Disclaimer: As a rule, I generally don’t write about politics or religion. It’s a really great way to lose friends and alienate people. The following is NOT a post about politics, my political views, or any sort of political bashing or praise of Mrs Clinton. This is simply an open letter from a genealogy-loving girl to someone in the spotlight. Any inappropriate comments will be removed and/or disabled. Thanks.
Dear Mrs Clinton,
This morning as I was on my way to drop my son off at preschool, I heard a report on the radio about the story you told yesterday in Iowa regarding your family immigration history.
First, I’d like to say that this is not a letter about politics. It’s not about the election, or about you as a person or as a public figure. This is a letter about genealogy, memories, legacy, and about the obligation I feel that we, as descendants, have to our ancestors.
Most Americans know at least a little bit about you. The year your husband was elected President was the first general election in which I was old enough to vote, so throughout my entire adult life, you have been a constant in the American spotlight. Whether as First Lady, Senator, presidential candidate, Secretary of State, or just a famous person, I’ve known who you are for the last twenty-plus years.
But you know nothing about me, so here’s my blurb, then I’ll get to the point. I’m a college educated, middle class, married, stay at home mother of three. On my dad’s side, I am a second generation American—each of my father’s parents came through Ellis Island in the 1920’s and met in New York. The American history on my mother’s side is much longer, going back (in several instances) to before the Revolutionary War. (I still need to finish my DAR application!) My great grandmother was one of two women to attend both the first National Suffrage Convention in 1868 and the Victory Convention in 1920. I am a photographer and ancestry/genealogy blogger, and a really, really bad housekeeper.
As a woman and a direct descendant of a suffragist, I’d love nothing more than to see a girl in the White House (I actually don’t think saying “girl” is necessarily a bad thing!). I think my great-great-grandmother, Helen Ekin Starrett, and her friends, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Rev Olympia Brown and Carrie Chapman Catt would love to see that too. In the 21st Century, we women have proven that we are more than capable of anything we set our minds to. We can do anything those guys can do–and sometimes more.
But this morning when I heard the report of you “fudging” the details of your grandparents and their stories of immigration, it made me sad.
It made me sad as a woman. It made me sad as an ancestry researcher. It made me sad as someone who does her damnedest to show young girls that they are good enough to be exactly who they are. It made me sad that the leading female contender for the highest office in the world felt the need to lie about who she is and where she came from. It just made me sad.
Back when I began dabbling in ancestral research, census records were on microfilm in musty library basements and their cataloging had little rhyme or reason (like, by street or one side of the street or other arbitrary things). I knew my great grandparents’ physical street address in Oakland, California in 1930, and it still took me for-freaking-ever to find them in census records. Because nothing was alphabetized, handwriting was bad, and cataloging was inconsistent, census research was not easy and categorically un-fun. Today’s technology takes the pain out of the hunt. A simple search in Ancestry.com and millions of records are whittled down to a fraction of easily manageable documents. You don’t even need to know how to spell names correctly. You just have to be kind-of close.
And it takes seconds. Fractions of seconds.
History matters. Our stories matter. Everyone’s accomplishments and shortcomings and triumphs and failures are important because they make us who we are. Regardless of the “we need to re-write our history” snippets I catch from time to time on different news shows and in various newspapers, I disagree. We don’t need to re-write anything. Because history matters. Everything our ancestors did before us makes us who we are today, and no matter what, we should honor them and their lives exactly as they were.
What is most upsetting to me is that, for whatever reason, you felt the need to fabricate a family history to include details that were inaccurate to embellish a story–details that could have had just as much impact as they’d have had if you’d included the word “great.” Is being the granddaughter of immigrants so much more important or desirable or prestigious than being the granddaughter of a Midwestern fireman? Is it more important than being the great granddaughter of immigrants? Was my German immigrant housepainter grandfather somehow more important to my character and my abilities today than my California born college-educated contractor grandfather? Does the generation who got here first matter more than subsequent ones?
The answer is no.
Whether our grandmothers worked for equal rights or darned socks every day, their histories are equally important. Own them, own their stories, own their histories. Be proud of them and what they did. If they did horrible, despicable things, then be proud that you didn’t allow their mistakes and their choices to define who you are now. Look online. Look in libraries. Look for their records. Trace their journeys. You may not find a ship manifest or a county fair blue ribbon or even a high school diploma. You may find other, even more fascinating things you never knew before, and you might learn that they were so much more interesting than you ever thought possible.
If you fabricate stories about their lives and create false histories for them simply for the sake of a “good story,” you are dishonoring their memory. You are, in essence, telling them that their lives weren’t good enough for you. As the granddaughter of three natural born Americans in the 1880s and the granddaughter of a guy who crossed the ocean with his parents when he was a little kid, the truth should be good enough for you to retell with confidence and pride. I’m pretty certain if they had the opportunity to talk to a room of people about their granddaughter, they’d be nothing if not proud of you. Do the same for them. I’m sure they deserve it, no matter where they were born.
Thanks for listening,