Over the next few years, my optimism was tempered as the nation struggled to recover from the Great Recession, as a backlash of racially resentful Tea Partiers rose up to challenge the president’s every move, as tides of racism, sexism and misogyny rose and roiled. Still, the nomination of Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democrats’ choice to succeed Obama seemed to portend a continual tide of progress.
My child had watched the Obamas, a beautiful black family, in residency in the White House for all of her life. She had seen countless news conferences featuring a black president, whom she thought of as representing the normal state of civic affairs. Now, she watched as a politically experienced woman vied to become the first female president.
It would be wretched understatement to call the election results disappointing. They were stunning, disorienting, vertigo-inducing.
And the struggle to comprehend, to digest, to fully assimilate Donald Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office continues. Already, his sexism has been reinforced through his choice of Andy Puzder, CEO of the holding company for the Carl’s Jr. fast-food chain, as secretary of labor.
Puzder is a one-percenter after Trump’s own heart. He has been widely criticized for advertisements that feature scantily-clad models to sell hamburgers.
His response? A press release that put it this way: “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers. We target hungry guys, and we get young kids that want to be young hungry guys.”
He’s not interested in having women buy his hamburgers? He’s dismissing half the market? What message does that send to our daughters?
Then there is the reprehensible Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, whom Trump has named chief strategist. Under his watch, Breitbart became a haven for anti-Semites, racists and frank misogynists. The website has run “news” headlines such as “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech. They Just Suck at Interviews.”
Cultural cues do matter. That’s why forward-thinking educators have spent so much time over the past several years developing methods to help girls achieve in science and math, for example. Generations of subtle and not-so-subtle biases have convinced many girls that mathematics is too difficult for them. It’s exciting, then, to watch an all-girls high school or college robotics team; it sends a clear message about what girls are capable of.
Similarly, cultural cues that demean women, that emphasize physical appearance, that boast of sexual assaults send clear messages, too — albeit negative ones. So what will our daughters see and hear over the next four years?
If the past is prologue, expect more of the same after Trump is inaugurated. He has boasted of sexually assaulting women. He has fat-shamed women; who can forget his middle-of-the night Twitter attack on former beauty queen Alicia Machado, whom he once forced to work out in a gym full of reporters? He disparaged the looks of his onetime Republican rival Carly Fiorina with this remark to Rolling Stone: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?”
If that weren’t bad enough, he bested Clinton, a woman who entered every new job with dogged preparation, by bragging that he never bothered to read a book. How had a man who refused to study the rudimentary procedures of government triumphed over a woman who had spent decades mastering its details?
Don’t we teach our daughters — and our sons — to work hard, to study, to prepare for the tasks they will take on as adults? Don’t we tell them that knowledge matters, that diligent and conscientious dedication to the mastery of skills leads to success?
Trump’s misogyny, narcissism and know-nothingness will continue to exact a toll through his tenure, but parents and teachers can do much to shield their children, especially their daughters, from the worst effects.
They can continue to encourage girls’ passion for learning — whether through spelling bees or science fairs. They can emphasize an appreciation for knowledge and facts, no matter how uncomfortable those facts may be. And fathers can model a respect for girls and women that the president-elect seems incapable of.
Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I grew up in the Deep South during Jim Crow, when nurturing parents and supportive teachers made all the difference in the lives of black children.
My best teachers were my mom and dad — educators themselves — who reminded me frequently that I would have to work harder to prove myself to a skeptical world, but that I had the talent to do well. My father was a math wonk who sat with me through evenings of senior year pre-calculus, insisting that I stick with the class that I wanted to abandon. I made As.
My mother was the enforcer who limited my television-watching time — 30 minutes a day — even when my homework was done. “Well,” she’d say, “go read a book.” (That lesson stuck better than the pre-calculus. Even now, I devour books.)
My daughter deserves no less from me. Recently — apropos of nothing, in that way 8-year-olds so often do — she referred to the election results.
“Mommy, have all the presidents been boys?”
“Yes, sweetie. They have. But don’t worry, a girl will be president one day soon.”“Good,” she said.