The writer recognized how important it is for young girls to see our first woman vice-president. But she was reminded by her young son how crucial it is that boys behold the sight of a woman in power, too.
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When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, I opened up a window to the world, and let her into my home. I was proud to tell my then-4-year-old son, “She’ll be the first woman president!” After Clinton lost, I sealed the window shut, kept my son and 1-year-old daughter safely inside. I didn’t want Trump anywhere near my children. “He’s not a nice man,” I said carefully, feeling the weight of my understatement.
This past November, when Kamala Harris was elected vice-president, I felt a release of pressure. For just a minute I stopped straining to keep the world at bay, and I let Kamala in.
As parents, we sugar-spin a protective shell around our homes to create a kinder, gentler reality for our children than the one raging outside. How well these shells protect our children, and for how long, depends on many factors: where we live, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our religion, our nation of origin, our style of parenting, and sometimes plain old luck. Regardless, as all children grow, the protective shell thins and more of the world seeps in, with all its brutality, and its beauty too.
On a visit to my cousin Julia’s house in 2018, my 5-year-old son wears his new favorite outfit—a button-down collar shirt with a presidential, red, clip-on tie, a red cape, gold sparkly slip on shoes, and his red, felt, four-corner, preschool graduation cap. “What are you dressed up as?” Julia asks. “I’m a professor,” he answers proudly. “My dad is a president and my sister is a magician,” he continues. “What’s your mom?” Julia asks. My son thinks for a minute, then says, “Mama is a servant to my dad.”
Julia and I both balk. “I don’t think your mom’s going to be a servant,” says Julia, stifling a laugh. I want to laugh, too, but I feel tiny alarm bells going off inside me. In my little boy’s mind, does the order of things really break down into his father being president and his mother being a servant? “I don’t want to be a servant,” I pipe in, trying to keep it light. “I want to be president!” I add smiling. He thinks about it, then relents, “Okay, you can be a professor too.” Not a president, though.
Still bugging me hours later, I bring it up. “I didn’t like that you said I had to be a servant when we were at Julia’s. Daddy is my equal, not my boss. He’s not better or higher up than me.” I wait for my son to argue that his dad is definitely better than me. My son and I butt heads easily, both of us hot-blooded and willful. He and his father have a special relationship, and, at 5 years old, my son has already said to me, “I love Dad more than you,” though sometimes he amends it and says he loves us the same. My son looks at me, and I can see the wheels turning in his head. He cocks his head to the side, “What’s a servant?”
Sometimes it’s hard to gauge if my son has internalized our culture’s sexism from a window I left open to the world (a commercial, a friend, a billboard), or if I am the one dragging patriarchy into our home and projecting it where there is none.
After the 2020 election, I gather my kids to watch Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech with me. “Look!” I point. “She’s the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first Asian woman to ever be vice-president of our country! See how happy everyone is?” They nod, staring at the strange sight of grownups joyfully screaming and crying. I stand behind them, tears streaming down my own face. A minute later, my kids have had enough of the world, and they wander off to more pressing matters, like LEGO battles.
I cannot make them understand the gravity of this. With 617,000 women pushed out of the workforce in just one month (September—not coincidentally the same month school started in much of the country), the pandemic has shown us that despite the gains women have made over the decades, we are still the default homemaker and primary parent. If there weren’t inequality, Harris’s gender and skin color wouldn’t matter. Emphasizing to my kids that she is “the first woman,” “the firstBlack woman,” “the first Asian woman” is another way of letting in more truth about injustice in our country.
Not long after the servant incident, my son and I are hanging out in our living room and out of nowhere he says to me, “Today I am a professor and you are the president.” “I am?” I say surprised. “Yup,” he nods from his chair, “The first woman president.” I smile, knowing he is remembering when I flung open the window in 2016 and told him about Hillary Clinton. He leans back in his comfy chair. “You can have a throne too, Mama,” and he motions me to the couchlike chair across from him. I sit back and put my arms on the armrests. “How do you feel?” he asks. “Presidential,” I reply grinning. We each sit back in our thrones, quietly smiling at each other. I don’t know what pleases me more—that we are enjoying each other or that I finally get to be president.
In December, I witness my now 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter having a back-and-forth about something. He speaks over her. I see my daughter ball up her little fists and stomp her foot as she says loudly, looking him squarely in the eyes, “Hey! I’m trying to say something!” I’m reminded of Harris’s refusal to let Vice-President Pence talk over her during their debate. “I’m speaking,” Harris repeated with her glossy, I’m-not-going-to-get-angry smile. My son quiets and listens to his sister.
Today, when Harris is sworn in as the vice-president of the United States, I’ll be bracing myself for the reverberations from millions of parents shimmying sticky windows open to let Kamala in. In my own home, I can already feel the tremors.
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