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A Woman in the White House

A bitter reality is beginning to sink in for me, a daughter of Second Wave feminism: a "woman" could be president, but we don't mean any woman who actually exists.
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I grew up in the kind of Midwestern small-town household in which my mother stayed at home with us kids, dealing with meals, laundry, cleaning, and volunteer work, while my father worked as a doctor and was the more authoritative disciplinarian. We were three daughters, though, and while our family was superficially traditional, we were fed a steady diet of "You can be whatever you want." That meant, to be honest, "you can do what boys do" more than it was an invitation to also become a full-time homemaker.

At age seven or so, I remember musing that I might become "a fashion designer or a nurse" when I grew up, and my mother responding a bit too intensely, "Or a doctor. You don't have to be a nurse. Women can be doctors!" Her adamance came not from any contempt for nurses -- her mother had sent three kids to college and helped countless people in Grand Forks, North Dakota, as an RN. No, the intensity with which she begged me to consider the more publicly valued work came from her own biography. Growing up, she got the impression there were two jobs for women: nurse or teacher. Once she got a glimpse, during the '70s, of the vastness of the world women might have access to, she felt a bit rooked. She got her Master's Degree and also invested many of her hopes into her daughters. She knew that until women occupied the spaces men had always called solely theirs, it would be hard to argue we were "just choosing" to become homemakers or nurses or other helping professions.

I have thought about my mother's dream that her daughters -- and thus women -- would continue to demonstrate that they were as good as men a lot lately, while observing the candidacy of Senator Hillary Clinton. She's not the first woman to run -- from Belva Lockwood (1884 and 1888) to Shirley Chisholm (1972) to Carole Moseley Braun (2004), we've had a handful of women gutsy enough to go for the top job -- but she is by far the most serious contender, as demonstrated by the infrastructure and money she has been able to attract. Like Oprah and Madonna, she has 100 percent name recognition, but unlike them, she has co-written and sponsored important legislation, is a very successful two-term Senator from a huge state, spoke of women's rights as human rights at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, and blocked the confirmation of the FDA commissioner to protest the long delay in approving Plan B for over-the-counter use. Of most direct benefit to me, she has created by far the most detailed and only truly universal health care proposal now before the voters.

The reasons people give for not supporting her range from her war authorization vote to fear that her husband will dominate the rest of the election cycle or the White House, but what I hear more is the fact that she's just not "electable" because, as some say, wrinkling their noses, "she not likeable." Creating this self-fulfilling prophecy, the media have piled on, chalking up 62 major incidents of egregious misogyny in the last six months, according to a tally of anti-Hillary sexist episodes in the primary campaign compiled by Melissa McEwan. As Stan Fish wrote on his New York Times blog, to mention her name is to prompt an archive more of vitriol, most of it reflecting a frightening level of woman-hating.

At my Brooklyn polling place on Super Tuesday, I unambivalently -- proudly! -- voted for Hillary Clinton. As I left the building, I started to cry. I'm often moved by voting, but it was a big deal to me, at age 37, to pull the lever for a woman who so clearly has what it takes. More than that, Senator Clinton has endured the attacks and derision we all know happens when women step out of line. She is becoming a sort of martyr-feminist, putting herself out there at great personal cost to put some reality behind our "free to and me" rhetoric. I spoke with other friends who reported being utterly choked up. "I have devoted 40 years -- practically my entire adult life -- to bringing about this possibility, this fulfillment of what seemed an unattainable dream," an older friend wrote me in an email. "It's hard for me to understand those feminists who are voting for an unknown quantity instead of her, when they have this chance of a lifetime. Especially since the rivals' positions are so similar." Other women reported voting for Obama, then feeling surprised at how happy they were that Hillary did well on Super Tuesday. "I felt it would be selfish to vote for her," another friend told me.

Hillary Clinton is my mother's age. What might it mean for a woman of her generation to achieve what we all assumed would go to her daughter's generation? Sometimes I wonder if the pain of those missed opportunities, of wondering what could have been accomplished if one had simply been selfish or lived in a different time, is behind some of the commitment to making sure we don't have a woman in the White House except as First Lady.

A bitter reality is beginning to sink in for me, a daughter of the Second Wave. Here we are: several generations raised with the mantra that a "woman" could be president, and learning that we don't mean any woman who actually exists.

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