Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

by Jennifer Palmieri

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Dear Madam President:

I am not even sure who you are. Are you, at this moment, sitting on Capitol Hill or in a state house? Are you a young teacher in Maryland wondering if you should run for something? Are you a volunteer mentoring students on the west side of Chicago? Are you browsing through a bookstore in Atlanta, wholly unaware of what your future holds? I don’t know if you are a Democrat or Republican or something else, I just know that you are out there somewhere. And you need this book.

I wasn’t sure how to address you in this letter. Doesn’t madam suggest you are married? Are we still going to define women—the first woman president, no less—by relation to a man? I could go with a gender-neutral salutation of “Dear President.” It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, so long as you can do the job.

Bullshit.

It matters.

And you are going to be different. You will bring an entirely new perspective to the office. You will expand our nation’s comprehension of what it means to be a leader. In its best moments, your presidency will give us a more fully realized sense of leadership—one that combines the best qualities of women and men.

There will be many challenges. World and congressional leaders will test you. America will judge you differently than it did your predecessors. People will scrutinize you, your ambitions, your choice of clothes. You are a unique individual, yet you will be expected to represent every woman. Be conscious of it, but keep a positive attitude. It doesn’t mean everyone who doubts you is sexist. We inherited this world, with all its flaws. We didn’t create it. All of us are trying to adapt and grow.

Given all the gains women have made in the last one hundred years, having a woman president may not seem like that big of a deal. It is. Step back and look at it from the arc of human history. It is still a revolutionary concept for a woman to be in charge. All of our models for a person in power, and certainly for the American president, are based on men. Our founding documents, our theories of leadership and governing, were all written by men, for men. It is time we reimagined leadership roles for women and men both. You will do that for us. You will chart a new course.

When I first joined Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, I had a grave misconception about the task before us. Simply put, I didn’t think it mattered that Hillary Clinton was a woman. I just thought she was the best person for the job. I didn’t see all the complexities inherent in the task of electing the first woman president. Worse, I didn’t see the new possibilities having a woman in the Oval Office would open up. We actually set out to prove that it didn’t matter that Hillary Clinton was a woman. And we did. We showed that this woman could do the job of president as it had been done by every man before her—reducing her to a female facsimile of the qualities we expect to see in a male president.

But I now see that path robbed Hillary of something very valuable. Some measure of her own humanity, some of the qualities that were unique to her. Qualities we may not find in a male president. Qualities you will bring to the Oval Office that will add a new dimension to what we imagine when we think of our nation’s leader.

Women of the baby boomer generation faced these same constraints in all professions. There was no other blueprint to work from other than to show that a woman could do the job as it had always been done, by a man. Follow our model, be tough, prove yourself by the standards we set. You weren’t even supposed to look like a woman. Dress like a man’s version of a woman. Our eyes can handle that. Think of how Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and Pat Benatar, women pioneers in rock music, presented themselves to the world: leather, black blazers, denim. Our eyes accepted them as women tough enough to take on a role meant for a man.

Woman with a guitar. Woman with a gavel. Woman with a podium. Woman with an oval-shaped office. Women with objects of power. It has taken time for our eyes to adjust to them.

Depending on how you keep score, a woman already has won an election for president. Hillary did that. She showed that a woman can win, even when she plays by the rules of the game as established by men. And she won with half of her humanity tied behind her back.

You won’t have to do that. You will still have a harder time than you should on the campaign trail. Getting the job will be harder for you than actually doing the job. (You will be great at the job, by the way.) But you will face easier terrain than the last woman did. This time our eyes will be more accustomed to the sight of a woman standing behind the podium center stage at the convention. Our ears more attuned to a woman’s raised voice projecting—not shouting—into the crowd. Our sensibilities adjusted to focus on what she will do with the job, not question why she wants it.

So, no gender-neutral moniker for you. You shall be Madam President. Let’s celebrate the fact that you are a woman.

I have always thought that I could do any job a man can do just as well as him. Only recently have I come to realize that I don’t want to. I want to do the job the best way I can do it, not the way he would. That’s what this letter is about—how women can lead in a new way. How we can create a new model of leadership in our own image, not a man’s.

You are preparing to lead our nation. Whatever you do to ensure that your voice is heard or that your position prevails, you are doing it in the service of our country. You don’t see it as attempting to aggrandize yourself or being pushy. You certainly aren’t going to wait to be asked for your view; you are going to assert yourself. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be doing your job; you wouldn’t be giving the country its due. That’s an approach all women should adopt.

I build on lessons I learned from my own life, where I was able to see President Barack Obama bring a new empathy to the Oval Office; from watching women like Hillary, Elizabeth Edwards, and my sister Dana Drago refuse to be defeated, even when the world told them they had lost; from mentors along the way who taught me the value of my own voice.

I will start with one hopeful lesson I learned on Thursday, November 10, 2016, a day after the world learned the outcome of the 2016 American presidential elections. I walked out of our campaign headquarters that night, still dazed from our loss, and encountered a large group of schoolchildren waiting outside for the Hillary campaign staff in the Brooklyn night. They were carrying signs and had covered the sidewalks in front of the building with hopeful messages written in chalk. WE ALL BELONG HERE. RISE UP. DO THE MOST GOOD. I felt a glimmer of optimism. For the rest of their lives, these kids would remember the night their parents brought them to Hillary’s headquarters to cheer on the staff.

I remembered those kids two months later when millions of women across America, in communities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Washington, DC, showed up to make their presence known and voices heard as part of the Women’s March. Women of all persuasions found it to be an empowering moment. Beyond politics, there was a sense among women that we had plateaued and needed to chart a new path if we were to make the progress we wanted and deserved. It was the start of a new chapter in the American story in which women decided that we were no longer following old rules and conventions. We were creating our own game, and going to write, and tell, our own story. This book is for you, our first Madam President, and for all the women in America from all walks of life and all professions who know they are ready to lead.

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