It hits me when I least expect it. I’m driving to Target for paper towels, and out of the corner of my eye, in my very blue state, I see a bumper sticker. My stomach does a flip, and suddenly, despite myself, I am chocking back tears. I’ve heard countless people say I ought to ‘get over it.’ And yet, I remain unable to contain the emotion. Why on earth is it so hard?
We live in arguably the best moment in all of human history for women. I can own property by myself, I can work in nearly any profession. I have the right to vote. But as our culture has changed so blindingly fast over the last 100 years, I still live with memories of a different time. Those memories are at the same time deeply painful, and the things that spur me on to fight for a more just and equal society.
Only recently, in an unfortunately timely discussion about sexual assault, I was recallingthe lyrics to the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof. Maybe you remember it? Tevye’s daughters are taking turns pretending to be Yente the Matchmaker. They are describing potential suitors for their sisters. As part of the rundown, one of the young women explains, “You’ve heard he has a temper/ He’ll beat you every night/ But only when he’s sober/ So you’re all right.”
My whole life, starting when I was a little girl, I had sung that song with abandon. I never balked at that line. But now something in me has changed, and I cannot go backwards. When I hear that line, I shudder. How comfortable we were with the idea that a man would beat his wife. How comfortable I was.
This, of course, is why I’ve worked as I have, protested, signed petitions, lectured, marched - in the foolish confidence that I would fight so that my children wouldn’t need to.
I had an optimistic vision of progress as a one-way street. I truly believed, I’m only now beginning to realize, that once things moved in the direction of more equality and tolerance, they would not - they could not - slide backwards into the abyss.
On November 8, I was certain that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Not because I have been a lifelong Democrat, or even because she is a woman. But because I truly believed that this country could not relinquish the progress it had made, and elect someone who ran on racism, and xenophobia, and on famous men being given blanket permission to sexually assault women.
I was sure my daughters, and my sons, would be watching with awe as we swore in our first woman as President. I thought Donald Trump represented the past, and that America would vote for the future. And right there, in the space between my hopes and my reality, right there sits my grief. I am mourning for the future I had envisioned, and it feels, in some measure, like a death.
Some will balk at that comparison, but in terms of my emotional experience, and that of many women my age and older (I’m 44), it is apt. No other event in my life, except an actual death, has left me feeling this raw, and angry, and suddenly tearful. Sometimes it wakes me in the night, this realization that my vision of the world was too hopeful, and I find it hard to return to sleep.
Over time, the sharp blade of my feelings will dull around the edges, as with any loss. Most people I know, more like all of them, if I’m being truthful, see me as a cynical person. I’m not sure I was even aware myself that this upbeat, rosy, idealistic side of me was hiding underneath. But there it was, open, and vulnerable, and available - to be crushed like a bug.
Over winter break, as a respite from the news, we watched old Muppet Show DVDs with the kids. One episode opened with a musical number wherein Sandy Duncan did copious numbers of shots and then got manhandled (monsterhandled?) in what might be charitably described as assault. Through it all, Ms. Duncan seemed quite sanguine. My husband and I glanced at one another, waiting to see if anyone would react. Our third grader looked over, eyes wide. “Wow,” he exclaimed, “She is NOT a feminist.” So for now, I’ll try to revel in the little victories.
Because I have learned a painful lesson this season, and it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget. Progress is not inevitable. I will need to teach my children to continue the fight that I thought I could save them from.
And all of us, women and men, young and old, who still have a lump in our throats, we are allowed to mourn. Like in a bad dream, there is a marathon we thought we had run, and instead we find ourselves back at the starting line. We can take a little time to lick our wounds, and to assess our losses. Then, sooner rather than later, we’ll need to take our children by the hands, keep our eyes on the horizon, and start running that very first mile.