On Wednesday, you turn 69 years old — the same age Ronald Reagan was when he became president.
As a woman and another baby boomer, I raise a toast in your honor. Having spent years teaching women’s history, I know that women never break through glass ceilings without meeting bullies. Women historians of the future will study your three presidential debates as case studies of grace under pressure.
Thinking about your birthday, I remembered a story. It’s a story that not only explains why you debated so well but also holds the key to how you might be able to lead after Nov. 8, should you become our next president.
Back in February, you told CBS news reporter Scott Pelley that you were bullied as a little girl. Your mother, Dorothy Rodham, treated you with tough love when you sought consolation and protection inside closed doors. She sent you back outside with the words, “There’s no place for cowards in this house.”
So far this story fits the quintessential American idea of rugged individualism, the story that theologian Walter Wink called The Myth of Redemptive Violence. Usually the hero is male. Ralphie, in “A Christmas Story,” is the prototype — the kid whose glasses get knocked off when the neighborhood bully lands a snowball right between his eyes. Ralphie first begins to cry; then some primeval, adrenalin-fueled revenge force kicks in. He tackles his assailant, pummeling him with punches. The other kids gather in awe. The scene is calculated to draw cheers from an audience raised on Westerns.
You, however, stepped into a different story. Here’s what you told Pelley: “So I came back out, and I said ‘I am not going to run inside the house. I’m here. I want to play.’ Literally, they formed a circle, and this one girl who had been so mean to me, came over and she pushed me. I just pushed her right back, and she was so surprised.” And then? “They all just looked and me, and they said ‘OK.’ So I played that day, and every day after that.”
The Myth of Redemptive Violence would credit the use of force in this story. But that’s not how you told it.
The hero is your own inner victory over fear, based on your mother’s confidence that you had it in you.
You chose to use your words over your fists: “I’m here. I want to play.” Yes, you did push back. But you weren’t trying to bloody the mean girl. You were trying to assert your right to stay in the circle. Your words, backed up by the courage to keep standing, won that day — and many days thereafter.
When you told that story to Pelley, your eyes filled with tears remembering your mother.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that many baby-boomer women have not been able to trust you. My guess is that they aren’t sure how a woman their own age will wield power. This problem of imagination comes with the territory of being first. They need to see themselves as a member of the circle you have earned the right to join through your bravery.
Those who break glass ceilings end up with some cuts and scars on their shoulders, and after they have vanquished bullies they are tempted to go beyond pushing back to punishing. Or to go back inside again, where it is safe. You have an original story that can be called the Myth of Redemptive Inclusion. Its ultimate message is that love wins.
Your campaign message of “Stronger Together” and Michelle Obama’s contribution — “When they go low, we go high” — point the way not only to victory but to the even harder work of binding up the wounds of this brutal campaign.
Through tough love, Dorothy Rodham led you to a story much bigger than your own. As you continue to demonstrate what radical inclusion looks like, we boomer women (even those who didn’t trust you at first), often grandmas like you, have more than votes to contribute. We want to help you write your new story.
Shirley Hershey Showalter, 68, was the first woman president of Goshen College in Indiana. She is currently a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of St. John’s University, at Collegeville, Minn. She taught women’s history for 20 years.