When I was in the second grade, I told my mother I wanted to be the first female president.
She laughed and said, “You might as well want to become the first female Pope!”
I will be 72 in three weeks, so simple math reveals this was long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In those days, we came home from lunch and watched a black-and-white tv show with Big Brother Bob Emery. Dwight Eisenhower was the president. I loved him. He was so authoritative and yet seemed compassionate at the same time. Every day, Big Brother Bob would ask us to get our glass of milk, listen to “Hail to the Chief,” and do a toast to the president as the tv cameras focused on the president’s portrait. I felt patriotic chills up and down my spine as I lifted my glass of milk and saluted a man I’d never meet but I knew–I just knew–was in the White House in Washington, looking out for the country. He was, after all, THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!
He had led troops during World War II. (My father had been in the Navy.) Eisenhower was building highways across the United States. He cared for me. Little old second-grade me. It didn’t matter that I was in the Johnson School in North Weymouth, Massachusetts. That daily toast to the president connected me to him and him to me. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be him.
I sat in my room and fantasized what it might be like to go to the White House–to live in the White House–to sit in the Oval Office and have that red phone on the desk and be responsible for so many people, to have connections to school children all over the country.
Yes. I would be the first female president. I would show my mother that I could do it.
But here I sit, in the eighth decade of my life, and the closest I’ve ever gotten to the White House was to walk by the South Lawn and take a Polaroid picture when our family stopped on a trip to visit relatives in southwestern Virginia one year. Never the Oval Office.
In 2016, I lived vicariously through Hillary Clinton, as she sought to be the first female president. She’s qualified, intelligent, experienced–and yet, even she, the former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, with three million more votes than her opponent, didn’t win. Instead, the ancient, outdated Electoral College and fewer than 100,000 votes from three states stood in her way.
Then yesterday happened.
A woman of mixed race–Jamaican and Indian–the daughter of immigrants to the United States–dressed in a white pants suit to honor suffragists who paved the way–stepped to a microphone in Wilmington, Delaware. She’s now the vice-president-elect of this country. She, too, is qualified, intelligent, experienced. She’s currently a United States senator from California, as well as that state’s former attorney general. She’s served as a prosecutor and is a graduate of an historically black college (Howard University). And she looks people in the face when she speaks: I care about you, she says. I know you have struggles. We’re here to take on those challenges.
Kamala Harris shows that, indeed, girls like the one I was 65 years ago, can take that step toward the nation’s highest office. She acknowledged during her speech last night that countless others have tried to break this glass ceiling, and how many other women, in this, the centennial of women’s suffrage, sacrificed so that she could be where she is today.
Every female of any background can look in the eyes of the vice-president-elect and say, “Hey, ma, I want to be president or vice president some day, too.”
Maybe her mother won’t be as discouraging as my mother was. Maybe that girl’s mother will say, “If Kamala can do it, so can you.”
Now the real work begins. After the inauguration on January 20, 2021, non-politicians like us need to support and also take responsibility to criticize our government officials who are taking on leadership roles in this new administration.
My advice to young girls? Get a portrait of our new vice president. Hang it on your wall. Get a glass of milk and salute her every day. While she’s the first, she won’t be the last. Maybe the next president will be you.