My mother introduced me to Hillary Clinton one afternoon as she watched the news and I read The Hobbit and the Clintons flashed onto our television’s small screen.
“She uses her last name,” my mother said, pointing to the new first family. “Rodham.” Each syllable spread out on her tongue for emphasis: Rod-ham
This was a big deal, and I glanced away from my book, to the television screen, to the woman with big eyes and blonde hair and a gigantic grin. My mother’s gaze never moved from Hillary.
My mother used her own name too, LaSov, after her divorce. Until Hillary Rodham Clinton, I knew no other woman who’d made this seemingly bold move. In all honesty, I knew few women like my mother. She worked when my friends’ mothers stayed home. She wore pantsuits. She never owned a single apron. By first grade, I knew the words sexist and feminist. My mother taught them to me. She used the former to describe a male teacher who insisted girls wear skirts to school concerts.
When Hillary talked about having more important work than baking cookies, my mother applauded. (Our cookies came from a bakery or Pillsbury dough roll.) Still, I barely understood the controversies swirling around this new first lady in 1992, as she shirked gendered assumptions without apology, the same way my mother was teaching me to do. To us, Hillary stood for equality and promise, one dream of second wave feminism coming true. She stood for an America where women could be wives and mothers and leaders, the way men had melded career ambition and family for generations. Hillary blew right past the binaries, all the false dichotomies.
To my mother, Hillary also stood for an America where more could be possible for me, her daughter growing up at a time blessedly different from the pre-Civil Rights era when she came of age. Unlike my mother, who believed she had to be married by twenty-two, and choose between two careers –– teaching or nursing –– I could be anything. Do anything. Marry or not marry. Just look at Hillary Rodham Clinton, my mother said.
She made sure I listened to Hillary’s speeches and read articles about her trips to China and Africa. We discussed them at the dinner table and between school and basketball practice. The year Hillary became first lady was the same year I declared myself a feminist, like my mother, and plastered my bedroom door with National Organization for Women stickers.
I voted for the first time at age 18 in New York State. No question: I voted for Hillary, then called my mother to tell her the news. We were both ecstatic.
Had my mother lived, I’d have driven 50 miles to her house this week to watch Hillary’s victory speech. We would have ordered Chinese takeout and watched Hillary command that Brooklyn stage again and again. We would have laughed together as the glass ceiling shattered into eighteen million pieces, so much light and possibility now dawning on our country.
I know my mother would have paused the speech somewhere around minute fourteen and said, Do you see? She remembers to thank her mother. We would have listened, breathless, to Hillary’s description of her “biggest rock,” her mother, born the same day Congress voted on the nineteenth amendment. Goosebumps would have risen up on both our arms, as Hillary smiled and the crowd cheered.
But my mother is dead. And I’ve had to learn to mark milestones without her. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I’d give anything to have her back, to be able to drive to her house this week and watch Hillary together.
In the end, I watched Hillary’s speech with one of my dogs curled against my lap and a cat perched beside my arm. I fought tears when I heard her call her mother her “greatest influence,” and listened to her tie her vast achievements to her mother’s struggles. My tears let loose when Chelsea took the stage to be the first person to hug her mother.
Rarely do I see mothers or daughters or mothers and daughters front and center in national politics. This moment feels rare and precious, historic and without comparison. Rarely do I hear world leaders applauding their mother’s influences or discussing their mothers at all. But this is a truth I cling to and a truth that saves me, the truth Hillary voiced at the heart of her speech, the truth that a mother’s legacy can survive death to live on in her child, the truth that a mother’s influence changes the world.