Third-grader Martha Kennedy Morales received an unexpected piece of mail last week. After losing a class election for president by just one vote, Martha opened her mailbox to find a letter from none other than former secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “While I know you may have been disappointed that you did not win President,” Mrs. Clinton wrote, “I am so proud of you for deciding to run in the first place.” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill told CNN that the letter is, in fact, from Mrs. Clinton, who saw a Facebook post that Martha’s father shared about the class election and decided to write the letter.
While there’s no doubt that receiving a letter from a public figure out of the blue is exciting, one has to wonder why the letter was sent in the first place. What were Mrs. Clinton’s motives? Upon reading the letter in its entirety, it seems fairly clear that Mrs. Clinton was trying to make the situation somehow about her and, more specifically, about gender bias. “As I know too well,” Mrs. Clinton wrote in the letter, “it’s not easy when you stand up and put yourself in contention for a role that’s only been sought by boys.” It’s true that Martha lost to a boy, but there is no indication that the boy won because of his maleness. In fact, Martha lost by only one vote, which — given the fact that her class probably had fewer than 30 students in it — is basically a tie.
The election was part of a unit Martha’s class was doing (presumably on elections) and Martha said she would run again “if we do this unit again” — which implies that the boy’s tenure as president won’t last long anyway, given that the unit will probably end by winter break. It seems reasonable to assume that this unit has been done before throughout the years in this classroom and it would be interesting to know if girls sometimes win (I bet they do). By coming in second, Martha gets to be her class’s vice present. She told CNN, “I’m happy I get to be the tie-breaker when the House and the Senate can’t agree on something.”
Martha herself is a poised and articulate young woman who is clearly going places. But the presidency — the real one — isn’t actually on her wishlist. When she grows up, Martha hopes to be a singer and to “pursue my dream in riding horses.” This is not a girl whose political dreams have been crushed before they even began. Nor is she struggling under the weight of patriarchal oppression. For her part, Martha never mentions gender as the reason she lost the election and seems content with letting the wheels of democracy keep on turning. It’s Mrs. Clinton who seems to feel this was all about gender. Or perhaps that another election, featuring another candidate was all about gender… ahem.
It seems fairly clear that, in teaching this unit, Martha’s teacher was hoping to teach her students how elections and government work. And, based on Martha’s understanding of the role of vice president, it looks like the teacher did a pretty good job. Making the situation somehow about gender when there is nothing to suggest that it was, takes away from the very real and valuable lessons Martha and her classmates were learning through this unit of study. Not to mention that using an 8-year-old’s election loss as a bid for publicity for yourself is stooping pretty low.
We have no way of knowing what Mrs. Clinton’s intentions were when she wrote Martha that letter. I hope she was acting solely out of kindness and solidarity rather than self-promotion and blame. But I hope Martha understands that her gender is not a barrier to her success in her chosen career. I hope she doesn’t come to see her election result as losing to a boy — as Mrs. Clinton seems to want her to see it — but as simply getting second place in a very close race that had nothing to do with gender. The kind of mentality Mrs. Clinton’s letter hints at can only hold Martha back. But Martha could be reaching for the stars.