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Thoughts About a Woman President

A fifth grader out canvassing for a referendum (who happens to be my granddaughter)

Published in ChicagoNow, April 9, 2018

I have read countless accounts of why Hillary lost the 2016 election. Comey’s remarks, Russian hacking, Trump tapping into the country’s anger and fear, folks sick of the Clintons, too much cultural change, economic inequality, the emails, Facebook and Twitter…the list is endless. I have read excerpts from What Happened, but just don’t have the energy to tackle a long book and Hillary’s pain that, while she was “likable enough” as Obama said during a 2008 Democratic debate, folks just didn’t like or trust her.

Then I read a short book that went a long way to capture why Hillary didn’t trounce Trump as had been predicted. Dear Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri is an open letter to the woman who will eventually become president. Yes, it will happen, guys. Palmieri was Hillary Clinton’s communications director as well as communications director for President Obama. She was press secretary for the 2004 John Edwards campaign and a close friend to the late Elizabeth Edwards, who taught her that “people of goodwill, working together, can make a difference.” Her voice, as far as Democratic politics go, is informed.

When working for Obama, he told her that her gender didn’t matter. Her opinion was important to him. “You are in the room. Speak up.” In this book, Palmieri shares an eye-opening perspective on why Trump was able to defeat Clinton. Hillary is a woman, but she ran like a man. Like other women of her generation who were ambitious, she had to downplay some of the qualities that make women good leaders to compete in a man’s world.

In 2008, when Hillary ran against Obama for the Democratic nomination, she cried when asked “How do you do it?” by a woman her age who was balancing work and family. It was the day before the New Hampshire primary, and expressing her emotions and being briefly vulnerable seemed to revive her candidacy. I remember it well, and yet, in the end, she reverted to the tougher Hillary and lost the nomination.

Palmieri believes people admired Hillary’s concession speech because the role of gracious loser who puts the needs of the country first is an acceptable one for a woman. In 2016, our country was still not ready for a woman who presented herself as ambitious and competent. Thus, Hillary was not going to say, “I alone can fix this.” Her drive to become President had to be couched in terms of wanting to serve others. Like many boomer women, Hillary had to tread lightly in terms of her intelligence, knowledge, and capability. Pushing too hard on those qualities was a turnoff to voters.

In Hamilton, Burr tells Hamilton to “talk less, smile more.” Palmieri’s message to women in politics is to “nod less, cry more.” By this she means that women in politics tend to nod when they receive bad news. Kind of like men, except they can’t even be angry because then they are shrill. Instead, she feels that crying is fine. Expressing emotion is fine. It’s not weak. It’s human. As Palmieri explains to her fictitious Madam President,

“A woman can be both strong and emotional. I am. I am someone who cries when I am moved or frustrated, and I am great in a crisis.”

Having empathy, being kind, listening to others’ ideas and opinions, compromising, collaborating with colleagues – these are female traits that would serve our country well. Palmieri believes the future is female and change will come from the ground up. Her message to women considering a career in politics is:

“Speak up. Cry if you are moved to do so. Don’t stifle your emotions or your ambitions. Don’t wait for permission or an invitation or expect to find your place in someone else’s story. Jump into whatever it is you want to do… Try seeing you male colleagues as partners, not masters… Don’t let anyone, man or woman, decide if you matter. You know you do.”

My twelve-year-old granddaughter talks about being the first woman president. I hope it doesn’t take that long for our country to wise up. I hope to see it happen in my lifetime, and I firmly believe the qualities women bring to the table, if we let them, will unite our country and enable us to remember how to work together for the common good.


by Laurie Levy
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