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My Mother Dreamed Of Being President, And JFK Responded

The letter my mother received from Evelyn Lincoln, Secretary to President Kennedy, on November 23rd, 1963. Image by Courtesy of Judith Graham

When my mom was eight years old, in 1963, her older brother wanted to be the President of the United States, and her boyfriend — also eight — told her she couldn’t be. She fiercely believed she deserved the same opportunities as both, so she decided she would be one day be Commander in Chief.

“I was like, well, I’m going to do that too,” she told me. “Can I?”

After all, a woman had never been president. To her young mind, there was only one person who could answer her question: John F. Kennedy, at that time the sitting president.

The fast-approaching end of the 2016 election, and with it, Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the presidency, prompted her to share that story. She took to Twitter with a photo of the letter she received from Kennedy’s secretary in response, which arrived the day after he was assassinated.

A draft of the letter my mother wrote to President Kennedy. Image by Courtesy of Judith Graham

“Regarding your query, there appears to be no reason why a woman could not become a candidate for the Presidency if she fulfills the qualifications as set forth in the Constitution,” Evelyn Lincoln wrote.

“I remember a terrible sense of heaviness everywhere,” my mom told me. “I don’t remember what my response was except that I was so struck that it had come the day after he died.” She didn’t quite get the extent of the tragedy – she wrote the new President Johnson the next day, sending condolences and asking him to, guess what, send her a letter – but Lincoln’s response stuck in her mind.

A photograph of President Kennedy enclosed in his secretary’s response to my mother. Image by Courtesy of Judith Graham

In 2016, that letter has new meaning. It’s been over fifty years, and for the first time, my mom has witnessed a woman running for the presidency as a major party’s candidate.

“I’m so struck by the joy of women, the joy that so many women are expressing,” she said, “which isn’t a political joy, per se, meaning it’s not ‘The Democrats are going to win.’ It’s that we have this chance in our lifetimes, and this is the first chance to elevate a woman in this way.”

My mom wrote to famous figures all through her childhood, starting with Helen Keller. With a child’s sureness and a child’s charm, she used stationary patterned with clowns and balloons. I remember, when I was young, holding the heavy album where she kept those figures’ responses on my lap, marveling at the celebrated signatures within – Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Goldberg, Pope Pius VI. I loved how fearless she was. It inspired me to know that a child could write to a president and have them write back, as Harry Truman, for instance, did. (“I think Truman said something like, ‘Letters like yours are bright spots in my day,’” she recalled.)

The letter my mother wrote President Lyndon B. Johnson the day after President Kennedy’s assassination. Image by Courtesy of Judith Graham

She stopped writing those letters when she became a teenager, but she’s thinking it might be time to start again.

“People have been encouraging me to send my letter to [Hillary], that old letter to her,” she said. “I guess I would think of doing so.”

Daughter to mother, I asked her what she wanted to tell me about the change she’s seen, from an eight year old girl with a dream that seemed impossible, to a woman who might see it manifest in a matter of hours.

“Go, girl!” she said.

If Kennedy were here, I hope he’d agree.

Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture fellow. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter, @TalyaZax

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