The U.S. Presidential election affected girls in unprecedented and personal ways. Many saw themselves reflected in a presidential nominee for the first time. National debates and media coverage, meanwhile, exposed American girls to issues that were unusually raw – around body image and sexual assault accusations. A New York Times poll showed that while 22 percent of girls said they were more likely to want a leadership position in their careers as a result of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, almost 17 percent said it had made them less likely to want to be a leader.
No matter which party one supported, the campaign produced confusing and often inappropriate messages for children. Social media embraced vernacular and slurs that took on a misogynistic tone that was an affront to women by any measure. I felt compelled to tell my son that the “locker room talk” of the campaign trail risks disintegrating into attitudes that excuse or encourage acts of abuse. So what is there to claim or reclaim as we process what happened and seek a way forward- especially for our daughters?
I had my first hint at an answer when my 11-year-old daughter crawled into my bed one morning this past week and told me she was scared about her first swim meet later that day. I struggled with the usual parenting dilemmas of how to respond - and then I asked her why she was so nervous. She was afraid of losing, but above all, she feared being embarrassed in public.
There was nothing surprising about her confession. But this was the day after the defeat of the nation’s first female presidential nominee, and I was feeling a personal sense of perspective about women who dare to be in the arena. We talked about how Hillary Clinton spent two tough years campaigning and ultimately faced the most public of all rejection – electoral defeat – but still got up to gracefully face the world the next day. And we talked about why it is important for all of us to be willing to risk failure.
In a TED Talk, Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, who got 19 percent of the vote in her run for Congress, said her campaign was the first time that she did something really brave. She believes that girls are taught to play it safe, to be perfect, while boys are taught to take risks and be brave.
A recent study found that men apply for a job if they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, but women often apply only if they meet all of them. Consider that of the 25 people who either made it onto most presidential ballots or vied for a major party nomination this year, only three were women.
Perhaps the personal bravery of Hillary Clinton, Republican candidate Carly Fiorina and the Green Party’s Jill Stein is the important message we can offer girls today. Not the winning or losing, but the trying and enduring. Having run for public office and being defeated myself, I constantly strive to convince women and girls how rewarding and necessary it is for them to enter public and leadership arenas.
We need girls to run for office, aspire to be the CEO, and to risk publicly standing up for their beliefs. We cannot win unless we run. In fact, women win as often as men, they simply don’t run as often. The US ranks 83rd out of 137 countries in the number of women legislative leaders, so we obviously need more women who dare to try.
On a much broader scale, this election reminds us of the unfinished gender work here and around the world: 62 million girls are out of school; 39,000 girls marry before the age of 18 daily; and 30 to 50 percent of women worldwide have suffered violence at the hands of a male partner.
We can urge our daughters to take on these challenges by being brave. And we can reassure our girls that President-elect Trump has raised two strong girls himself. Trump recognized the importance of Clinton’s example in their debate when he said what he admired about her: “She fights hard and she does not quit and she does not give up.” Perhaps our message to our daughters is quite simple: they must fight, they cannot quit, and they can never give up. I imagine this is a message that both Trump and Clinton have told their own daughters.