Let’s say you’re a good-hearted woman who wants to make a difference in the world. When it’s time to pick a career, you choose public service, because helping people as a job sounds like a dream come true. You commit to the struggle to find a place for yourself in that world, and though the work is hard and the pay is short, you see the good that can be done. You see the vulnerable people, invisible to so many, that are completely reliant on the safety net. At the food pantry, you meet homeless teens clutching ”go bags” of unwrapped perishables because they don’t own anything that can open a can. At the free clothing store, you meet single mothers digging through giant Tupperware bins of winter castoffs, muttering about the deadbeat landlords who make their babies have to wear their coats inside. On the street doing outreach work, you meet a familiar-looking client who turns out to be your same age and speaks fondly of your old neighborhood. You grew up within blocks of her, but you never knew how bad she had it. You never knew how bad anyone had it, not really. But now you know, and you can’t forget it, and that sets your path in stone.
You get older, you work harder still, and you move up. The movement takes it’s sacrifices- long hours, no sleep, strained relationships, paycheck-to-paycheck financial woes and the constant mental strain of knowing you’re doing something, but you could be doing more. Being a woman makes it harder, because why wouldn’t it? You aren’t supposed to admit it because your male colleagues are the enlightened few, but you still notice it. The lack of men around you only make the gendered differences in career paths are starker, more painfully easy to see. In a female-dominated field, your boss is still always a man who makes more money than you. You still watch men with no experience get promoted over you. You get talked over in meetings by the same men who call themselves feminists at the water cooler. Every time you open your mouth in a meeting and a man in a suit looks at you like you’re a dog who learned to talk, a piece of you dies. Just like it would anywhere else.
But you grit your teeth and gird your loins and make yourself unassailable. You let your youthful idealism take a back seat to its nerdy twin sister, pragmatism. Your professional life becomes a devotion to the goddess of Getting Shit Done. You can out-work, out-think, out-maneuver any of your colleagues. It isn’t a contest, but if it was, you’d be winning. You over-educate yourself, lining your bunker with credentials, because apparently you need a piece of paper to prove that you know as much as any dude who wants to shout over you. You become a walking Wikipedia of current conditions, policy recommendations, and social justice. You get in passionate arguments about the social safety net with drunk strangers. You ruin a lot of happy hours. You can’t help it.
And truth be told, you would not help it if you could. Because you have a guiding principle above all others: individual people can be shitbirds, but humanity as a whole is good. People are inherently worthy of dignity and respect, even when their actions aren’t. You believe in your heart of hearts that a broken society is what makes people behave badly, not the other way around. You believe that the way forward will be created be finding by practical solutions to the things that break people, and showing compassion to people who don’t see the value in justice until they come around. And so, you work.
You work and you work for a long long time. Nobody ever told you that the work would never stop, or that most people wouldn’t take it seriously, or that the pendulum of society would swing back and forth throughout your career. You become aware of the starting breadth and depth of cruelty in the world. You come to learn how racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry aren’t abstract problems, but ideologies coded into society, and that they bleed into the programs and legislation meant to protect the most vulnerable on a regular basis. You also learn that people you love and respect don’t give a fuck about that, and it is heartbreaking. You want to make change, but lasting change takes time. You lose ground as quickly as you gain it. Every victory brings two heartaches as it’s bridesmaids. You learn all the ugly ways that the sausage is made. You lose your appetite for it, but hey, people still gotta eat. So you keep working.
You have periods of burnout, of course. Your need to take care of others is a perfect excuse not to take care of yourself. Maybe you smoke like a chimney, or you ring up thousand dollars of retail therapy debt, or you drink so much you have to go to a couple meetings every now and then. Sometimes you pull back, just a bit, to save your sanity. Sometimes you keep going until you crash so hard that you burn every bridge behind you and have to start all over again. Eventually you learn to balance things better, even though it will always be hard. You have to learn, because every time you think of quitting, you remember that homeless kid in his puffy coat and duct-taped shoes gripping a bag of slimy day-old pizza like a life preserver. He deserved so much better. You can’t quit on him. So you don’t.
Eventually, you look to those who have succeeded before you for hope and guidance. As a woman, you look to other women, because you are tired of the ways men’s eyes glaze over at phrases like “check your privilege” or “that joke was sexist” or “pay me what I’m worth”. There is one woman in particular you come to love because she reminds you of yourself. She has spent her entire professional career being knocked down and punished for daring to be a woman in public service. She takes a thousand hits every day from people both sides of the issues, only to regroup and come back stronger every time. She has no tolerance for bullshit. She quietly, assuredly, and competently works to solve the problems that break people. And she gets results! She is successful by any merits, but she is amazingly so in the context of the constant unending attacks she gets from all corners. She’s an ambitious woman who wants to solve problems, just like you. She is who you wish you could be. So you think of her, and what she would do to help that homeless boy, and you keep working.
