There is a dress that is sprawled out over the stool in the corner of my bedroom. It is a beautiful, gauzy white dress with an intricate sky blue detailing in the middle. It is one of my favorite dresses. And on Tuesday I will wear it.
I bought it from the Fox Hills Mall just before I left to go to Israel three years ago. I wanted to wear white on my Shabbat in Jerusalem, as the Kabbalists believe that Shabbat is a taste of the world to come, right down to the white of our garments. This was the closest to white that I could find, but it didn’t matter that it wasn’t all white; to me, there was perfection in the blue.
It reminded me on the little blue flowers on the Corelle dishware in my mother’s cabinet, or the Ottoman style fabrics that would make me think of my great grandmother’s life in Turkey. Yet it was long and dramatic, a statement of sorts. Just like the girl who would be wearing it.
I remembered how proud I felt wandering around the Old City in it wearing a white cardigan over my shoulders. I will never forget walking through the courtyards just above the Kotel and how it flowed around my body; the magic in the fabric was unmistakable. I would wear it many times after that, including on Tu B’Av, where Jewish women would go into the fields in white dresses and dance, and from there the men would pick a wife.
I am an American citizen, the third generation of proud Jewish women living here. When my family came here in the early 1900s, the world did not know of Auschwitz. It could barely conceive of the birth of a Jewish state. We were Jews seeking a better life, where the boys wouldn’t be sent to war and my family could be safe.
I remember sitting in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen with its warm wood paneling, cooking the delightful delicacies passed on to her from the centuries of life in the diaspora, and how thrilled she would be when she got an envelope that said jury duty.
“I love it,” she would say in that honey husky tone that was uniquely hers, yearning for another letter to call her for service. She hoped to learn and to understand the American justice system, to be a part of something bigger than herself, as my grandfather blared C-SPAN in the other room. How she told me in secret how she missed working and going to school. She was born in 1918; two years before the women got the vote.
Her daughter and I got into many battles together. My mom was born in 1945, almost 25 years after women got the vote. Being a woman in this country for her meant not necessarily pursuing her dreams the way her brother was able to, because women had certain expectations put on them. But she believed, even as the medical bills piled up in and the hair fell out of her head due to chemo, that this was the best place in the world to live as Jews.
“How can you not love this country?” she would yell at me when I would write one of my questioning American blog pieces. And there, watching her die and my opportunities fade as I tried to take care of her, I wondered how she could.
Neither of these women lived to cast their ballots in this presidential election. Six months ago, my mother was wrapped in a white shawl and buried in the ground in a pine box, per our custom. And on Tuesday, I will be wearing white too.
It’s because when I was 18 I discovered a copy of The Vagina Monologues in my mother’s bathroom. She didn’t understand those words of Eve Ensler’s, but I did. It was my voice as a woman who grew up in a town where girls were supposed to be quiet and accept their treatment at the hands of men. I was already 5’11 and had a voice that boomed, and a brain that was just as smart as anyone else’s. Why should I be silent?
My words spoke better on paper than they did in my vocal tones, scary as they may be. Yet they were meant to capture the distaste of what the world told me to be as a woman, let alone as a person. How I was told my aptitude for the written word was no match for the power of math and science. Yet even though I understood and respected logic and reason, I understood the heart is just as powerful. Why should I be silent?
Standing alongside me were the women who I came to know throughout my life, beautiful and strong, yet somehow felt silenced in telling their stories. They couldn’t speak their truths, ranging from sexual assault to health issues and discrimination in the workplace, for fear of retaliation. I understood the fears, yet I knew that their stories were also mine and should never be shamed or scrutinized. Why should I stay silent?
When the suffragettes of the early 1900s donned their colors, of purple, gold and white, they saw that we could be so much more. We didn’t need to stay silent. We were voices in this place just as much as others. We were battered and bruised, with women who pursued the presidency such as Victoria Woodhull (actually the first female candidate for president, even before the suffragettes were successful in their quest for voting) described as Satan incarnate. And we got that right, and for 96 years we have exercised it accordingly.
Now, after 96 years there is a woman running for president on a national-level ticket. She believes in what I believe in, as does the Democratic Party platform, so I am casting my vote for her. There is far too much to lose in this race as women if we don’t; I sometimes wish the men in our lives would see that.
For over 24 years, she has faced opposition to who she is as a woman: One who doesn’t stay silent. Who is ambitious and determined, and has every word thrown at her in the book. So have we all who have decided to take a different path than our mothers, who decide not to hide behind what we should be and instead strive for what we could be. We are loud and strong. She wears white. And we must too.
So Tuesday, I will wear white when I go to cast my ballot. The blue pattern in my dress, I realized, is to represent my matriarchs who gave my faith to me. Our Jewish faith instructs us to wear our prayer shawls with a thread of blue, and I believe truly that we pray with our hearts as much as our words. And my vote is a holy act.
My mother and grandmother believed in and loved this country, probably a lot more than my questioning mind does. They would have loved to vote for a woman for president. I am but one, but as one I am the culmination of generations and years of love and proud heritage, and will vote in their spirit. That is what I will be on Tuesday, standing with the rippling fabric that once flowed with divinity in my homeland, and will flow around me again.
My mother would always say to me, “Remember who you are.” I am an American Jewish woman, one of many. And on Tuesday we will wear white.
When I was 10 years old, on a chilly day in January, my mother sat us down at the kitchen table and made us write letters to our elected officials. Although I was too young to really understand what I was doing, one of those letters was to your husband, then president Bill Clinton. I haven’t written another one since then, but feel that now is the time.
You have to understand something about my mother: She loved this country. She was a Democrat, but proudly displayed the American flag on national holidays and put up a green light outside for veterans. When I challenged this country in my writings, she would write comments and say this country meant more to her and should mean more to me, to us and the future generation.
