By Sheri K. Cole, Philadelphia, PA @bflysmile
I have a clear memory of the day. January 15, 1988. It was a normal Friday to most people. But this was the day I turned 18. The day I could officially register to vote. And I did.
I was probably listening to George Michael’s “Faith” on the radio as I pulled into parking lot of my hometown library in Kettering, Ohio, in my mother’s borrowed car. I can still see the stark Frank Lloyd Wright-esqe building in my memory and asking the librarian for the Voter Registration form. Filling it out, I immediately felt like I was a connected to something larger.
But my interest in politics started before then.
I remember fighting with my best friend in 1980 when she said her family supported Jimmy Carter and I knew we were a Reagan family. I remember in elementary school asking my mother if I could watch her vote and being told that voting was a private act. No one should know who you voted for, and that meant me, too.
But by 1988, I wasn’t a young Republican. I shared a birthday with Martin Luther King, Jr., and had grown up with that knowledge which led to an interest in civil rights. As a member of the speech and debate team in high school, I wrote an award-winning oratory on the injustice of South African’s apartheid regime. And after registering to vote, I drove to West Dayton to the campaign office of Jessie Jackson and picked up a yard sign and button. He was my candidate, even though I wasn’t allowed to display those things in my yard.
In the intervening years, I’d studied political systems and became a feminist. I learned about women’s suffrage, dedicated my life to improving the lives of women. When someone tells me they aren’t registered or don’t bother to vote, I can’t stop the rage welling up in me.
Women died so we could have that right. There are women all over the world who are fighting today to have the right to voice their opinions in their political systems.
In 1992, I was ecstatic to see Bill Clinton elected President, but it was his working and accomplished wife, Hillary Rodham – who used her maiden name, who stood up and declared that women could do more than bake cookies and be arm candy – that really interested me. In 2008 when she conceded to President Barak Obama and talked about the “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling,” I cried both because we were on the verge of seeing our first African American President, but also because my hope of seeing a woman President in my lifetime was delayed.
As you might guess, Hillary Rodham Clinton is my candidate in the Pennsylvania primary. And I don’t shy away from the fact seeing a woman hold the highest office in the United States is important. It’s as ground breaking as the “first” anything is: Catholic, African American, Jewish, Latino, Gay. And here’s a secret: the “first” anything is never perfect. To get to and break that ceiling to a group’s advancement, no matter who has placed it there or what it’s made of, requires negotiation, compromise and playing by the rules that you have had little input into setting.
And yes, I dream of a day when two qualified female candidates debate one another on the Presidential, Governorship, Senate or even local election stage. We don’t see that today.
Today it is as if women are largely given a “token” candidate and asked to accept that for many reasons, not the least of which is that we aren’t given access to political leadership positions that will lead to support for her candidacy.
But here’s another secret: no one is perfect. To ask for a candidate to be perfect is to ask to be disappointed. But as voters, we have the right to ask a candidate to be honest about their biases and open in their thought process. We have the right to ask them to listen to all view points and come to a conclusion that will improve the lives for the most people.
And for me, the “most people” that are paramount in my life and work are women. And statistics tell the story of why women need to be engaged in the political process1.
But here’s a really interesting statistic: women vote at a higher rate than men. 43% of women voted in 2014, versus 40% of men. Yet women have never voted in a block because unlike many other demographic groups, women are not a monolithic whole. If we choose to not vote and not be engaged in national or local elections, then we are choosing to let others decide our fates.
Yet, women and the issues that are most important to us, such as economic opportunity, education, healthcare, are often treated as an afterthought. You see that in the discussions around both the Republican and Democratic primary contests. If Hillary Clinton were not in the race, I would bet that we would be talking even less (if that’s possible) about how policies impact women.
Even with her presence, we still haven’t had a substantial discussion about women’s health and sexual violence, income inequality as it pertains to women being segregated in low-wage jobs, incarceration rates and re-entry policies that unfairly penalize women who are pulled into illegal activity by the men in their lives… and I could go on.
So I care about politics and this election cycle for the same reason that every woman should care: without our voices as part of the process we can’t impact any change to improve the quality of our collective and individual lives. That’s why I will be voting the last Tuesday in April in the Pennsylvania primary, and I hope you will, too.
“Mommy, can I please touch the red button now?!?” she asked as she furiously wiggled next to the curtain.
“No! I want to press the red button!” protested her sister, a constant rival for button-pushing privileges.
I calmly suggested, “How about we all press it together?”
So three fingers – one big, two small – pushed the red button. CAST VOTE NOW. And we did. I opened the curtain of the voting booth. My daughters excitedly announced to the booth attendant, “I helped Mommy vote today!” The attendant smiled and said, “Good job, girls! Now remember to do this when you grow up!” They happily agreed as they bounced towards the exit.
We walked to the car, where my husband was waiting for us. He had already voted earlier in the day. The windows were rolled up, so my husband was quite startled when one of the girls slapped both hands on the glass. She pressed her face to the window and shouted through the pane, “DADDY! We helped Mommy vote!!”
My other daughter said, “Daddy, did you know that a girl can be president? That’s what Mommy said. Did you know there has never been a girl president?” He grinned and assured her that girls can do anything that boys can do, maybe even better.
We went home, had dinner, took a bath and prepared for bedtime. They wanted their dad to read bedtime stories that night, so I indulged in a little grown-up TV while folding the laundry. I turned on the news. “Well look at that…,” I thought, “Hillary won New Jersey.”
I stopped what I was doing and ran into my daughters’ bedroom. “Girls! Girls, “I exclaimed, “We did it! We made a difference! Hillary won the New Jersey primary! She’s going to be the Democratic presidential candidate!!”
Now, my four-year-old twins don’t quite understand what a presidential election is. They don’t know what a “primary” is either. They certainly don’t understand the concept of a Republican vs. a Democrat. What they do understand is that this was a BIG deal for girls. The leader of the free world could be a girl. For the first time ever.
I scooped up the sleepiest one and kissed her plump cheek while she lazily giggled. Her sister jumped up and asked, “Can I be president too, Mommy?” I said, “Maybe one day, my love.”
In this moment, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you are a woman – a mom, a sister, a daughter, a friend – Hillary’s historic milestone renews and validates gender equality on an unprecedented level.
I tucked my girls into bed. I kissed their heads and thanked them for helping me vote. For helping me make a difference for women everywhere. No matter who wins this election – this extraordinary breakthrough, this powerful turning point, this moment…. It’s #ForTheGirls.
#ImWithHer #Election2016 #WomenVotes