Wednesday, October 26, 2016

You always remember the first time you vote

Voting. When I was growing up, it was something I was going to do when I was eighteen. That was a given. My parents always let me know how important it was to cast a vote. Society told me how special it was that we got to vote. My school taught me that it was a privilege to vote and other countries didn't have the right to vote. I grew up somewhere between cynicism and optimism about our future and our government. My father was very pessimistic and angry and always spoke very negatively about government. I often heard the sentence "Guess I'll have to hold my nose and vote for this guy." What was the point in that? Why would you vote for someone you had to hold your nose around.
I maintained my optimism in spite of this.
Growing up, I did not see a lot of women in politics right away. When I was born, it was full of white men in office and I just kind of thought-- women must not want those jobs. Not that we couldn't have those jobs but that we didn't want them. Because I was optimistic and I had a working mother who, frankly was kind of badass and I was sure that if not me, women could do whatever they wanted once they broke out of their shell.
I watched my mother push back against the patriarchy every single day. I watched it wear her down and then she would gather strength and go after it again.
Frankly, it didn't seem like politics was a job any woman would want. Talk about thankless with no reward. That was what I saw as a little girl. I wanted to do something artistic though. I did not yet understand how those women in politics were going to change what my world looked like.
As English Professors, the Liberal arts seemed about as far away from politics as it could get. And I had no concept that my mother did not have maternity leave. I had no concept that in fact, our political system was going to change every life in our country. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
No one in my house ever discussed with me WHY it was important to vote.
I wasn't interested in any of it because no one really explained to me why I should be interested in it, why it was going to make a difference in my future.
As I approached my first presidential election, I was twenty one. And suddenly when I had a voice I knew it was important. I had not wanted to vote in the smaller elections when I first turned eighteen. (I realize now I probably should have but I wanted my first ever vote to be for president) I had not even registered until the summer before the presidential election. But coming up on my first election, I did not ask the advice of either one of my parents. My mother would always say that her vote was private and she did not have to tell anyone who she was voting for. In fact, as outspoken and opinionated as both my parents were, they taught me very little about what government was. And frankly, except for some high minded and bloated ideals, school had taught me very little. I was never told- examine the issues, look for things that you care about. I was taught in a dry and boring way what government was. Look, it has three branches. The President is commander in chief. This is the song where a bill becomes a law. I was not even sure why I should care about any of that.
BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO VOTE. (Okay, but why?) It just is!!!
Cause that is your constitutional right.
Cause...cause... no wonder people don't vote.
In history class, women getting the vote in 1920 was kind of a footnote (at an all girl school, that seems disgusting and disgraceful in retrospect, they should be ashamed of this, the section on this barely covered it)
So, who did I turn to? My friends.
I had some smart friends, some friends who did a lot of self educating and lots of reading.
I had one friend who loved to read biographies.
I was not interested in biographies. She wanted to give me the highlights of women getting the vote and I tuned her out. Because that history was dry and who cared and whatever, it didn't matter. She was going to tell me some boring shit, I thought. So, I did not learn that totally fascinating and engrossing, interesting history for several years.
In fact, I think I was frustrated that I was turned off from history by some dry ass terrible teachers. It makes a difference.
There was one friend who I was talking with a great deal during the election year. She was about five years older than me and we discussed a lot about who was running and what they stood for and it kind of opened up things for me. I listened to her, I was influenced by her, I asked her questions.
There were not a lot of people I could ask in my life.
There was no way I was talking to my dad. Politics made him angry. He was going to end up screaming about the goddamn government. Or he was going to talk until I fell asleep from boredom. The conversation would only go one way, the way he explained everything with his narcissistic one sided point of view. He was very knowledgeable but he was not going to share this wisdom in any kind of accessible way. If I asked questions I would be ridiculed or screamed at or he wouldn't be able to hear me.
Once in sixth grade, I was doing a report on the Nixon administration and he just hollered names and facts at me and I wrote things down. He ended up ripping the paper away from me and writing things down for me. God forbid I be involved in the process. Or learn anything.
I know for sure he did not treat his students like this. But he treated me like this. I never went to him for help on anything. That was the last time. But this for me was government.
I felt the pull to KNOW something, to figure it out, to understand it in some real way. I didn't want to get into the voting booth and just hit choice A or B without knowing anything about either person. I had heard some speeches, but I didn't trust that rhetoric. I was at least smart enough to know that these two candidates were presenting their best sides. I needed to know facts. I wanted to cast the most intelligent vote.

