My 4-year-old niece repeatedly asked a question during the Olympics. She asked it when she saw men competing in an event she hadn’t yet seen women compete in. She asked it again after the Olympics when the television was tuned to America Ninja Warrior and saw only men competing.
“Can girls do this?”
My niece’s innocent question came from her curiosity about the world around her.
Fortunately, I was able to answer yes. With a few exceptions, girls competed in all the same Olympic events as men. The featured image of this post is of American women, Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin, celebrating their historic sweep of the medals in the 100-meter hurdles. Most definitely, girls can do this, and they do it well.
I sensed her question, however, actually masked a much deeper and more profound question. A question she may not have even known she was asking. A normal question all children ask:
“Can I do this?”
Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live aired a spoof of a television commercial advertising a new product from Mattell: President Barbie. The narrator introduced President Barbie to three girls who were playing in a room. The girls, however, were uninterested in the doll. They resisted as the narrator tried to convince them to play with President Barbie. After the narrator scolded them by telling them there was time when Barbie couldn’t dream of being President, one of the girls smirked, “I wasn’t born then.” The skit suggested a new post-gender reality in politics and was a play on the large lead Bernie Sanders held over Hillary Clinton among young women in the Democratic primary.
50-50 in 2020, a bipartisan political organization in Iowa, however, recognizes that the political playing field is still not level. It was only two years ago, with the election of Republican Joni Ernst to the United States Senate, that Iowa for the first time elected a women to serve in Washington. Iowa has yet to elect a woman as governor. Currently, only a quarter of Iowa officeholders at the state and federal levels are women. The bipartisan goal of the group is that by 2020, the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage, half of political offices in Iowa will be held by women.
My niece’s question reminded me that it matters that a woman has been nominated for president. It matters that women are on the ballot. The presence of women at every level of government sends a powerful signal to girls and women everywhere that yes, they can do this, too.
Little girls are watching and are asking, “Can I do this?”
Asking not only what is possible, but what is permissible.
In the 1960 Presidential campaign, Vice-President Richard Nixon pointed out that children were watching the campaign and appealed to a civil tone, language, and behavior worthy of emulating. If only Mr. Nixon had foreseen that the country itself, through the tape recordings of his White House conversations, would be listening in on his decisions about Watergate, he would have saved his presidency and avoided the shame and humiliation of resignation.
Nonetheless, Mr. Nixon was right. Children were watching the presidential campaign in 1960 and they are watching in 2016. This is why the rhetoric, language, and tone of the presidential campaign matters.
Unfortunately, coinciding with the presidential campaign, reports have come in across the country that teasing, taunts, and harassment of Hispanic and Muslim children have increased notably. Children of European descent are receiving images from the presidential campaign as permission to emulate the hate. They are saying, “Yes, I can do that, too.” Hispanic children have had to endure chants of “Send them back.”
As Hispanic and Muslim children ask the basic question about their place in the United States, “Can I live my life here?” I fear the message they are receiving is “No, you can’t.” Or, “No, you shouldn’t.”
It falls to each of us right now to provide our children images that guide them towards the kind of country that honors our country’s ideals of freedom and equality.
We can point to the image of U.S. Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympic games wearing a Hijab, winning a bronze medal in fencing.
We can watch the Paralympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 7-18 featuring 4,350 athletes from 160 nations competing in 22 sports.
We can look to the U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois featuring two disabled Americans, incumbent Republican Mark Kirk, partially paralyzed by a stroke, and challenger Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a double leg amputee as a result of wounds suffered in Iraq.
We can point our children to the images of these men and women and to the success that is possible in the United States.
Above all, we can elect as president a person who embodies our country’s ideals. Our choice as President sends a clear message not only to our children, but to the world, about who we are as a people and nation. It lets others know what is possible in the United States of America.
Our children are watching.