When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admonished Senator Elizabeth Warren with the dismissal-turned-battle cry, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” women across the country were inspired — including former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton.
Clinton’s new picture book, She Persisted, tells the stories of 13 women throughout American history who changed our country with their persistence, from journalist Nellie Bly to civil rights icons Claudette Colvin and Ruby Bridges to Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. But while there’s a wink to Clinton’s famous mother, former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, in the book, she isn’t featured outright as one of the 13. EW talked to Chelsea about why she made that decision, how she uses a family mantra to talk to kids about persistence, and how different women in the book inspired her personally.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this book come about? Was it a direct result of that accidentally wonderful quote from Mitch McConnell?
CHELSEA CLINTON: Yes. I don’t think I was alone — that’s probably a massive understatement — in being so inspired by Senator Warren’s persistence in bringing Coretta Scott King’s words to the Senate floor, and then when she was censured and had to leave, that she immediately went outside the chamber and read the entire letter on Facebook Live. I think Mitch McConnell had no idea, when he said, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” as a condemnation that it would be perceived as such a clear badge of persistence — really a badge of honor and gratitude for Senator Warren, and even more for Mrs. King and for all the women throughout American history who have persisted in helping make our country a more just and better place.
After that all unfolded and I was watching it first on social media and then on television, I was thinking about how to explain that to my two kids. They’re still young; I mean my daughter’s 2-and-a-half and my son’s 11 months old today, but I talk to them about what’s happening in the world because my parents always talked to me about what was happening in the world. I just started thinking about all the women that have inspired me over time who have persisted, often over odds that I couldn’t even imagine, and how much better their persistence has made our country.
Let’s get to the obvious question: Your mother makes a sweet cameo, but she’s not one of the 13 women in the book. What was your decision there?
Well, I wanted the book to be kind of about our country, told through the stories of these 13 women, but really about our country. In total candor, I wondered if I included my mom — even though she absolutely is a core inspiration to me, and is even more inspiring today than she was any day in the last year or in the year before that — I didn’t want her story to overwhelm the book.
But I also wanted to include her in the book, so I do include her in the opening gallery scene because I know that I’m not the only person she has inspired. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t meet someone — often, but not always, little girls — who tell me they look up to my mom and that they’re going to run for office one day. So I wanted to include her in a way that was reflective of the inspiration she’s been to me, and also that I know she’s been to so many others, while also shining a light on American women who have persisted over time and how much better off we are as a country because they’ve done so.
She Persisted has good mix of women we’ve heard of, like Oprah Winfrey or Sonia Sotomayor, and people who might be less familiar, like Claudette Colvin or Virginia Apgar. How did you strike that balance people we know and people we should know?
All of the women are women who have inspired me over time, and one of the challenges was narrowing down that list. One of the things I did think about is that I did want a mix of the people that I thought would be probably known, and the people who may not be known, but, to your question, who I thought should be known, so that hopefully people felt like they were seeing familiar stories in a new way, and kind of feeling like the new stories could become familiar, too.
When you’re looking at Claudette Colvin, for example, was it a conscious decision of, “Everybody knows Rosa Parks, so we won’t include her, but Claudette Colvin needs to have more of a spotlight?”
No. I remember learning about Claudette Colvin…
You went to a better school than I did.
Well, I think it’s also because — I have no idea how old you are, but I’m 37, and I went to public school in the South, and my junior high school, which is now a middle school, Horace Mann, was the school that the Little Rock Nine came from to integrate Little Rock Central High School. At the time it was a high school, and then became a junior high school, and it was an all-black high school that the Little Rock Nine came from in 1957, [under] President Eisenhower’s order, supervised by the National Guard, when they courageously walked into Little Rock Central High School.
So I don’t know if it’s because of that legacy that I remember learning about not only the Little Rock Nine, but also Ruby Bridges and Claudette Colvin, and these young people who had been so integral to the Civil Rights Movement, whose stories may not be as well known because, understandably, they were still in school! They didn’t have the ability to do what the SNCC did for college students, or what, clearly, Dr. King and Mrs. King and the titans of the Civil Rights Movement did. But they were hugely important.
Can you speak a little about the balancing of different careers in the book? I love how you make being a ballerina feel as important as being an astronaut.
I took ballet as a child, and I’m on the board of the School of American Ballet and have been for more than a dozen years now. Ballet is very much, to me, kind of a place to go for creativity, but also rejuvenation. I think dance is a hugely important part of the arts but often isn’t as talked about or looked to as music or theater or the visual arts. So, as someone who admittedly has always loved ballet and for whom ballet has always been an important part of my life, who just idolized not only Maria Tallchief but also Gelsey Kirkland and Margot Fonteyn and all of these dancers as a child, I really wanted to include a dancer. And I have always been in awe of Maria Tallchief, and was even more in awe after I read her autobiography. And I thought it was really important that we have an artist in She Persisted.
How do you talk to kids about when persisting doesn’t work or doesn’t seem to be working?
I think… a few things: One, we have this mantra in my family that it’s always better to get caught trying, because if you don’t try, by definition, you don’t do. I do think that’s important. And I think it’s important that we encourage every child to think about what she or he may want to do and may feel called to do in life. Because you know, I was not the next Maria Tallchief. I love ballet — I’m not particularly gifted in it, but it has given me a great sense of discipline and centeredness and a connectedness to the art that I know has been important to me in my life now as an activist, as an author, as a teacher. So I think trying to help kids understand that sometimes what we do may not lead us where we want to be, but still is an important part of who we will become is something that every parent, caregiver, teacher has to figure out how to do.
Do you have a personal favorite of all the women in the book?
No I don’t. I find all of these women so inspiring. We talked about how I remember learning about Ruby Bridges and Claudette Colvin. I remember watching Flo Jo [Florence Griffith Joyner] break the world record on TV in Little Rock, Arkansas as a kid, watching the Seoul Olympics. I remember learning about Dr. Apgar when I was pregnant, and also thinking, “Oh my gosh, how have I not known about her?” and then becoming fascinated by her. And I remembered giving birth and then hearing them talk about the Apgar score for my daughter and then later my son… so I just have such a deep gratitude for all of these women who’ve helped us reimagine what’s possible and also have made our country literally healthier, more just, and more interesting because of their work.