That year, I was pregnant. I was due November 2 and the following Tuesday was election day. I was late, I was overdue. I was up all night in labor. I knew I was in labor. Early labor. The kind that takes a really long time to get going. I knew I had hours to go but it was real.
So, there I was at seven am, miserable, in pain. Feeding my son breakfast and weathering through small but steady contractions.
I didn't say anything to my dad. He tends to panic and it was nowhere near time to go to the hospital. So, I kept my mouth shut. Pretty soon, my dad started pestering me, though.
"Are you going to vote?" he asked
"Yes." I responded.
"When are you going?"
"I don't know. Today." I responded, dripping with sarcasm.
"When, today? Because I would like to vote and if you're going now, I could go later. But if you're going later..."
I couldn't take it. He was going to keep talking. Meanwhile, there was another nasty contraction.
"Can I have breakfast?"
"Are you going after breakfast?"
I resisted the urge to murder him on the day I was voting for the first time. That was not the type of irony I needed in my life. I wondered briefly if I could be acquitted because I was in labor. Temporary insanity. Extreme duress. Nope. Not worth it.
"I'm going now." I announced.
I put on my comfy sweatpants and a clean sweater and maybe even some makeup. I can't remember if I put on makeup. I think I did, it seems likely. If I wasn't nine months pregnant, I might have walked up there. It was only three blocks away. But I drove. The line was not that bad. I remember expecting much worse but there were probably only about fifteen people in front of me and the whole process went pretty quickly. The entire thing took all of about twenty minutes. I punched a bunch of holes through a card and presto, I was done. I handed my card in and it was all over. Huh. That seemed like no big deal. I had hesitated over my choice in the last moment. It was so final. Was I sure I wanted to vote for this guy? Was I positive? It seemed like I didn't know enough, that I was still rather woefully ignorant of everything I needed to know. And I was right about that.
That process spurred me to know more. To understand more. To take my vote as seriously as I should.
These days I actively discuss politics and policies with my children. I don't expect my kids to vote for the same person I vote for, but I feel like they have a pretty good grasp on what is going on. They have much more information but the downside to that is that they also have much more misinformation. Satire websites that they are taken in by, opinion pieces that are slanted. Whole tv channels that only present one side of the story. And lies and more lies. It's hard to figure things out.
What means something to me now is that I finally found the story of how women got the vote. I finally became interested enough to let go of the boring history teachers and the past prejudices I had and I saw a movie called "Iron Jawed Angels". (A small reason why I know that movies are not just entertainment but they change the world) and it changed me and the way I looked at my vote.
In 1776, we declared independence and waged a war which (eventually) gave all male white citizens the right to vote. Somewhere around a hundred years later, black men got freedom and a right to vote (which people spent a lot of time surpassing and shutting down and all the rest that went with that but that is another story). And women, all women, white women and women of color had to fight and demand and be jailed, beaten, force fed, etc. Suffrage sounds like suffering to me. But if not for these women, I would have no right to vote on November 8th. And this woman running, just four years shy of one hundred years of having the right to even vote would not have the right to seek political office.

And representation in government is crucial. No matter how you feel about this election, having people from different backgrounds, people of color, different genders, different sexual orientation, these things matter. Because of the people, by the people, for the people means all of us. So the representation of all of us is important.
The hardest thing is finding people who actually care and are not just self serving fame and power whores. Because to be in government is to serve a community. To do your best for the people you represent. High minded ideals. And politics is made of lies and back room deals and unsavory things. Sometimes they mean well and the law of unintended consequences steps in and bites you hard.
But every now and then something wonderful happens. Slavery is abolished. Women get the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act. Gay people get the right to marry. Pre-existing conditions no longer matter when seeking health insurance. Every now and then some amazing piece of change happens and I marvel that it happened.
And these things happen because we voted for people who were integral to making this happen. So, yes, your vote does matter. It's a small piece of a larger world and it belongs to you and only you. Try to use it wisely with your best conscience and your highest ideal. When I walk into the voting booth, I stand on the shoulders of those women who suffered before me, who believed it would matter to me that I was represented and knew that I could change the world with one vote. I know that their battle was worthwhile, that their sacrifice for me humbles me and I honor it.
For all of you, this should be meaningful. To make your vote a part of history.

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