Dear Mrs. Clinton,
I’m five years old and sitting on my mother’s bed wearing an oversized and threadbare t-shirt she had handed down to me. My hair’s still wet from my bath and pressing to my back as I rest my head against a pillow by my mother’s side. All of these years later, the feeling of wet hair on my back as my head hits the pillow after a long, hot shower is one of my favorite feelings, a feeling of nostalgia associated with this precious memory. My mother opens a book about the history of the presidents of the United States. It’s a book much too advanced for me at five, one meant for adults, but reading this book has become our pre-bedtime routine, and every night for months my mother read aloud to me all sorts of trivia about our presidents. Knowing me and my interests at five, she spent so much time telling me the names of the First Ladies, showing me pictures of their inaugural ball gowns, and telling me the names of all of the presidential pets. Each night before we would study a new president, she would quiz me about the ones I had already learned, asking questions like Who is the 16th President? Spiro Agnew was this president’s VP, For what is Dolly Madison most known?… This was just another of my mother’s clever attempts for me to learn while having fun.
I learned your name was Hillary Rodham-Clinton, my mother explaining to me for the first time that some women hyphenate their last names when they get married. You were the first woman I knew of with a hyphenated last name. I learned we shared the same birthdate. I learned about your daughter, Chelsea, and I dreamed of what it would be like to grow up living in The White House. I learned about your cat, Socks, whose name was apropos of his white feet contrasting his black body. I committed these facts to memory, proud to rattle them off when four years later I was lucky enough to tour the White House with my mother, yet another way she made learning fun.
On that same trip to DC, I sat in on a session at the Capital. My mother explained about Senate pages, and I declared proudly that I wanted to go to law school, become a page, and eventually work my way into the Senate. This was the era of the Clinton Administration. Margaret Thatcher, Janet Reno, Hillary Rodham-Clinton, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Madeline Albright were household names, and it wasn’t hard to envision myself with a high-profile career. My mother beamed. It was her dream for me to have the opportunities she never had, to work hard and have a career I could be proud of. My father, bearing a different life’s perspective, warned me that being a page wasn’t a good path for a young woman– too many male politicians took advantage of them.
Fast forward so many years later. In the 2016 presidential primary election, I did not vote for you. I voted with someone who I felt better aligned with my political identity and ideals, but I beamed with pride at once again seeing a woman on the ballot– it seemed as if we really could do anything.
As the election unfolded post-primary, it felt as if I was living in a nightmare. A nightmare in which a man could say heinous things about other people without the public batting an eye, but yet you’re held accountable for matters unfounded by our country’s investigative body. A nightmare in which I watched you arrive prepared, poised, confident, and considerate to debates and rallies only to be interrupted, mocked, bullied, and slandered. I watched you be evaluated against the transgressions of your husband during his career without the need to even broach the subject of your opponent’s spouse because even in 2016, a woman truly is measured on the merit of her husband no matter the identity she forges independent of him. The feeling of not being taken seriously, of arriving to a function having done my research only to be overshadowed with a man with lesser ideas (or in your case, no ideas), to be relegated to a position more suitable for a woman was too real. It was startling to realize this was not a nightmare but reality.
I grew up in a time in which many powerful women made their way onto the world’s stage. At age five, at age nine, I watched you closely, studying you, looking for a sign of what it was like to live a life outside of my small, rural hometome. Then, at age 24, and I took you for granted. I grew up being told I was pretty, intelligent, capable. That if I had the desire and the drive, I could be anything I wanted to be. As I grew up, I realized the fallacy of the idea. I cannot, nor can any other woman, be anything we want to be. Not without overcoming obstacles no man ever has to endure. In this election cycle, I have heard it said that one only sees misogyny and sexism if one is looking. Sadly, I now can’t say I disagree with that.
When I was five, I wasn’t looking for how hard my life would be. I wasn’t looking for how much I’d reroute my plans because of systemic sexism. Instead, I saw a strong, independent woman who read to me, stressed the importance of being educated and made it fun, taught me to be financially independent, and wanted me to be free to make my own choices. I wasn’t looking to be told it is unsafe to be a Senate page, to walk alone at night, to meet a man at a bar if I had been drinking “too” much. I wasn’t looking for male colleagues who put in less hours, receive worse performance evaluations, have disciplinary actions against them only to make more money than me. Instead, I was looking at a woman who shares my birthday and who hyphenated her name because she believed in her own identity, not just what she could be in the shadow of her husband’s successes and failures. But today, at 28, regardless of the outcome of this historic election, I can see so clearly how far we have come, thanks to women like my mother, and women like you, and I vow to ensure that other five year old girls who have just come in from playing all day outside in their barefeet with their hair full of snarls and their heads full of dreams of being anything they want without obstacles and barriers, have the same role model with which you provided me. Please know I am looking at the misogyny, the sexism, the repression, and the privileged majority, and I choose to see you.
Former President, John F. Kennedy famously said, “A rising tide raises all ships.” This tenet has become a guiding force in my life. I know that when women empower other women, we not only raise them up, we improve our own situations. When we ensure the fundamental human rights of other women will not be threatened and violated, we protect our own. Thank you, Mrs. Clinton, for raising my ship in the midst of a rising tide that seemed to rise ever against you. Thank you for showing me, and others what it takes to look an adversary real and abstract in the eye and not back down from the challenge. Thank you for paving the way for me to grow up, hyphenate my name, and come home to my white footed cat after a long day of trying to make learning fun.
Cassandra J. Bentley-Bradshaw