Sarah Stankorb | Longreads | February, 2017 | 12 minutes (2,917 words)
My daughter Zoe was about 11 months old. Other strange men with silvered brows had referred to her as princess before. I’d read Cinderella Ate My Daughter during my third trimester, and while I deeply feared how the world would subtly limit her options, I usually bit my tongue over the princess thing. But we were on a trip to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and maybe it was thoughts of presidents, or the emotional toll of slipping between the fancy house and its slave quarters, or maybe I was just tired. But I looked at the man who’d just called my daughter princess and said, “Not a princess. She’s going to be president.”
He looked at me like I was talking gibberish—he’d just been trying to be nice to a baby—and walked away. I got used to that taken-aback look, because from that point forward, not-a-princess-but-president became my default. By the time we went to Disney World last spring when she was 4, my daughter had heard the message enough times that as park attendants and characters called her princess, my daughter corrected everyone (except Elsa, because evidently one does not mess with the ice queen).
Zoe would sling a hand to her hip and say, “I’m not a princess.” When they’d ask what she is then, she’d reply “President.” Or “Jedi” on a day spent scouring for and failing to find Rey.
Zoe identified with Hillary Clinton from the start. While I was weighing Sanders versus Clinton, my 4-year-old had determined “Hillary is a girl president, like me.” She made up songs about Hillary and developed a granddaughterly deep, unfaltering affection for her.
Meanwhile, I dug Bernie Sanders’ laser focus on economic issues, his willingness to put words to the crush of student debt that weighs on most people of my generation. Hillary Clinton, it seemed, had almost always been there floating in my vague awareness of the political realm. As a young teen, I respected that she used Rodham—and knew zero women in my own life who’d kept their given surnames, or hyphenated them. I certainly didn’t understand why there was so much hubbub over her lack of interest in baking cookies.
My own mother had set my life’s trajectory, firmly pointing me toward college and a career of my choosing. “You don’t need a man for anything,” she asserted, frequently. Marriage, if I wanted it, could wait. Children, if I wanted them, must certainly wait. Mom launched into informal sex education when I was in elementary school to ensure I would understand and have control over my reproductive choices. Who cared if the First Lady didn’t want to be reduced to lurking in kitchens? Neither did my mother and neither did I.
But years on, grown up and with kids of my own, Clinton’s presidential bid felt about two generational steps removed from me. Her nineties positions on feminism and health care, treated as so radical at the time, were an assumed part of my world. My life was evidence of progress. I didn’t need her anymore.
Last spring, on my way into the gym early one morning, I stopped dead in my tracks. A massive banner hung across the entryway. “ZOE for President,” it read. I’d been following Clinton’s less-than-charismatic ascent, feeling begrudgingly pulled toward her corner, but here my Zoe was being drafted for president, or at least I liked thinking about it that way. I stared at the sign and laughed.
In reality, the YMCA had launched a “Zoe for President” campaign marketing the organization’s preschools, using the increasingly common girl’s name to demonstrate how its programs support kids from birth to bright futures. But it felt as though the entire thing had been concocted for my Zoe. I took her that afternoon to stand in front of faux campaign signs in the Y’s flowerbed. Zoe was running for president.
Once the race boiled down to Clinton and Trump, I began complaining that the election seemed to encapsulate some Boomer fight between the ’80s and ’90s that I hadn’t been fully privy to as a kid and could not be made to care about now. Clinton was too corporate. Clinton was too hawkish. Too moderate, not like the feisty Hillary Rodham of my teenage years. And there was no way Trump could really win! Not after the debates, or the Twitter fits, or Pussygate.
My world began to seem populated wholly by older women who were convicted with a Madeline Albrightesque “special place in hell” attitude for those who weren’t standing behind Clinton, and the force of my daughter’s overwhelming, powerful sense that the time had arrived for a Madam President. The defiant, almost angry attitude of the former seemed so out of place, outdated, in a world that had produced me and in turn, my kid. If Clinton’s ascent was not a sign of demise for glass ceilings, everyday misogyny and all those reasons to be disgusted and angry, certainly, Zoe’s boundless ambition was a sign that our time had come.
By October, we had a Clinton sign in our yard because the thought of a Trump presidency was so terrifying, so revolting, and because Zoe and my son—flabbergasted that we’d never had a woman president—had shoved me into Clinton’s camp. When someone stole the sign, Zoe made another in craggy purple letters “Hillary and Zoe for president,” ran a sharp stick through it and jammed it into our yard.
