Holbrook: Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt and election thoughts one year later (column)
In early September I visited Campobello Island, a Canadian territory off the coast of Maine and the location of the summer cottage of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I’ve visited many old historic houses, and there is always that gulf between where you, the visitor, stand today — peering across the empty rooms with the quaint flowery wallpaper, oddly small beds and strange kitchen appliances — and the living, breathing people who once made this place their home.
But studying the photographs of young, vigorous Franklin before polio put him in a wheelchair for life, and shy, awkward Eleanor venturing out on her first trip to Europe, that distance somehow vanished for me. There they were, both of them young and hopeful, perhaps envisioning lives of interesting and useful work, travel, satisfying times with family and friends.
They surely could not have imagined that most of their lives would be dominated by two devastating world wars, and the vicious racial struggles that would tear at the fabric of this country. Eleanor surely could not have predicted that, at the age of 72, she would have a $25,000 bounty put on her head by the Klu Klux Klan, that she’d buy a gun and (ignoring the warnings of the FBI) drive through the mountains of Tennessee to give a talk to a group of young protestors on “Civil Disobedience.”
And maybe it takes being in middle age, as I am, to appreciate the sense of poignancy that, in any human life, we do not know how things will turn out. We wish for happiness and smooth sailing, but sometimes life brings sorrow and disappointment. Will we have the courage to remain hopeful? The determination to hold onto what we believe in, despite setbacks, heartbreak or failure?
In the last few weeks I’ve been listening to an audio recording of Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened.”
I voted for Clinton, and have no doubt she was by far the best candidate for president. “What Happened” is a rather depressing reliving of everything that went wrong, all that was unfair and all that should have been different. Clinton was the smartest, the most prepared and the most experienced of all the contenders — and much of this book, so far, is about the anger at not getting what was so clearly deserved.
I feel and understand this anger on a very personal level, even if my experience is much smaller and more limited. Like many professional women I also had the experience of being passed over for jobs that were awarded to less qualified male candidates. And once in a position of leadership, I also struggled with the impossible balancing act of trying to speak, act and present myself with authority without coming across as strident and bitchy. I did not deserve having to navigate that minefield of stereotypes that women bosses face and that no man in my position would have even had to consider.
Eventually, though, you stop fuming over what you believe you deserve. These days, when I consider the lives and circumstances of most people on this planet, it’s hard to be so sure about what I “deserve.” And beyond that, we exist for such a short moment in time that it is impossible to know what the impact of our lives and our efforts will be.
Eleanor Roosevelt faced the challenges of her time, and spent her entire adulthood engaged in the struggle for equality and greater human rights. Though she was discouraged at the end of her life because there was so much yet to do, and progress had been so small, she never stopped fighting. I think she came to believe that this IS the point: You keep fighting. You keep standing for what you believe in.
I am reminded of the Bhagavad Gita, the great epic poem written in 400 B.C. depicting gods and warriors, and the struggle for human beings to understand how to live in this short time we have. On the field of battle, faced with certain carnage and an uncertain outcome, the warrior Arjuna despairs — what is the point of going on? The god Krishna steps in and exhorts him:
“You have a right to your actions, / But never to the actions’ fruits. / Act for action’s sake. / And do not be attached to inaction. / Self possessed, resolute, act / Without any thought of results, / Open to success or failure / Let go of your grief – and fight!”
It’s been nearly a year since Hillary Clinton lost the bid for presidency. And it may be that in losing the election that she and over half the voting population believed she deserved to win, Hillary Clinton will have made a larger impact than if she had won.
If Clinton had become president, we might have spent the next four years mired in the same political inaction and dysfunction, but without realizing how deep the divisions are in this country — in terms of how we view racial and gender inequality, job opportunities, access to education and health care. We might not have understood how much work needs to be done, on so many fronts. If we had not had our hopes so badly trampled, we might not have felt the same sense of urgency to pack away notions of what “should have been.” And, as Eleanor so often did, summon our energy and courage to take a stand — whoever we are and however small our impact may seem — for what we believe is right.
Christina Holbrook lives in Breckenridge.
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