The kid was not your typical feminist. Granted, he did stand out for a 20-something living in central Maine. In these parts, his male peers’ uniform tends to be Carhartts, work boots, a beard, and a woolen cap. This fellow slinked up to the microphone in skinny suit pants and a hipster jacket. He repeatedly nudged his mop of perfectly too-long bangs to the side to peek out at his exuberant audience.
We were at the Democratic caucus at the University of Maine, nearly 350 people crammed into a lecture hall auditorium. The energy in the room was high, particularly for a New England crowd where privacy and reticence are often valued over passionate displays of politics.
First, we heard from the Hillary stumper, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the university. Her speech should have had me excited. Though I loved Bernie’s principles, I was there to caucus for Hillary.
The women’s studies professor spent a good deal of time on the de facto focal points of feminist politics in this country—women’s reproductive health and abortion—issues I consider important but less central to the economic and social challenges I face now that I’m a parent.
“By electing Hillary Clinton the president of the United States,”—the professor looked up from her script and pumped her fist as she delivered her climactic line—“we will finally, once and for all, shatter the glass ceiling.”
“Really?” I whispered to my husband. “Once and for all?” I’m generally a big proponent of shattered glass ceilings, but calling this a once-and-for-all scenario seemed, if anything, to deny the conflicted reality of the rest of us American women. Though imagining Hillary—a woman, a mother, a grandmother—getting sworn in to the office of the president of the United States was moving, I was certain the rest of us would still be squinting up through our own glass ceilings, hoping like hell Hillary, with her contacts or her progressive lenses, could still see us through the mess of her own shards.
I stood there shaking my head, wondering how this women’s studies professor—no, actually— how modern feminism and even much of modern political debate had failed to include motherhood in discussions of women’s issues.
When it came time for the Sanders speech, we learned that in good, old, grassroots, disheveled-Bernie fashion, no one had been appointed as his stumper. So, the 20-something hipster volunteered himself. He hit the usual commendable Bernie points—tuition-free public university, single-payer healthcare—before he rolled around to women.
“It’s no surprise the majority of millennial women are rallying for Bernie. Just like Hillary, Bernie supports a woman’s right to choose, but he’s the only candidate calling for universal childcare….”
My ears perked up.
“Let’s talk about the minimum wage. The biggest demographic group among minimum-wage earners is adult women, many of them single moms. The minimum wage is a women’s issue, and Bernie is the only candidate calling for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
The crowd erupted. I let out a yelp.
Soon, we were sifting ourselves into Bernie and Hillary sides of the room. The Sanders camp was legion, overflowing into the middle section of the auditorium. Those of us on the Hillary side were few, and older than average. I turned to my husband, a Vermonter and an unbridled optimist who, like me, loved Bernie’s values but had been persuaded by Hillary’s knowledge and experience. The Laotian dragon on his T-shirt looked confused—one eye was covered by a Hillary sticker, the other by a Bernie pin.
“I feel old,” I said.
“I’m glad to see Bernie winning,” he said, gazing at the raucous crowd doing the wave on the other side of the auditorium.
When all the votes were counted and the delegates assigned, I found the Bernie stumper and tapped him on the shoulder. “I don’t know if you’re interested in compliments from a 40-year-old mother, particularly one from the Hillary side of the room, but I just wanted to let you know you nailed the feminism piece for me.”
He sat up straight and pushed his bangs to the side, revealing two wide, dark eyes. A group of lingering Bernie enthusiasts gathered.
“It was so refreshing to have someone talk about the impact of politics on women and not have the focus be on my body,” I continued. “Instead, you hit on the issues that have impacted my life every single day for the last nine years since I became a parent—paid family leave for both genders, access to high-quality childcare, fair wages.”
The folks huddled around us murmured and cheered.
“You know,” I said, “without those societal supports made available to every woman, then it seems to me that breaking glass ceilings will simply remain a privilege of the rich.”
The young Bernie stumper nodded vehemently. “I’m so glad I changed your mind,” he said, gesturing from one side of the room to the other.
I mirrored his nodding, until I fully processed what he had said. “Well, no.” I looked down, hesitant to set him straight. “You didn’t change my mind. I still voted for Hillary.”
His face dropped.
“But that’s not the point,” I clarified. “You—a young man—nailed what we should be talking about when it comes to feminism in this country. You give me hope.”