A few months ago, my daughter asked my husband and me why women are not allowed to be president of the United States. She was 6 at the time. We responded with a question of our own: What in the world led her to that conclusion?
Her answer was matter-of-fact: We had just eaten dinner at a friend’s house, and the placemat she had eaten from showed our past presidents in chronological order. She noted that each and every one was a man. She deduced that women must not be allowed to hold the job.
A simple sentence from a young child uttered over a kitchen counter became one of the most illuminating moments I have experienced as a parent. Without anyone telling her so directly, my daughter concluded there are things she cannot do for the sole reason that she is a girl set to become a woman. I was a little indignant, somewhat sad, and very disappointed.
What does this have to do with you, Serena?
On a more recent morning, we watched you win the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. My daughter identified you as the “the one with the black hair,” and decided early in the second set that she was going to root for you. Soon after, your seemingly decisive lead started to slip.
She watched you make mistakes, and she got nervous. She saw you yell into the stands, and she started to cry. She listened to me explain the score, and she crossed her fingers.
And then you won, and she started crying again. This time, she had a shy smile on her face. I could see the gap from the tooth she’d lost the night before.
Now she watched you dance on center court. She watched you join in a standing ovation for your opponent. She heard you do a post-game interview, chatting about another “Serena Slam” and the possibility of a “Grand Slam.”
We talked about what those words meant. We talked about the way you behaved as a winner. We talked about how you were doing things in tennis that so few had done before, boys or girls. We talked about how you’d reached this pinnacle of sports because of how hard you worked, and how brave you were to never give up.
A few months earlier, I told my daughter that women are indeed allowed to be president of our country, but that one simply hadn’t been elected yet. I told her that I hoped someday a woman would be elected president. I told her that anyone can do anything if they work hard, and if they are brave.
I’m not sure she believed me. I’m not sure I believed me. I’m sure I need her to believe me.
I started working harder at listening to what she says, and seeing what she sees. I noticed that when she talks about bosses at work, she assumes they are men. I saw that the only athletes she recognizes are men.
She worried that she might not want to be a mother when she grows up. I reassured her she doesn’t have to be, and reminded her that she could also choose to be a mother and have another job, too. She wondered why her father cooks dinner at our house, and not me. I shrugged my shoulders and said it’s because he’s better at it, and likes doing it more.
And then I sat with her to watch you win Wimbledon. I listened to her tell me why she loves you (because you work very hard; you are nice, even when you win; and you are very strong). I saw her feel proud, because she saw you do it.
A woman does not have to win Wimbledon to confirm that women can compete and succeed, be powerful and full of grace, make history and overcome history. A little girl does not need to think she must break records to be part of the conversation. But it doesn’t hurt to witness a moment worthy of a placemat, featuring someone with a big ponytail, wearing a skirt, and bearing the name of a princess.
Thank you, Serena.