As the election results trickled in, bit by wrenching bit, on Tuesday, I remembered a cold November morning when I was a little girl.
My sisters and I were too young for school, and our mother, needing to vote, had bundled us up and taken us to the polling place with her. She was serious about civic duty, as people were then, with their memories still full of World War II and all that had caused it.
She hadn’t been able to afford college, but she had graduated second in her class in high school, and she seemed to us to become a different person, her head high as she crossed the room toward the poll workers.
That was the memory. Nothing dramatic. Just that thought, as the nation came close, for the first time in history, to being led by someone who was not only thoughtful and serious, but a woman, a mother. That thought of my own mother in her winter coat and gloves in that room full of bunting. Standing in line. Waiting her turn.
It has been a long wait. Set aside this year’s grotesque discourse, the contempt, the political hatred, the violence, the misogyny. It sounds impossible – unforgettable and unforgivable – I know.
But that ugliness and noise has come amid, maybe even partly because of, advances by women, progress so quiet and long and slow that at times it has seemed a kind of sidebar.
My millennial daughters didn’t choke up this summer, as I did, when Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major party. Their post-Title IX pleasure at the prospect of her election had less to do with her gender than her agenda. That is as it should be.
Others, too, including many who voted for her, took her groundbreaking for granted, seeing her as a liberal figurehead or the lesser of two evils.
“I have been a registered Republican all my life, but my God, nobody can vote for Donald Trump,” a 101-year-old voter named Nancy Moser told me on Tuesday as she headed to a Walnut Grove church to cast her vote for Clinton.
Never mind that Moser herself is older than the 19th Amendment, which officially gave women the vote nationally in 1920. Her vote had less to do with a woman on the ticket than “what he has done to the Republican Party.”
“I do think she’s smart, though,” Moser added. “Which is useful in a president.”
Moser was wrong, obviously, about Trump and all that caused him. As Tuesday’s election unfurled, it revealed that a lot of Americans will choose a frightening and possibly sick man over a woman they fear is so smart that she looks down her nose at them.
We are not the nation we imagined. We are not, at least for the moment, the people we thought we knew.
But those who respect history also know that it’s incremental. Real change rarely presents as some exciting, climactic third act.
More often, it’s inch by inch, step by step, now forward, now back, like a long line moving toward something. As I write this, the presidency, once an almost-sure bet for Clinton, is an uncertain line of its own, apparently gripped by dark emotions and anti-establishment forces we can only hope won’t break us.
But whoever prevails, the world will continue to turn and the line will keep moving. We are, after all, the nation that survived Richard Nixon. I remember the line I stood in to vote for the first time. It was in the 1970s, in the midst of the ultimately failed push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
The bulletin boards outside my campus polling place were filled with fliers for feminist poetry readings and “Take Back the Night” marches. They made me nervous. I wasn’t a rabble rouser. Put others first, my mother had taught me; mind your own business, do your work, marry well and remember your duty.
I am my mother’s daughter, and I followed her instructions. But that didn’t keep us both, over time, from finding our voices. I wish she had been alive to vote with me on Tuesday. I think of a conversation we had at the end of her life, when she knew, and I didn’t know she was dying.
“Live now,” she told me. “Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t believe them when they tell you that if you just stand there politely, that they’ll ever really let it be your turn.”