I was the rebellious one, taller than almost all the boys; the headstrong granddaughter of Turkish Jews blessed with my grandmother’s name, her bubbliness, savvy and sneaky sense of humor. The matriarch of our family who could have easily been a CEO if the times permitted, she could never have imagined America as it is today.
All my life, I heard things from outside my family structure; things that I can never shake out of my head, no matter how I try.
“Don’t be so bossy.”
“Sit still and be quiet!”
“Boys will never like a girl with so many opinions.”
“You don’t have to be so loud!”
As I got older, they morphed into other words, like “weird” and “strange.” And then there were my ex’s favorites: “You’re out of touch with reality” and “You f**ing b*tch.”
(As I am addressing what will hopefully be my future commander-in-chief, I hope you’ll forgive the language above.)
I’m sure you’ve heard all of these and worse. I’m sure my mother heard them too. We get them as strong women trying to break the mold. My mother, who was told “nice girls don’t go to college” in the early ’60s, worked part-time in packing at an ant farm factory to pay tuition at UCLA while her mother worried about her finding a husband. Fortunately for her, she found my father, a uniquely compassionate and feminist man.
My mom wanted to be a doctor, but “girls don’t become doctors.” Her brother did, and my mom worked in his office. She was wife to a theater artist and eventual entertainment tech executive, helping him type his MBA papers while enormously pregnant with my older sister. He encouraged her to finish her bachelor’s degree and her master’s, but at the end of the day my mother was the support for her ailing parents, two daughters and one niece, who had lost both her parents before she turned 30. She was the backbone of our family.
Growing up, while the world told me to stop being stubborn, she loved my resilience in disappointment. When I never gave up while others told me to quit, she was inspired. I made her laugh so much she nicknamed me, “the human Xanax.” Sure, as mothers and daughters go, we fought quite a bit. Although she was an active second wave feminist before I was born, we often disagreed about the ideas of men versus women. But at the end of the day, she was my strong, dutiful mother, with a dash of silly whenever she put on her light-up Mickey Mouse ears while working in her home office.
Meanwhile, I got my degree and married a man who was strongly and abusively conservative. I was too scared to speak up with my liberal leanings in fear of his rage. When the day came where I realized that he was too mentally unstable for the future, I fought my way out. My mother was there that terrifying night I left, calling me practically every five seconds to advise me, with my aunt giving me resources I needed to get out safely and legally protected and my friend offering me a safe house. In your own words, it took a village to get me out. I was broken, but determined to put myself back together.
Free of the constraints of marital censorship, the fight of feminism was mine to take on as a part of the younger generation, to shape how I wanted my future: Living independently and on my own terms, eventually working freelance in communications and obtaining national-level clients. Hoping for a full-time job to help pay off my student loans, but even when I didn’t get there, to keep applying. Keep moving. Be strong. Not necessarily with a man, but seeking one who longs to be my partner in family and the fight for equality. We as women can be the backbones, but we can be also the hands that hold tight to our dreams and work for them every day. The fight morphs and changes from generation to generation. And for many of those days, there was my mother, not always understanding but respecting.
I’m writing this letter to you because in April I cried at her hospital bedside because her face was so jaundiced and she was struggling to breathe. Her fingernails were the lightest shade of pink and she was running them through my hair. She told me she was proud of me and glad she got to know me as an adult. Less than two days later, I was wailing at the bedside, sitting on the hard floor holding that same hand, cold as ice while whimpering like a child, “I want my mommy.”
For two years, we fought the battle of breast cancer with her, sacrificing almost everything for her care. She died of a lung complication that took numerous doctors, plenty of “I don’t knows,” and eventually her life. It has been three months since then and there are still bills coming in that scare my father, her partner of almost 50 years, wondering how he’ll survive without his love. I think of your fight for health care and how my mother wanted to see it come full circle. How she cared about women’s health, teaching us at a young age that our bodies were not a place of shame but of pride. That being a woman was, in so many ways, an incredible thing.
And tonight, how I long for her to see you at this moment of your life, when “girls don’t become doctors” becomes “girls can become President of the United States.” It’s because she loved this country with her whole heart. And tonight, for the first time in a long time, I can say the same.
There are people out there who don’t trust you; many of them are women. It’s easy to throw labels around, toss words like they’re playthings: Corrupt. Criminal. Crooked. For almost 24 years, since you have come into the national spotlight as First Lady, you have heard them all yet remain stronger than Wonder Woman. You aren’t perfect, but as my mother used to say, you remembered who you are and kept moving. That is an incredible feat.
But the bigger task is at hand. The future of this country needs you: Allowing us to obtain quality educations without spending years in debt. Helping Planned Parenthood stay open and strong alongside access to birth control across the board. Making sure there are not only jobs for us, but equal pay for equal work. Letting us live without the fear of someone grabbing a gun and killing us. Allowing our parents to be comfortable in retirement, not scared of insane prescription and medical costs. Making sure that America is safe for all of us, no matter the color of skins we wear, those who we love and the places we pray. Yet still being someone who will be able to reach across the aisle, avoiding the dogged partisan politics of the past.
We, as the younger generation, need you to do this for us. We know what’s at stake in this election as you do. You have served as both Secretary of State and in Congress. You are beyond being a woman in this race; you are utterly qualified, and I put my faith in you.
One of my favorite stories is that, when you were a girl, you wanted to be an astronaut and you were told, “NASA doesn’t hire girls.” Well, guess what? I want to hire a woman for my president, and I have to believe that the rest of this country will too, for the sake of democracy. I hope you take that torch all the way to the White House for the memory of my mother, Jacqueline Amira Slutske, whose smile I saw reflected in yours Wednesday night after President Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. So let’s get out there and show them what we’ve got.
Reina V. Slutske