe in a way a 12-year-old doesn’t yet fully understand. I had been conditioned to expect these small, quiet, unassuming affronts to my female person—and from men I was meant to trust.
He’s retired now, but I often wonder how many young girls he harassed in this manner before riding off into the sunset. I would place my bets on too many.
No Future in Politics
There were an equal number of boys and girls in my class. We just learned about campaign finance.
The overweight, loud man at the head of the class asked, “Who here would like to pursue a future in politics some day?”
A smattering of boys raised their hands. The man verbally acknowledged them.
One young woman of color raised her hand.
The man asked, “Did you have a question?”
She was 17 years old.
He was a high-school history teacher.
I am embarrassed to admit my response was to swiftly look away, like I had been struck. I never saw her face. I can only imagine the pain it registered.
She is wildly successful today. She advocates on behalf of kids every day of her life. We are not close enough for me to ask her, but I wonder if that moment had any impact on her choice to serve children.
It certainly affected my choices. Full disclosure: I wrote my college essay on this moment.
In retrospect, I believe that was the moment I fully embraced the label of “feminist.”
A More Perfect Union
Words matter. The words of teachers matter, especially. I never forgot the words of those teachers. And, in ways big and small, they have had a role in shaping me.
I have cared too much about my appearance although intellectually I know it doesn’t matter. I have fought a nagging voice that tells me I’m not enough. I have often said “Sorry,” when I should have said, “I’m speaking now.”
Stories like mine are but a few points on the timeline of any woman’s journey through sexism. Too many women pile up these moments of snide comments and seemingly small injustices until they cumulatively turn into an avalanche.
They are simply my truths; the small reasons for my tears during the Democratic Convention.
When Hillary Clinton stood on a podium and said, “Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” those words mattered. When Donald Trump called women “pigs” and “bimbos,” those words mattered, too.
The President of the United States may not be a teacher, but like a teacher, the job has a greater ability than most occupations to shape generations. When a presidential candidate can reflect on sexual harassment in the workplace, apply it to his own daughter, and still say, “I’d hope she’d just find another job,” that matters.
This is why I ask a favor of those in education and beyond: Remember the women in your lives.
Remember that when you enter classrooms and voting booths, words matter.
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