And when the Y started taking down its signs, a woman who worked there who knew Zoe—and you couldn’t know Zoe at this point without knowing her presidential aspirations—saved her a yard sign. Zoe proudly carried that sign into her preschool, telling all her little friends that she is the president. The Monday before election day, she wore her Hillary Clinton mask into school. It had been on deep discount at the grocery store after Halloween.
As the air turned crisp, my mom and a neighbor asked how I explained the sexual assault allegations against Trump to my kids. I had to explain what they’d heard on the car radio, that women were coming forward to say Donald Trump had touched them in private ways and that invasion had hurt them. But I was appalled. It seemed absurd that these older women assumed I’d be detailing Trump’s alleged assaults to my young kids—and even more ridiculous that I’d had to because the news was impossible to escape. My daughter started truncating it all as “Donald Trump hurts women,” and I’d try to change the subject to how we could get a woman elected to protect girls and women. But I frankly didn’t do much—other than talk to my kids—to make that a reality.
I’d lived in Chicago when Barack Obama ran for U.S. Senate, heard him speak and was struck by seeing so much hope and honesty from a politician, particularly during the Bush years. I wept nearly to the point of hyperventilation during his DNC speech in 2004, daring to imagine a world in which such a man might one day be president. I volunteered for his campaign, and pressed against the gates with thousands of people as he was inaugurated on the National Mall. I was six months pregnant with my son then, and wanted us to be some small part of history’s swing toward progress. We kept a cardboard cutout of President Obama in our living room for years.
When I looked to Clinton, I didn’t see the future, and this time around, I waited until the final possible hours, the morning of Election Day to drag the kids out for some last-minute canvassing. It was far too little, far too late.
We spent election night coloring in an electoral map that turned increasingly red, and around nine when our adult anxiety had started to rise, we sent the kids to bed promising to wake them up if and when Hillary won.
Wednesday morning before light filled the sky, Zoe tumbled into our room, hair mussed, jammies askew and climbed to join us in bed. Part of me wanted to wait as long as I could to break the news. She asked why we never woke her up.
“Hillary lost, sweetie,” I told her. She’s too small for comparisons of popular and electoral math.
“No,” she said. It took a few minutes to convince her we weren’t making it up.
“Donald Trump won, he’s going to be president,” she would tell her big brother when he came in minutes later and climbed into our bed too.
He didn’t believe it at first either. I could see everything he’d learned about Trump’s views—about women’s bodies, climate change, people who look like friends of his—tick across his face until he buried it in the pillow to cry.
My husband and I pulled our kids close and told them one person doesn’t get to define the country’s course. It’s up to all of us.
By the time I dropped my daughter off at preschool, I was feeling slightly prepared to face the day and years ahead. As I walked into the school, I caught the eye of my daughter’s teacher and shook my head. She looked away, looking choked up, and asked Zoe—the girl so sure she will be president—for a hug. Tears stung my eyes.
Zoe, still just a kid, still sure of her place in the world, asked to get back to work on this number chart she’d been doing, on which she’d matched tiles numbering 1-100. She’d been at it in spurts during work time for over a week, and she asked me to sit and watch her do it. Her teacher told her the week prior that she’d be the first in the school this year to finish it.
It was a surreal experience, watching her pull numbers, inching her way toward a task that in kid-time required considerable patience and commitment. It was too soon after the previous night’s electoral map.
A few kids gathered as she worked her way down to the final tiles. A couple of squirmy little boys started picking up Zoe’s tiles, and her teacher firmly took them back and handed them to Zoe.
One little boy, her friend, piped up. “Did you know Donald Trump is president?” The grown-ups confirmed, our voices pitched, but trying not to upset the kids.
“Donald Trump is president, and Zoe is president,” he clarified.
Zoe plugged away at her number board until it became evident she was one tile short. Her teacher rearranged a bookshelf to look for it, but it was gone and time was up. With her number board incomplete, and with a full day ahead and kids to round up for their calendar ritual, her teacher lifted the board and put it on a high shelf where tiles couldn’t get bumped off by other kids. She told Zoe she would finish it. She would make sure she could. But I left with that map of numbers incomplete. Again.
I imagined what Zoe would see in coming years and began to choke on tears. I let out a wail, a mother’s wail. I know my friends woke up to their brown and black children and had to explain this new world to them, an old world we’d hoped had begun to fade. A world maybe my generation didn’t work hard enough to fight because we thought it was history. Fine, I can’t blame the whole generation—I didn’t do enough.
