Hillary Clinton’s rise reminds of voices from the past
My freethinking French grandmother, having raised herself during the first world war while her parents were away serving the nation, believed wholeheartedly in the value of financial and professional independence for a woman. When she met my grandfather in the early 1930s in Paris, she was the rare, beautiful, young girl whose ambition transcended a good marriage and a solid family. She had what she believed was a great career for a woman — that of a secretary in a business office. For this, she had turned down many a proposal from local men, and she would have kept turning them down because she loved her job so much. If she married my grandfather, stopped working and followed him to Iran, she once said, it was to go on an adventure even greater than what she was already living.
She had her adventure, bore and raised great children, but she paid for it with her — very precious — independence.
My tall and dulcet-voiced great aunt, the prettiest of her parents’ 10 children and the smartest kid in her school, grew up dreaming of attending college. Aware of the impossibility of such an exploit in a family where marriage and motherhood were the priority, she tailored her ambition to completing high school. She got her diploma, and even worked for a few months as a schoolteacher. Then she succumbed to the general consternation that, at 18 years of age, she was quickly becoming unmarriageable, and agreed to marry one of her suitors.
She narrowly escaped spinsterhood, bore and raised fine, successful children, but she paid for it with her life’s dream.
I could go on, tell a thousand tales of able and ambitious women who would have liked to have had it all, realized or decided that it wasn’t possible, and chose marriage and family. You could say they were creatures of their own time and place, victims of societal mandates. Or you could say they were fulfilling their first and most important role. I do believe they were lucky to have children; lucky, too, to be able to raise them. I know there are millions of women with crushing jobs or vaunted careers who would gladly trade places with at-home mothers and wives. I know there are mothers who teach their daughters to avoid working as much as possible, because “work makes you old and makes your husband take a mistress.”
But I also know that regret, that perpetual sense of loss, that view of themselves as something less — less than women with higher education, financial independence, greater ambition; less than what they could have been had they not had to choose — has scarred so many women of my mother and grandmother’s generations. I know it because I saw it all around me as I was growing up, see it even now, especially now — now that the rules have changed and women are able to do, or at least want, it all. I see it in women who describe themselves as “just a housewife,” and who say, guilelessly, “I haven’t amounted to much” when taking stock of their lives. I see it in the awe and admiration they hold for powerful, professional women, in the deference they show these women.
And I know the longing, too — of young girls who are not allowed to go to school at all, who are given away in marriage when they should be playing with dolls, who become mothers when they should be starting middle school.
“I was 15 years old when I had my first child,” an Iranian woman once told me. “Twenty years later, when I sent my youngest to kindergarten, I was already too old.”
I believe it was their regret, the sorrow I perceived in the women around me when I was a child, that later drove me to write. I remember looking at them when they gathered in someone’s kitchen or family room to talk about their husbands and children — looking at them and thinking about how sad they must be to have given up one dream for another, how strong they had to be to carry that sadness around for a lifetime.
How strange, I thought, to be trapped and imprisoned in an existence you willingly chose; to be caged by the people you love most; to have a will that’s stanched by the yard walls around your home, a voice that carries no farther than the room you sit in.
I think it was their voicelessness that drove me to tell these women’s stories; that has compelled me to say what I believe to be true despite some societal disapprobation; that has prompted me to denounce bias and injustice where I found them.
It’s that voicelessness that makes me understand and appreciate the significance of what happened in this country last week: Hillary Clinton speaking at the Democratic convention to accept her nomination as the party’s candidate. Hillary, who was introduced by her daughter, Chelsea, praised earlier by her husband, Bill. Hillary who had the ambition, the gumption, the skill and confidence to be both a mother and a lawyer, a senator, a serious contender for the presidency.
It’s not only that she’s a woman or a Democrat. To me, Hillary Clinton is a revelation because she has both the brain and the heart of a warrior. You can say a lot of things about her, and you’d probably be right about many of them, but you can’t say she isn’t the smartest person in a room full of smart people. You can’t say she hasn’t worked a lifetime to get to where she is, that she woke up one day and decided she wanted to be president, or that she draws her popularity from being just as ignorant and ill-informed as the people who vote for her.
That quality so many people dislike her for, the so-called character flaw that was identified as “too much ambition” when her husband was president, was renamed “opportunism” when she ran for the Senate, and is now called “dishonesty.” That trait, I believe, is best defined as “having the guts and the goods to die without too many regrets.”
I don’t care what your politics are or whom you’re going to vote for this November. For those of us who still hear the silence of so many women in our own lives, Hillary’s words, her presence on that stage, salved a wound that has, for too long, remained open.
Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”