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To All the Little Girls Who Are Watching This

On the disappointment of Hillary Clinton’s loss — and the urgent, necessary hope for the next generation

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Remember that it was a beautiful day before it became an awful, endless night. I know this because all day I held my body so high. So proud and powerful. The morning before the end of the world I put on the pantsuit that my mother had bought me right before an important job interview, so hopeful and expectant of the things a daughter could do in this country. I put on heels that announced my presence from down the hallway, that lifted me a few inches off the ground. I walked — strutted, really — a few blocks down the street to my polling place and I voted for a woman for president. It meant more to me than I expected it to. I was so elated afterward that, rather than get on the subway, I decided to walk the whole 40 minutes to work; it was a beautiful day. I held my head so high and close to the sun. All day I made eye contact with other women, and I could feel them smiling back so subtly, like we had some kind of secret with each other.

This strong female body somehow held it together through North Carolina and Florida. Through swing state after swing state gone red and the incessant cardiac arrest of CNN KEY RACE ALERTS. Through tearful calls with my mother and a stunned one from a dear friend who just called to hear my voice. Through the results from New Hampshire and Michigan and Wisconsin and somehow even Pennsylvania. Through the people at the party one by one giving up, going home to bed, sprinkling the room with “I love yous” like we weren’t actually sure when we’d see each other again. I went home. The words that did me in, like Michelle Obama’s eloquent speeches, didn’t even have his name in them at all. They came when I was alone, close to 3 o’clock in the morning, trying to sleep but compulsively hitting refresh.

“She called him to concede.”

I don’t know how to describe it other than to say that my body completely broke down — had a physical reaction to those words, that image, that even after all of this she still had to abide by the decorum of calling him on the phone. I ran into the bathroom and vomited. I had whiplash from a sudden change: To inhabit this body that had just a few hours before felt so strong and proud and powerful in an instant felt unsafe, less-than, broken.

I could feel the throb of millions of others sick with this whiplash, or much worse. I know that there are bodies that feel even more threatened than mine in their own homes and their own country, that there are places I can go but they can’t. As a white woman I will be ashamed for the rest of my life by that number: 53 percent.

I cried until I fell asleep and I woke up, in the New Old-World, with a hammering in my head.

This was supposed to be a triumphant essay about women and power. I was working on it all day yesterday: There is a page in my notebook full of uplifting quotes from old women and young girls. I spent the afternoon watching Hillary Clinton’s speech at the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing and compiling thoughts about Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto. It was going to be about how much we had to weather during this campaign, but all of that would be OK now, because we’d finally be able to breathe deeply. Our cultural fears and anxieties about powerful women in this country would be persistent, sure, but never again quite so strong.

Now I find myself wondering if we can say anything unifying about women in this country. Perhaps it was naive to ever believe there was, and of course our differences were manifest before — and more visible to those who are not white, straight, and able-bodied. But the divide between us now gapes like an open wound: We are split between our support for a flawed-but-hyper-competent politician and a monstrous oppressor who sees us as objects rather than human beings. One of the most painful reminders of this election has been that misogyny is not limited to men; and that women, particularly white women, can be as myopic as men in their vision of who constitutes “their kind.”

Even the things I laughed off as jokes yesterday are suddenly sticking in my throat like ash. Not just the memes and the quotes, but the smaller, more intimate things: “I guess we should all get IUDs tomorrow!” my friend announced as she left the election party, our collective anxiety about the state of reproductive rights hanging thick in the air. A friend of mine who just had a baby emailed this morning to say she’s thinking of buying a gun. (Another, admirably level-headed friend on the same email chain assured her not to, and instead started strategizing about canvassing for Democratic senators, so we can settle the balance in two years.) An aunt with a college-age son last night expressed fear that he would be drafted into some imaginary World War that we’ve all been spinning dystopian tales of in our heads. My mother, a high school teacher, called before she went to bed to say she didn’t know what she’d say to her classes the next morning. A few days ago, some young Muslim students had been joking with her, asking which country she was moving to. It had chilled her; beneath their joking she sensed so much fear.

“The kids are actually cheering me up,” she texted me on her lunch break today. I was watching Hillary’s concession speech — something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stomach. I assumed I’d just see my own sadness and disillusionment reflected back to me, and that seemed too much to bear. Instead — naturally — Hillary Clinton spoke with an almost superhuman reserve of strength. “Now, I know we still have not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” she said, “but someday someone will — and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.” There were loud cheers. “And to all of the little girls who are watching this, 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.”

I felt relieved to know that somewhere, deep down in this body, those words still rang true.