Chelsea Clinton: 'We need to tell even more stories of remarkable women who have positively changed the course of history'
- Arusa Qureshi
- 12 July 2018
Ahead of two book events in Edinburgh, Chelsea Clinton tells us about some influential historical figures who defied orthodoxy
When Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell formally silenced Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor last year for her criticisms of Jeff Sessions, his response to her censure inadvertently created a feminist battle cry: 'she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.'
For author, activist and former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, Senator Warren's efforts weren't merely an act of resistance but a clarion call to women everywhere who are repeatedly held back, reproached and vilified for speaking out. 'As I was thinking about how to talk about that moment to my children,' Clinton explains, 'I started thinking about the many American women who have inspired me with their persistence, and how often our county has been driven forward by women who persisted.'
Clinton's bestselling 2017 picture book She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World introduces young readers to important figures throughout US history who persevered in their fight to be heard, despite the many hurdles along the way. With Warren's dismissal reverberating in feminist spaces around the world, Clinton was encouraged to continue in her mission to uphold the tales of history's greatest women and their many contributions. For the sequel to She Persisted, Clinton once again teams up with illustrator Alexandra Boiger, this time drawing attention to another set of women whose impact has been felt globally.
'My greatest motivation was really the reaction from readers,' Clinton says when asked about her reasons for looking beyond the USA. 'I was overwhelmed by the number of young readers, mainly girls though some boys too, who would come to my events and tell me about their favourite characters, why they were so happy they now knew about Virginia Apgar, or how they wanted to go into space like Sally Ride. And I also was struck by the reaction from their parents or grandparents who would bring them saying we wish we had more books like this that centred on powerful women. That was so affirming to me, and I thought 'we need to tell even more stories of remarkable women who have positively changed the course of history'. So I wrote the second book.'
Both books feature women who have thrived in their respective fields, despite the odds being stacked against them, from Harriet Tubman and Sonia Sotomayor to Marie Curie and Malala Yousafzai. 'It was important to me to have a mix of stories that might be familiar, and stories that are powerful but should be more well-known. Beyond that, it was important to make sure that we were not only representing women, but that it was a diverse group across their areas of time, geography, work and background.'
Some of the women's stories have long compelled Clinton. 'I've looked up to Wangari Maathai for as long as I can remember,' she states. 'I remember watching Yuan Yuan Tan dance when I was at Stanford and when I first heard Leymah Gbowee speak about her courageous peace-making work. I am so thankful to be able to share Mary Verghese's story about bringing functional rehabilitation medicine to India, and Aisha Rateb's story about fighting for equal rights and justice in Egypt: I didn't know either of those until I started working on She Persisted Around the World and am so grateful that I now do.'
Persistence is a quality that women around the world have embraced, and books like She Persisted are vital in motivating young women of all backgrounds to maintain their dogged determination and to use their voices effectively to shape history. 'For so long, we've had a majority of books, even for young readers, that have focused on the achievements and accomplishments of men,' notes Clinton. 'And we also know in the US that historically we've had more white girl figures that have stories centred around them than girls of colour. So I think it's always the right time to try to remediate that, to centre more positive, empowering stories on women broadly, and women of colour specifically. Representation matters and it's crucial to ensuring that all children can believe that everyone's dreams are equally valued. Period.'
As Clinton prepares to introduce young readers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to the inspirational women featured in her two books, she has a clear goal in mind. 'I quote Sally Ride in the first She Persisted: "you can't be what you can't see". Closing that imagination gap is so important for kids, for girls to think they can do anything and for boys to recognise that girls have every right to see themselves in any career, pursuing any dream. I want every young reader to be able to see themselves in these stories and I want them to feel emboldened by the stories of women who persisted before them and who are still persisting today.'