Chelsea Clinton has lovely hair. In the greater scheme of things it’s not important but I was kind of mesmerised by it as I sat in front of her in UCD this week. By her lovely hair and by her voice, which is sonorous and measured and calm. By the fragrant whiff of Ivy League about her. She had statistics about female participation in the workforce and wage inequalities at the tip of her tongue. I stared at her hair and wished I was the kind of person who could trot out statistics like that.
Of course, while staring at her hair I tried to be cynical. I always do but as usual it didn’t work. At a work-related gig recently, somebody said to me, “the thing about you is you’re not a cynic” and in journalism this is quite the insult. In this game – some would say in life generally – it pays to be alert to the dodgy motives and self-interest at the heart of some people and institutions. But cynical distrust of human sincerity has never sat easily with me.
I may have missed the cynical gene but for the most part I think I see things as they are. I go by instinct, I get a sense from people about their intent. I’m of the belief that most people are doing their best in this life and the ones with dodgy motives will be found out. No good will come of it. Naive? It’s a fair point.
Chelsea may come from a place of massive privilege – having a past and possible future US president for parents will give you that – but from where I was sitting, her intent is pure. With her “No Ceilings” campaign she is using that privilege to try to make the world, especially for women and girls, “suck a little less”, to quote another American woman who also spoke to a group of students this week. Shonda Rhimes is a hugely successful TV writer and director. The part that stood out for me in her (Google it) brilliant speech concerned the ridiculous myth of “having it all”.
"I don't," she told the students. "Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another area. If I am killing it on a Scandal script for work, I am probably missing bath and story time at home . . . If I am accepting a prestigious award, I am missing my baby's first swim lesson . . . If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the trade-off. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother." And yet, she said, she was glad her daughters got to know her as a woman who works.
Before the “No Ceilings” event started, I had spoken to a female politician about the abuse she had recently been subjected to online. And then Chelsea was asked how she handled criticism. She said it came in two forms: The first is criticism from serious people which she takes very seriously. “I want that criticism even if it’s uncomfortable.”
And then there’s what she describes as the second basket of criticism “which is not just about me, it’s about the critic”. And in that basket she would put “everything that has to do with my appearance, everything about the crazy debate at the moment as to whether I can still be a mother and be pro-choice which is just odd, whether or not someone likes my hair . . . that’s not about me. Right? Anyone who has experienced similar things, that’s just not about us. That’s about the critic who’s trying to tear us down. For whatever reason. To preserve the status quo. Because they’re cynics. Who knows? But it’s not about us.”
Afterwards I was heading off to launch the book written by my friend Simon Fitzmaurice, who has motor neurone disease. He wrote it using eye-gaze technology. It's Not Yet Dark is a small miracle, a thing of literary beauty which you should all go out right now and buy.
As she passed by me, I gave the book to Chelsea and told her it was launching that night. “My mother’s book launches today,” she smiled. “Good timing.” And then she was gone in a flurry of black patent shoes and (sorry, Chelsea) gorgeous hair. Another woman on a mission to make the world suck a little less. My kind of woman.