PHILADELPHIA — The day after Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to be anointed as a major political party’s nominee for president, another woman who has broken through a few barriers herself as president of the National Education Association reflected on what a Clinton presidency would mean for the country, women, unions, immigrants and schoolchildren.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA and a superdelegate for Clinton from Utah, is the first female president of the association in 25 years and the highest-ranking Latina in organized labor.
She said Clinton’s support of the collective bargaining process and a $15 an hour federal minimum wage are key issues for the NEA. But just as importantly, Eskelsen Garcia laid out the case for why she believes Clinton will resonate more with the broader public than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
WWD: What will it mean to have the first woman president (if Clinton is elected) and what will that mean for women’s issues?
Lily Eskelsen García: I’ve been a lot of firsts (myself) that people point out to me. I’m the first woman president of the NEA in 25 years. This is in an organization where almost 78 percent of our members are women. Yet our leaders have been overwhelmingly men.
People have said, “You are an important role model.” They put me in front of a lot of students, especially Latinos who I can tell my grandparents didn’t speak English, and they look at each other and say, “My grandparents didn’t speak English and she looks like me and her mom’s an immigrant. So she’s not going to judge me.”
And so I know that there are still girls out there where it seems natural in some ways to see a woman’s face — oh, my kindergarten teacher is a woman and it’s unusual to see a man. We have a gender bias built in from the time those little eyes open and right now when they think of a leader they think of the president as the ultimate leader, the leader of my country looks like a man.
And now that’s changing. That ultimate glass ceiling [is cracking]. My goal is that by the time my little one-year-old granddaughter grows up, is that she’s going to say, “Of course here’s two candidates, one of them is a woman or both of them are women and what’s the big deal?”
It won’t be a big deal because we had a big deal last night. Last night, [Clinton] was nominated and because on Election Day she’ll be voted in as the first woman president. As much as I saw tears in the eyes of so many people when Barack Obama eight years ago was nominated and then elected, and African-American children said, “I could do that.” It will be that way for little girls now. But it will also be that way for little boys who say it’s perfectly normal. It’s a role model for all of us now.
I don’t think right now it has sunk in to a lot of people what history was made last night.
WWD: She embraces diversity as opposed to the candidate of the other party who has been criticized for not being inclusive. How is that resonating?
L.E.G.: Let’s just talk business. Donald likes to say: “I’m a good businessman.” I’m not sure the bankruptcies and fraud cases that he’s defending right now would work in his favor. There is actually business research from Harvard Business School…that says the more diverse a corporate leadership team, your executives, your board of directors — the more diverse in gender and in race and ethnicity — the more ideas you generate when a problem comes up. People see it from different angles.
[Addison] Barry Rand, the African-American executive vice president of Xerox — he was the first black executive of a major Fortune 500 corporation — said if you have two people on your team that think exactly alike, one of them is redundant. If everybody is a white middle-class male on that team, they are going to miss a woman’s point of view.
We believe that a faculty at a school should reflect the community they teach in. We believe in the diversity of that teaching staff so that parents see themselves and say they understand me, as opposed to someone that says you have no idea what my world is like. We see — whether it’s education, whether it’s business, whether it’s politics — diversity is a good thing.
Someone that says get rid of diversity, “Only I can save you.” Did he actually say that? Here is a dark knight in Gotham City and only I can save you. [He] wasn’t even saying I think my cabinet should look like I do. No, it was, “I listen to myself. I’m not interested in someone else’s point of view. I am my own adviser on something like going to war.” If that doesn’t make you wet your pants, you are not paying attention.
WWD: Does Hillary Clinton bring that mind-set of embracing diversity?
L.E.G.: That is exactly what she brings. Being the first woman in her law firm in Arkansas, she broke that glass ceiling. Someone who says I am not afraid of putting people on my team who are going to disagree with each other and I want all perspectives and diversity is a plus — gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, the kinds of backgrounds that we came from, the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. I want all of their ideas.
WWD: Looking ahead to her acceptance speech on Thursday night, what do you think Hillary needs to say to unify the party?
L.E.G.: I think what we saw last night was that evolution of people saying we now have a candidate. I was on the floor as a delegate when we voted. This is magic that I did not see in the Republican race. There was this kind of, “OK [I guess this is our candidate]” there. But I got this feeling of being lifted up, of people saying now we’re there, now we come together and they did. More and more of the speakers and more of the response of those delegates said we can unite around this groundbreaking, ceiling-cracking candidate.
The way that she’s going to bring it home is just by being herself instead of being defined by someone who says, “Well I took a poll and these people don’t like you.” She just needs to focus on what impressed me, that she is someone that cared about, in a very humble but very powerful way, saying I have a big decision to make about where I want to go with education and I don’t just want to talk to myself. I want as many diverse ideas as I can get.
I think tonight you’re going to be hearing from the current President of the United States, who was her competitor, and why he believed in her enough to make her secretary of state. That wasn’t like: “I’ll throw you a bone.” That was, “I recognize your talents. I am going to put those to work.”
You do that for someone that you are paving the way for for the future. He gave her that experience. If he didn’t believe in her he could have ignored her and pushed her off to the side. And he didn’t. He said, “This is my time, but I see greatness and goodness in you.” That put her on the path to where she is now and he gets to talk about that.”
WWD: How did Michelle Obama’s speech help Clinton?
L.E.G.: That will be an iconic speech. People will be referring back to that speech time and time again about how you reach the broader audience. She was talking to America and saying it in such a gentle, powerful, respectful way, even as she was talking about the man [Trump] who has questioned her husband’s faith and nationality, that he was not African-American, that he was just African. The way she even said that put that in the context of, here is how we have to tell our daughters to react when people were being ridiculous and questioning whether their father — the President of the United States — was an American. She did it in such a classy way.
My husband, who is texting me like crazy, does not speak English. He lives in Mexico and he goes back and forth. We have been married three years now. I’m trying to explain to him what is going on here. He saw her speech and he was blown away. He’s learning English. He said it was his English lesson for the day and that just her presence and the way she spoke, he said: “She was talking to me. She was talking to me.”