Our 12-year-old daughter, Josephine, found an interactive electoral map online, and on Election Night she was settled on the couch, snuggled in an old fleece blanket, watching TV with the map booted up in her lap. Earlier in the evening, we had dinner with friends, and she had been manic with excitement, running laps around the dining table with the dog, but now, sometime around ten o’clock, she was all business, clicking on states, turning them red or blue, and announcing the electoral tally from the calculator on the app. Okay, she would say, Florida is lost, but if Hillary gets Michigan and Wisconsin, she’s fine. Click. Or Michigan and New Hampshire. Click. Or Michigan and Nevada and Arizona. Click. Click. She was like a girl in a maze, trying to escape the trap before the exits were blocked. Eventually, finally, we coaxed her to bed, but only with a promise that we would wake her if Hillary pulled through.
All three of us had gone to vote very early that morning — Josephine, my husband, Charlie, and me — and we were high, ebullient, at the prospect of electing the first woman president. We stood in line at the polling place laughing, and making the people around us laugh, and when my turn came to enter the private booth, Josephine came with me and filled out the Hillary bubble herself. For me, it was magical for unmysterious reasons: I am a hardworking woman who has always earned my own way. Accused sometimes of being too driven or self-serious, I have taken the country’s general, long-standing derision of Hillary as a personal affront. Josephine is our only child, and we raised her to speak her mind and to expect to be heard. We did this on purpose, without ever discussing it directly. My husband, a Midwesterner, has five strong-minded sisters: Neither one of us ever entertained a single thought about what girls could not do. Voting for Hillary was, quite literally, a vindication of all the life choices we had ever made.
Josephine is a girl with superhero dreams. She likes Supergirl and Harley Quinn, and a series of graphic novels featuring Greek goddesses. Dissatisfied with the range of girl heroines in children’s books, she invented her own, enacting their stories in her room with dolls and stuffed animals and bits of floss. When she was very young, her favorite bedtime stories were those her father made up in which she was an ambassador to a foreign land, deployed to fix some international crisis — a flood, an earthquake, a broken dam. (Sometimes this ambassador had superpowers, but more often she, the heroine, had to rely on her own ingenuity and grit.) In our version of the Cinderella story, Cinderella is a wiseass: “Do it yourself,” she tells the stepsisters, before heading off to the ball. We told her stories about going to the moon.
When you ask her what she wants to be, her answer has, for years, been the same: a fashion photographer, a lawyer, or president. She understands that president is a stretch, but the point is, it’s always been one of the options, a possibility in her mind. As she points out, she wasn’t fully cognizant the last time we elected a new, barrier-busting president, but this time she was, and she was frustrated by the limitations on her engagement imposed by her age: “I’m a kid,” she says. “A lot of the doors that are open to adults aren’t open to me.” So we dove in, phone-banking with female friends on Saturday afternoons, and door-knocking with other mothers and daughters one weekend in Pennsylvania. (The earnestness with which she and her same-age friends undertook their civic duty, by the way, is one of the unforgettable glories of this campaign. These smart and determined girls — all of them, the daughters of our friends, neighbors, acquaintances — on the phones, in essays, going door-to-door on behalf of themselves and their own futures has been breathtaking to watch, both as a parent as an American.)
So when we woke her up, and it wasn’t with happy news in the middle of the night, but in terrible full daylight, Josephine understood. “Trump won,” she said, and I said yes. And we lay there for a while. And then she started to cry.
“It’s not possible,” she said.
“What’s not?” I asked, dreading her reply.
“It’s not possible: A girl can’t be president.”
I instantly turned fierce, a mama-bear feminist protector. That’s not true, I insisted. It’s not. I said out loud the message that has been implicit in our family since the day I learned her gender on the sonogram machine. You are strong, and brave and kind and smart. You can be anything you want to be. But when she returned my gaze, she had a don’t-bullshit-me look in her eyes, and of course I saw her point. A sane and reasonable person might interpret the results of this election differently, to mean that against even the most bogus male opponent, a qualified woman can’t win. A sane and reasonable person — even one who wasn’t a child, who didn’t, on some level, still think of the world in terms of good guys and bad guys and magical outcomes — might be inclined as Josephine was initially, to stay in bed and wallow over the futility of it all. Here was an opportunity, an inevitability as some of us believed, at last to show that girl power was not a fairy tale or a fantasy but a real thing, achievable by a real person, and that opportunity was somehow lost in a morass of misunderstanding and unfairness. “If Hillary Clinton, the most badass person, who wants it the most and tries harder than anyone, can’t win, then I can’t either,” she told me.
What do you say in the moment of your child’s disillusionment? You tell her what you hope to be true, and in so doing you remind yourself of the parents, the citizens, you hope to be. That when things feel really futile and unjust, you get out of bed and you go find your people — and there are many, many of us — and you figure out together what to do next. I was glad that Hillary spoke to Josephine, and all the girls like her, in her concession speech: “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” Josephine got out of bed and we both went to our places — me to work and Jo to school, where she gave and got hugs from the girls in her crew, the brainy, confident, opinionated, ambitious girls whom our daughter was wise enough to choose as her friends.
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