OBSERVER NEWS

A Graduation Speech for November 8

BY LISA MARTINE JENKINS

It’s rare that we get to predict which moments in our lives will be the most important, predict which to keep a particular eye on as they unfold.

Even at the ripe old age of 22, I know this to be true. I look back on my high school and college graduations, and they look blurry from the immense speed with which I moved through those days. They disappeared into literal and figurative rear-view windows, and suddenly, my world was different. Perhaps that is just the nature of change; usually even those changes we can anticipate arrive and disintegrate before we can really wrap our minds around their presence.

However, for me, November 8 of this year could be an exception to this pattern. November 8 could be the day that the United States elects its first female president and, even amidst the sexist mess of recent weeks, I’m trying to immerse myself in the import of that fact.

Now, this isn’t about Hillary Clinton herself. To define Clinton by her womanhood is to minimize her career and the complexity of the role she continues to play; to vote for her exclusively on account of her womanhood is nearly as backward as refusing to do so for the same reason.

Rather, this is about the fact that one of the most influential nations in the world has a society ready (and willing) to elect a woman. Clinton’s presence on the nation’s biggest stage means something is shifting under our feet, that campaign speeches about our daughters being able to do every job that our sons can will suddenly have a measure of authenticity. No, her presence doesn’t mean that feminists everywhere can go home, it doesn’t mean that gender equality has been won. However, it is tangible proof of our progress and, particularly in an era when the definition of sexual assault has somehow become a partisan issue, getting that proof is a rare thing.

We still have some time before this happens, and things could still change. Work still has to be done, votes still have to be cast. However, in this moment, nearly every major poll has Clinton up nationally and in most swing states, and the Donald Trump campaign seems to be careening rapidly off the rails. Things could change, but the odds of anything but a Clinton victory are shrinking; that the U.S. has elected a woman to the White House will soon be a fact of our history.

For this reason, this election is extraordinary. Just as 96 years ago, the nation was getting used to the idea of women voting, today the nation is getting used to the idea of a female president. It shouldn’t be an idea we have to get used to, but every so often I am overcome with a strange sense of the bigness of this moment in the context of our history.

Of course, the election is extraordinary for a number of other reasons and to get lost in the political bloodbath of this year’s campaign cycle is only natural. For so many young people, electing a woman feels like an inevitability and this election is more evidence of the societal divisions that still exist than it is evidence of a second-wave feminism breed of progress.

And so, to want to bow out of keeping track, of watching debates and even of voting is unsurprising. To avoid the fray of public acrimony, to throw up one’s hands and say, “this is not the system I signed up for,” can be an act of self-preservation. However, in doing so this year, you will be cheating yourself.

Our granddaughters and grandsons (to pull from often trite campaign vernacular) might ask us about the year the first female president was elected. What was it like? Did you feel different once it happened? I intend to be able to say I was there, chin up, paying attention. In the context of a year of brutal politics, it’s difficult to recognize the long-view; long after her opponent is consigned to a list of failed demagogues at the back of a textbook, Clinton’s will be the first woman’s face in the rows of 44 photos of men.

So please, in the midst of the ranting and the raving and the insults flung like mud into our public discourse, don’t bow out of the conversation to stay home and count the days until November ends. Stay to watch the election of 2016 unfold. Stay not for the virtue of the democratic process, not for the excess of the political soap opera, not even for the near-daily breakdowns and arguments and threats. Stay instead for the privilege of watching history.

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