As I turned to drive back home, I approached two cars stopped at a light, one in the right lane, the other waiting to turn left. In each was a woman in her 50s or 60s. They clearly knew each other, were pantomiming back and forth. They both shook their heads in dismay. That moment has remained with me, those two, stuck waiting in their glass boxes, no words necessary for what they needed to say. There were no words. I drove past them heading in the opposite direction.
There’s been plenty of blame laid since November. The Clinton campaign failed, pollsters failed, white women Trump voters, James Comey, millennials. I know I failed my daughter—not simply through my hesitance to go all in for Clinton, but because I’d become so set on seeing the world the way I wanted it to be for her that I neglected to see it as it is.
I now see what great peril comes from underestimating the forces that stand against women.
Post-election, I didn’t wash my hair for close to a week and wandered about in a state of grief and agitation. But then my social media accounts started lighting up, not with the usual sorts of whining and opining, but with invitations. There were groups for local Democrats, local activists, friends started tagging one another with #seejanerun and saying “I’d vote for you,” and then started groups to support women candidates. I spent days reading stories of women suffragettes, their long fight, a future they fought for that many never lived to see.
I started asking around if anyone I knew also knew someone who’d been part of a seventies consciousness raising group. A friend referred me to her mom, who told me about her group, the support women found in one another, but also, that at the end of the sixties, “We were exhausted.” Her generation, she said, pushed as hard as they could, but then retreated to raise their families, expecting others to pick up their mantle.
The time is long past due for us.
There were many times during this past election season that I felt like screaming, but it was more of a rant, a matter of dismay or a sense that this ugly mess was a frustrating last stand by backward leaning men who would lose. That America had come too far.
And now I find myself, having painfully woken to reality, in new activist groups with older women I should have made myself known to months ago while they were campaigning for Clinton, to stop Trump, and they nevertheless welcome me. More than one has whispered to me, “You should run for city council,” not, I think, because I demonstrate particular political promise, but because we all need to find in one another a future to battle our present.
For all my remonstrations against princess powerlessness, all the thousands of times I insisted to my daughter that she will be president, and for all the years of effort my own mother put into instilling in me a sense of my own power, until Hillary Clinton lost a fight with some of the darkest elements in our country, I never would have seriously considered trying myself to lead—not even locally, or in an activist group.
Maybe younger women failed Clinton. Maybe Clinton never could have communicated the stakes to some of us in a way that would have been as clear and visceral as living under a President Trump. And yet, a video keeps popping up on my Facebook feed saying that since Clinton’s loss, 4,500 women have signed up for training with Emerge America, an incubator for women in public leadership roles. Earlier this week, I signed up for one.
Zoe is the president. Those words resound in my heart. I dread what lies ahead for her, for women, for all of us. But I’m bolstered by this next wave of strong women who finally, for our daughters, and our mothers, are ready to flood this country’s gates of power, because we deserve our share.
I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of them in Washington, D.C. for the Women’s March. As the rally broke into a crawling procession, there was singing. Resilient women’s voices raised in song, in rally cries. As I joined the call and response, my body and voice became part of a rising tide, and for a moment, I felt the power of being a full participant in democracy. It was a sacred moment. I wept.
And when I returned home to Ohio after two overnight bus rides, Zoe wanted to see the pictures and watched videos repeatedly on my phone until she absorbed the chants. During her usual rambunctious time right before bed, she’s taken to calling from her room: “Yes! Yes! Free press!” and “We will not go away. Welcome to your first day.” To her, they are nursery rhymes.
Zoe will, almost by default, be part of the rising women’s resistance. There’s a fire she’s inherited; one she’s revealed to me. Now I can clearly see the through-line from the 70’s women’s movement—women like my mother, and heck, Hillary Clinton—to Zoe.
A few words uttered by me, at a time before she had words, repeated often enough, for now, have convinced my daughter the world is hers to run. A few words uttered by women I respect have nudged me to consider how much good I might be able to do if I were to run for a local seat someday. In the interim, I’m taking lunch hour every day to call my representatives, help organize local action, rally volunteers to work with a local refugee organization. Citizen is no longer a passive role.
“You should run,” I’ll keep saying to every strong, smart woman I know, until they believe me.
And like a mantra, I’ll keep repeating “Zoe is the president,” with a hope so deep it feels like a prayer.
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Sarah Stankorb is an Ohio-based writer focused on politics, religion and women’s issues. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic.com, Salon, CNNMoney, The American Prospect and GOOD Magazine, among other publications.
Editor: Sari Botton