There are times in our lives that give us pause for reflection. These moments are unique opportunities to explore – and celebrate the people in our lives. These people could be relatives, friends, teachers, colleagues or so much more. In them, we may find our own most admirable qualities – because they are our champions – and they have influenced who we have been – who we are – and who we could still become.
I’d like to briefly – and I mean briefly – introduce you to three of my personal champions, and then explain why “I’m with Her”:
Sarah Koelling became a single mother on Christmas Eve. The night her husband walked out, he took the family’s money and all of the presents, leaving her behind with their three children. Facing emotional and financial ruin, Sarah leaned on her family and was determined to persevere and never again rely on a man for any type of security – and she never did. Her story is extraordinary.
Born (Aug. 10, 1937) to a farming family during the Great Depression, hard work was a trait engrained in her from the beginning. On the farm, girls worked as hard as boys and in her family, women had a voice. Her father stressed the importance of an education and her brothers protected her and her sisters, long before serving the United States in World War II and beyond.
Sarah became an educator and made a career of working with special needs children. She believed in the value of education and that every child should have the opportunity for, and access to, quality learning. She embraced her students, no matter their limitations. She believed in them – and their capacities to learn, to create and to explore. She encouraged their imaginations and empowered their dreams.
Sarah Koelling was my grandmother.
Growing up, I recall visiting her classroom at Fairmount Elementary, a highly ranked school in the Francis Howell School District. There, I observed her interactions with her students and saw many of her learning tools at work. For example, she helped students learn to count using a reward-based system and Lucky Charms. “Miss Sarah’s” students counted the cereal pieces – and their good work was rewarded with the marshmallow bits. This technique is now commonly identified and accepted as “positive reinforcement.” Miss Sarah employed it decades before it became a commonplace practice. She was encouraging – and she believed in all of them, despite the reality that some would never survive to adulthood.
Sarah Koelling was an extraordinary woman – and I want to offer you just one more testament to her character, to illustrate just how much she cared and believed in her students. In her career, she worked with one blind student – so she could provide the acceptable level of education, she learned brail. She used that passion to empower the students at school – and us at home – and at the heart of all of her lessons, we found support for our dreams, encouragement for our futures and hope for our happiness – and our Christmases were filled with homemade gifts, because you could never take the love away.
Sarah’s daughter, and my mother, Elizabeth – known to family and friends simply as Beth – is the cornerstone of my position as a feminist. She is the reason I am an avid supporter of gender equality, and for female empowerment.
Growing up was difficult. I spent the early part of my childhood peeking through my fingers almost every night. My mother was a victim of domestic violence – and on several occasions, her “crime” was simply putting herself in harm’s way to protect my siblings and me. I heard and I saw, but I never felt the rage of my father’s temper, because she did it for me. I know the horrors too well – and they’re perpetuated by a society afraid to confront them, a society that’s historically viewed women as inferior – and such violence as passively acceptable.
I could only watch, countless times, as my mother was dragged off in handcuffs because her word was worth less than my father’s. I watched in frustration – and on several occasions, I pleaded with the officers to let her go – or to listen to me. I was a child though, of no more than five, six or seven at the time, so my word carried the same weight as hers. “Justice” didn’t work us – and today, that injustice is still a prevalent and dark part of our society for many people.
After a decade-long cycle of violence, my mother broke free and my parents divorced. She took my brother and me to my Grandma Sarah’s for an interim period – and she worked two and three jobs to make ends meet, because she couldn’t earn a livable wage with just one. From then on, she did the best she could, and raised my siblings and me to condemn violence toward women – and to believe in ourselves. She is our proudest champion.
This champion – my champion, is a survivor. A survivor that pushed me to be better, to do better and to dream. Like my Grandma, she pushed me to learn – and I credit her as being a significant factor in my achievement as a college graduate, the first from my father’s side of the family. I promised her a Master’s degree. I did it – and I walked at that ceremony for her. Walking wasn’t particularly important for me, but it was to her – and she had more than earned that moment – to very vocally stand by me, my champion always, cheering me on in front of a large crowd.
What I haven’t told you is that this extraordinary woman did all of this, while overcoming cancer – twice.
Charlene Jansen is one of the most vivacious, caring, loving, independent and empowered women I know – and it’s fitting, because she’s Sarah’s daughter and Beth’s older sister – and my aunt. Driven by that fateful Christmas Eve, Charlene put her career first and became a self-made woman.
For many years, Charlene worked as a paramedic on the streets of St. Louis. I’ve heard countless stories of the challenges she’s faced – from dangerous working conditions to systemic sexism. She carved her own path and went from being a medic to becoming the training officer for the St. Louis Fire Department.
However, diagnoses with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis presented her with particular challenges that forced her to adapt – and ultimately, she became the educator she is today. That path began at St. Louis Community College, where she served as the EMS program coordinator. From there, she became an independently contracted textbook editor and full-time instructor. As an increasingly respected and influential voice in her professional community, she develops new medics, while enriching the educations of existing professionals, often while encouraging and empowering women in the field.