Then she gets so ambitious she wants to be the president of the United States. You want her to be the president of the United States too, but you’re cautious about saying it, because people who do say it get yelled into silence. You notice how many of those yells come from people who consider you your allies- men and women who call themselves feminist and deride an accomplished female politician as an uppity bitch in the same breath. You watch as they gleefully tear her down with thirty-year-old falsehoods and gender slurs, giggling behind their hands at the chance to call a powerful woman you admire a cunt. You reevaluate who your allies are. You lose some friends. It doesn’t bother you, because you wonder if they ever really supported you in the first place.
It’s lonely, sometimes, but it seems worth the effort. Because maybe, at last, people are listening. And she’s saying all of the things you’ve wanted to say to America for so long: you’re better than your struggles. You deserve more than this broken thing you’ve been handed, and we can fix it together. She’s saying that society has failed a great many people, but it doesn’t have to forever; that racism and sexism are institutionally supported and normalized to a dysfunctional extent; that people in your country have the fundamental responsibility to treat each other with respect. She has a binder full of plans to solve a broken society, and experts agree that they can work. Her enemies within the party come at her with everything they’ve got, and she listens to them and includes them in her platform as gracefully as she does everyone else. Everyone isn’t happy with her, but that never happens anyway. Enough people are listening, and agreeing, and it seems like for once she could really win. And then, maybe, you could really win too.
Her opponent in the race is the living embodiment of opposition to the society you’re working towards. He’s an engine run by cruelty, and he only cares about amassing more power and wealth. He openly stokes the fire of racism whatever he goes. He gloats about sexual assault so vividly and explicitly you have queasy flashbacks every time you hear his voice. You aren’t scared of him, because pompous assholes like him have lined your path for years. But you are scared of the people who will ride his coattails to power. You are scared of the opportunists who will use his victory as a validation to perpetrate harm. You are scared for your queer friends, your Muslim coworkers, the New Americans in your community. And you are scared of the people you know who claim to be progressives but aren’t taking it seriously, who aren’t taking him seriously, who refuse to support the woman you admire because their moral purity is more important to them than the lives they’d see ruined. They don’t think he’ll win, but if he does, they are sure society will only somehow be improved by the wreckage he’d cause. They don’t know the people who would be buried in the rubble. But you do. And you know how they will be buried and why. You know how the sausage gets made.
So you watch, and you hope, and you donate money, and you schedule a volunteer shift as time allows. You don’t praise her too much publicly, because all of your pushing and shoving has finally gotten you to a professional place where your names means something to someone, and you can’t afford to be doxxed by the vindictive trolls who search her hashtags. But you post in secret groups and you watch the polls and watch the news and hold your breath and cross your fingers and donate when you can and keep working, working, working with one eye on your phone.
And then, the day of the election comes, and it seems like everything is going to be OK. There’s still some anxiety, of course, but the narrative and the polls have been telling you you’re safe for weeks. It’s a done deal. The election is a formality. You’re too nervous about it to plan a celebration, but for the first time in a long time, you allow room in your heart once more for hope. You let idealism out of its cage for just one night, as confident as you are. You dare to think that that America will prove your faith in her right. You let yourself believe that the gendered walls between women like you and the lives you want to lead may finally come down. You allow yourself to forget your hard-won cynicism for a few hours and just believe in the people who would reject an obvious evil for a qualified good.
And then the returns begin to roll in, and it is one of the most painful experiences you can remember. State after state turns red. America would rather have a rapist as a president than a woman. It’s the biggest-ever blown promotion, the ultimate example of a qualified female applicant being passed over for a job in favor of a good old boy. Power and money scramble to insulate themselves against change, and they are willing to elect an openly fascist hatemonger to do so. People still don’t give a fuck about bigotry, they just know better than to admit that in public. You were wrong to bet on hope, on the people around you, on standing stronger together. America doesn’t want you, or people like you. Nobody wants to make anything better. Everybody just wants to watch things burn. There is nothing else to be said, so you go to bed.
The day after, you are shell-shocked. So is everyone you know. Nobody wants to admit this was possible, but it’s more than possible: it has happened. People are quiet and sad all day. Long hugs are exchanged between strangers. It’s like a president was assassinated, not elected. And yet, something had died, or was discovered dead, and it’s stink chokes you and makes your eyes burn until you’re crying in the bathroom stall at work and you don’t know why. But honestly, you do.
And then you think of her, and the pain she must be swallowing right now. The anger, the frustrated hurt and rejection that must far outstrip your own. You think of how she’s spent thirty years tilting at windmills, and no matter how hard she falls she always manages to get back up. You remember that she’s lost at the hands of bigger, meaner bullies than the likes of him. She always comes back stronger, somehow. She never stops working, even at times like this. She keeps going, because she has to. She’s seen the invisible people too, and she will not forget them. She keeps going because there is work to do. No matter who wins, there is always work to do.
Your phone buzzes with an email. Your office phone rings. You swallow your tears and pick it up. You keep working.