How Hillary Clinton and the Haggadah Made Me a Feminist
I am not ambivalent about Hillary Clinton.
I have never had a problem with her “likability.” I have never had an “enthusiasm gap.” I’ve never felt that there was “just something about her.” Most “somethings” about her I happen to love.
I covered the 2008 election closely — daily, hourly, minute by minute in real time as an obsessive chronicler of the 24/7 news cycle at The Huffington Post. I live-blogged every debate on both sides (over 50 all told), and remember the dog days of summer in 2007 when a long line of white men in suits filed out on the Republican side, and what a contrast it was to see the line on the Dem side — white men in suits, but also an African-American man.
And Clinton. In pantsuit after pantsuit, holding her own forcefully and expertly as the then-presumptive front-runner, coming under attack from her rivals, parrying with facts and humor and poise. It was exciting to watch.
I had always liked Hillary Clinton, as a background figure. I grew up in Canada (I can’t vote, but I’ll get to that), and the first Clinton administration coincided with my emergence as an issue-oriented college kid, just starting to figure out that, oh yeah, there’s a big world out there. I still remember watching the 1993 Bill Clinton inauguration on my couch in my dingy off-campus apartment and thrilling to the new era it seemed to herald. Because of not just him, but also her.
Hillary Clinton was crisp and smart and funny, “cool” in a way I didn’t realize I found cool at the time, the same way I didn’t realize how cool my own parents were. In the years that followed, I’d realize whom she had reminded me of: Elyse Keaton, the crisp, smart and funny mom on “Family Ties,” the one who crisply kept it all together for her family while crisply enjoying a career and crisply delivering one-liners against a backdrop of no-nonsense plaid shirts, blazers and swishy hair. (Swishy blond hair, it should be noted. By no stretch could Elyse Keaton, played by Meredith Baxter, have been considered Jewish — though certainly her on-screen husband, played by Michael Gross, could have been, and certainly the influences of series creator Gary David Goldberg were, but that’s another story.)
Elyse was the straight man on that show, reining in the antics of her kooky family (“Family Ties” is that show that still makes me snicker when I recall episodes of it, like “Keaton Manor” or “After I zoquo, I like to ushnuu.”). Without realizing it at the time, I recognized in her the classic ’80s working mom who had it all (and not in ironic quotes!) because she did it all. Without realizing it at the time, I recognized in her my own mom, a corporate attorney who crisply kept it all together for her family. If my mom baked cookies it was rare, and frankly would have seemed strange.
So this was in the back of my mind as I watched Hillary Clinton throw her hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination in 2007. She had been in the back of my mind for almost two decades, always with crispness and intelligence and good humor. After a second Bush held the presidency, the notion of a dynastic precedent didn’t seem problematic to me — on the contrary, Hillary Clinton had very clearly been making her own name independently of her husband for years.
And then the attacks rolled in.
Hillary Clinton was “like an ex-wife in probate court.” Her voice made Tucker Carlson “involuntarily close his legs.” MSNBC’s David Shuster derided Clinton for “pimping out” her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, on the campaign trail. She was like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” Or a scolding mother. Or a nagging housewife. Who cackled, and dared to show cleavage. And had the temerity to age, publicly. There was a “Hillary nutcracker” (with stainless steel thighs!), and gendered slurs (“whore,” “bitch” and worse). And through it all, critics claimed it wasn’t sexism, oh no — it was just her.
Feminists talk about their click moment — when they knew they were feminists. This was mine. It wasn’t just attacking Hillary Clinton and it wasn’t even just attacking women — it was attacking Elyse Keaton. It was attacking my mom. And everyone was treating it like it was normal.
Well if that was normal, then normal had to change. Click.
Fast-forward. Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, having bested her opponent using every metric possible, fair and square. (Yes, fair and square. C’mon, Bernie.) So very much has changed in the past eight years; we are now having conversations about sexism and gender bias out in the open, loudly and in real time. It hasn’t been eliminated by a long shot, but again, Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee — so yeah, something big has shifted. Would that shift to Hillary Clinton have been possible without Hillary Clinton? I don’t think so. Be the change you want to see in the world, as they say.
Eight years ago I was single and childless, staying in the office around the clock and running to campaign events and zipping across the country to primaries and conventions, and to Washington, D.C., to watch Clinton concede after hammering the highest, hardest glass ceiling with 18 million cracks. Today I am a single mom to a feisty 14-month-old girl. We watched Clinton’s victory speech last night together, with her curled in my lap, alert. (No I’m not a terrible mom, she woke up herself. She likes feminist milestones.) My heart soared to watch Hillary Clinton come out on that stage, arms outstretched, after all this time — for her, and for those of us who are behind her. I felt happy and farklemt as Hillary spoke of the women upon whose shoulders she stood. And then she spoke of her mother.
“On the very day my mother was born in Chicago, Congress was passing the 19th Amendment to the constitution. That amendment finally gave women the right to vote. And I really wish my mother could be here tonight.”
Clinton said it would have been her mother’s 97th birthday this past Saturday, June 4. Ninety-seven years since women were granted the right to vote, and now one had ascended to lead the Democratic Party. Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham, died in 2011, after watching her daughter fight tooth and nail for this prize eight years ago. And now, eight years later, I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic nominee.
I looked down at my own daughter, feeling the tears well. A line from “Hamilton” popped into my head: “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Clinton’s speech, and this moment, represents the flowering of so many seeds planted by so many people over so many years. What else can we do but try to make the world better for our children? For everyone’s children? For everyone?
This election hasn’t really felt like a Jewish issue to me (though I have actually been relieved that Senator Sanders’s Jewishness has not been a lighting rod in the campaign). But in many ways for me, the campaign for a woman candidate is as Jewish as it gets, considering that I grew up pointedly changing the pronouns in the Haggadah, with outrage, because in my world women were equal stakeholders, players and participants. My parents planted their seeds, and up I grew as someone who believes deeply in equality, and in tikkun olam.
And now I have this kid, relying on me to make the best decisions I can for her. I’m not American, but she is. I can’t vote (yet), but I live here (legally!) and so does she. I want her America to be the best possible version of America it can be. Equality. Tikkun olam.
Last night, watching Clinton speak for the first time as the presumptive Democratic nominee, it felt like a seed. Let it flower.