There is a photo of my mother from the night of Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1992, the night we elected Bill Clinton president of the United States. She’s holding a glass of wine, surrounded by friends, smiling broadly. It was a historic moment both nationally and personally. Nationally, we had just brought back the Democrats after 12 years of having Republicans in power. Republicans both my mother and father believed were ruining my future. But it was also a huge night personally. Just hours earlier, my mother had been told that the breast cancer she was in remission from for five years had returned.
And one year later, she would be dead.
Of course, we didn’t know that then. All we knew was that a man with a strong wife who still used her maiden name was elected president of the country, and my mother was hopeful about the future of our country for the first time since having her two daughters 12 years before. She was right to be hopeful. Because last night, for the first time, a woman — that same strong woman — clinched the delegates needed to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
I miss my mother all the time. I miss her laugh and her advice and her hugs. But last night, watching Hillary Clinton — Bill Clinton’s wife — acknowledge that the glass ceiling held over the heads of all women in this country had finally been shattered, holding my mother’s 9-year-old granddaughter in my arms, I missed her in a new way.
My mother loved Hillary Rodham Clinton. She loved her comments about refusing to stay home and bake cookies. She loved her fierce support of abortion rights and her commitment to not just being the little sweet first lady whose main goal is to redecorate the White House. For women like my mom, Hillary Clinton was the first first lady who looked like them — hardworking feminists who spoke their minds and fought for the rights that women of my generation can now take for granted.
So last night, as the crowd clapped and my daughter beamed, I cried. Some of the tears were for me, the woman who never believed she would see a woman president in her lifetime. Some were for my daughter, whose dreams have now become that much more realistic. But many — most — were for my mom, who never lived to see this moment.
We still have a long fight ahead of us, and this election is far from over. But last night was historic all the same. A woman is poised to become the nominee from a major political party in this country. That significance is not lost on anyone, regardless of their political affiliation. I was just a tiny thing when Walter Mondale ran with Geraldine Ferraro on his ticket, but I can still remember going to the rallies with my parents and the feeling I had when I saw a woman on the podium. It was magical. But it wasn’t enough.
“Why isn’t she the one running?” I asked my mother. She had no answer. But as a mom myself, I know how she must have felt at the question. Like a gut punch. She wasn’t at the top because a woman had never been president. It just wasn’t done. Hell, women had the right to vote only about 60 years when I was born. How could one of them possibly have been president? The message to me? Women can do a lot of things. Just not the biggest thing.
I never knew how much I’d internalized that message until this election cycle. Seeing how much it means to my daughter, being asked by my son, like it was nothing at all, why this hasn’t happened before — all of it is something new and exciting. It’s a new chapter in women’s history, one that makes all our daughters more aware of their potential. Of the fact that, if they work hard in school and study law and keep their eye on the prize, they really can achieve absolutely everything their brothers can. A woman president isn’t a pipe dream anymore. She’s got a 50/50 shot. And my mom isn’t here to see it. She isn’t here to see her youngest granddaughter, just 2, who will grow up never remembering a world in which a woman was never a major party candidate. And, God willing, in the fall, she may never know a country that has never had a female president.
My mom was part of the history that made this happen. She was part of the consciousness-raising meetings and the organizing. She volunteered countless hours to the campaigns of female senate candidates and Planned Parenthood. She was in the trenches, fighting for women’s rights back when it was still called Women’s Lib and before Roe v. Wade was even a thing. So hell, yes, she would have loved to see last night. She would have loved to see the look on my daughter’s face. And she would have loved to see the woman she so admired as first lady step out of her husband’s shadow once and for all.
It was a historic night, to be sure. But that’s just it. Last night “history” became “herstory,” and we have generations of women to thank for that. Those women who came before, who fought, who struggled and who died paving the way for just this moment. My mom never got to see her dream realized. But I’d like to believe that maybe, just maybe, she’s uncorking the white wine somewhere in the universe, poised to party like it’s 1992. Except it’s not. It’s 2016, and this victory is going to mean even more. Come November, amid the celebratory flutes of Champagne I plan to provide for every person I invite into my home, there will be an empty cup too. That one is for my mom. To acknowledge that none of this, both nationally and personally, would ever have been possible without her.