Charlene cultivated her image while being a wife, mother, grandmother and even foster guardian – but it hasn’t been without its challenges. She’s combatted insurance companies for having a pre-existing condition, and she’s confronted ungrateful attitudes, impatience and sexism daily. Oftentimes, she’s tasked with lofty expectations while protecting or advocating for others at her own emotional and sometimes physical expense.
Despite those challenges, she’s stood tall and forged a career in a male-dominated profession, where she’s experienced pay disparities and been criticized for her ambition. She’s experienced and challenged sexism in her professional life, while finding and maintaining balance in her personal one. She is an example of what our society expects from successful career women – and it is a great deal more than we expect from men, generally for a fraction of the cost. But she continues because she is admirably passionate and ambitious. Her story is frustrating – but it’s even more inspiring.
Like her mother and my own, Charlene is an extraordinary woman.
My Foundation and why “I’m with Her”
The three women I briefly – and I mean briefly – explored are my family. I chose them, because they might represent you – or someone you know. They have shaped my worldview – and my sharing this has hopefully caused you to consider your own. In turn, I’ve added my voice to fight for gender equality for all of us – but mostly for them. They were always my champions – and now, I am trying to be theirs.
I’m aware of the challenges facing women because the three most important women in my life have confronted those challenges – but I don’t pretend to know them. My Grandma Sarah earned a minimal salary, even after two decades of service – but she did what she did because those kids were worth it. My Mom faced emotional and physical abuse every night – but she did it because we were worth it. My Aunt Charlene broke down barriers and combatted systemic sexism because women are worth it.
Now, I am here to say that they are worth it. They are my foundation – and I am the product of their collective work. They are the reason I gravitate toward strong women – and they are why I have supported and continue to support Hillary Clinton.
I realize I may lose some of you right here – but please, keep reading.
Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career combating systemic sexism, while fighting for the rights of women and children across the globe. Hillary is within reach of shattering the highest proverbial glass ceiling. Her election to the United States presidency would instantly validate any young girl’s dream of becoming president and would be a significant moment in the fight for gender equality. Hillary would earn the same as her predecessors from day one, and set a massive precedent. The world would view her election as America’s commitment to progress.
Hillary Clinton is an internationally recognized political figure capable of navigating the bureaucracy that is Washington, D.C. on day one. I realize Hillary has her detractors, and that she is a polarizing figure in American politics. I realize that she is imperfect – and that her voting record is as perfect as yours or mine might be. I realize that some blame her for scandals ranging from personal e-mail servers and Benghazi to the mass incarceration of young black men in urban areas. I also realize that many have questioned my – and any of her other supporter’s – vote for Hillary, telling us we can’t vote for her “just because she is a woman.”
Yes we can, because our vote for a woman named Hillary is a vote for much more.
To me, Hillary Clinton represents the three women I hold dearest, because I’ve witnessed their struggle, just as I’ve witnessed hers. I can’t keep quiet, I must break the silence. Hillary has balanced a very public career with being a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She has dedicated her life to championing efforts for women and children. At the U.N. 4th World Conference, in Beijing, China on September 5, 1995, then First Lady Hillary Clinton famously declared, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
During that speech, she addressed the economic importance of women across the globe. On behalf of women, Hillary spoke out against pay disparities, physical and sexual violence, unaffordable insurance and dangerous worldviews that place less significance on the lives and reproductive rights of women. She called the world to action by saying, “As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes – the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.”
Like I said, I’m aware of, but don’t know, the challenges facing women. My Grandma Sarah did. My Mom and Aunt Charlene do. Hillary Clinton does – so yes, I can vote for her “because she is a woman,” because as a woman, she represents women – and my vote will be for all women and represent so much more.
I will be voting for a future where women are valued and viewed equally. It will be a vote for a local teacher working tirelessly to provide every student with dignity and a quality education. It will be a vote for her to earn a wage that her male counterparts already earn.
My vote will be a vote for mothers at home, defending themselves and their children against domestic violence. It will be a vote for all those children trying to reason with the police to let their mothers go. It will be a vote to eradicate systemic sexism, erase pay disparities and to ensure gender equality once and for all. My vote will be for my nieces to have the same opportunities as my nephews.
There is only one candidate that can make full use of my vote.
Before contesting there are more “qualified” candidates than Hillary Clinton to achieve what I need my vote to achieve, let me stop you. Like me, all men in this world, including the other, more “qualified” candidates, are only aware of the challenges facing women. We men don’t know them. Hillary Clinton does – and I believe she is the only candidate capable of fighting to create, “A world in which every woman is treated with respect and dignity.”
It has been her life’s work.
My Grandma Sarah was not inferior. My Mother is not inferior. My Aunt Charlene is not inferior. Yet, at some point in their lives, they were treated as such – and they deserve better. They matter and they are important. In my eyes, they have always been equal, if not superior to their male counterparts. They are extraordinary women – and they deserve fully realized equality in spirit and in life. I believe Hillary Clinton is the candidate capable of providing that.