Chelsea Clinton talks strong women, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ahead of Pasadena virtual book event

For Chelsea Clinton, the inspiration for her “She Persisted” series of children’s books about strong women is both political and personal, she said Monday during a call from her home in New York City.

The “She Persisted” brand, of course, arose from the political moment when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, while reading a letter from Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor, ignored pressure to stop. This prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to complain, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” and in doing so, provided a call to action for women and men looking to fight for their rights.

“I was watching all of this on C-SPAN,” says Clinton, 40, one of her three young children occasionally making a small ruckus in the background. “I don’t think Sen. McConnell had any idea what a rallying cry this would be.

“And over the next couple of days, watching the reaction, I just kept thinking about how often American women have had to persist, women throughout history, and how that certainly was true in that moment with Sen. Warren, and it was also certainly true with Coretta Scott King.”

  • Chelsea Clinton, in addition to all her other work, is an author of children’s books including the new “She Persisted In Sports.” She’ll talk about it virtual for Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC)

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  • Chelsea Clinton, in addition to all her other work, is an author of children’s books including the new “She Persisted In Sports.” She’ll talk about it virtual for Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC)

  • Chelsea Clinton, in addition to all her other work, is an author of children’s books including the new “She Persisted In Sports,” which shares the stories of a dozen or more women whose feats in sports span more than a century. It’s available in English and Spanish translation. She’ll talk about it virtual for Vroman’s in Pasadena on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Courtesy of the publisher)

And as she watched the hearing while nursing her months-old son, Clinton says a second reaction — that of a mother — also surfaced.

“I just kept thinking about the stories that I want to share with my children,” she says. “I was thinking about how frustrated I’ve been that so many of the picture books that we read, some of them are great, but they were centered on boys, or they were animals that had big, male voices.

“So I think all of this mixed together in my head and heart and I decided to write a book about some of the American women that really meant a lot to me in my life and inspired me in part because of their persistence.”

“She Persisted,” which included American women throughout history, shared the stories of figures such as Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller, Maria Tallchief and Sally Ride. The next book, “She Persisted Around The World,” looked to other countries for women from Marie Curie to Malala Yousafzai.

Now “She Persisted In Sports: American Olympians Who Changed The Game” looks to American athletes including giants from the past, such as golfer and multi-sport Olympian Babe Didrikson and track star Wilma Rudolph, to modern-day heroes/heroines such as members of the 1996 women’s Olympic soccer team, tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and beach volleyball legends Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings.

Clinton will take part in a virtual book conversation for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena on Tuesday, Sept. 22. Appearing with her is Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic fencing champion who is featured in Clinton’s book and also the author of the children’s book, “The Proudest Blue.”

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Q: What are the positive benefits of sports in the lives of girls and women, whether as participants or fans?

A: When I was little, I played soccer and softball for years — I also took ballet for even longer — but through soccer and softball certainly, I just learned how to be strong, that it was good to be strong. How to work with a team — that it was good to be part of a high-functioning team. I just couldn’t imagine my childhood without sports and all the lessons that I’ve learned through sports.

Especially for girls, who are so often told that we need to be seen but not heard — be quiet, lower our voices — or where we’re criticized for what we’re wearing or what we’re not wearing. To kind of have girls feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to be judged on how hard I work today on the field,’ I think there’s profound value in that.

Q: Did you have a chance to meet the 1996 women’s soccer team after they won the Olympics and maybe stopped by the White House? (Clinton’s father, for those who might not recall, is former President Bill Clinton, which means her mother is former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton.)

A: I did get to meet Mia Hamm, and they won the World Cup in 1999 — most of the team was the 1996 Olympic team. I was so excited. In ’96, when I didn’t get to meet the whole team, I should have been more assertive or maybe presumptuous. But I was certainly overwhelmed when I met them in 1999.

Q: The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a huge loss for many. How do you view her work and accomplishments, in general, but in particular on Title IX, which among many other things opened up athletic opportunities for girls and women. (Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1993.)

A: I think one of the things I most admired, and I admired many things about Justice Ginsburg, was her relentless and unapologetic commitment to expanding the definition of ‘we’ in ‘we the people.’ You know, when those words were effectively consecrated, right in our nation’s beginning, there was a pretty limited definition of who the ‘we’ included.

She dedicated her life to expanding the ‘we’ from a legal-protection standpoint because she understood that that is what would help create more opportunities. I find that incredibly moving and inspiring. I certainly hope we’ll see even more of not only lawyers and judges who are committed to that, but also people who understand that too as citizens.

Q: You mentioned your older son loves “Counting On Katherine,” the children’s book about NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, but what do your kids think about reading books that mom wrote?

A: It’s fun for them. Charlotte was like, ‘Oh, mom, I knew you had to include Simone Biles,’ because Simone Biles is her favorite athlete. So I think, you know, I would not have had as good a reaction if Simone Biles wasn’t in it, but there’s no way I could not have included her.

And they love the illustrations so much. That, I find, brings us lots of joy when we’re talking both about the stories and the words, but also what they’re kind of drawing from and feeling about the illustrations that go along with the words.

Q: Your collaborator, Alexandra Boiger, provides beautiful watercolor pictures to go with your words. Did you have a hand in selecting her?

A: Oh, definitely. My wonderful editor and I talked about a few different illustrators we thought could be a good match. And Alexandra was one that I had hoped might have an interest and time because we were already really big fans of her “Tallulah” ballerina series. I thought her style would be a perfect match, and thankfully, she did have interest and time because I couldn’t imagine this project without her.

Q: You’ve worked in many different fields and have many different interests. How does writing a book compare in terms of the things that bring you happiness?

A: I love writing and kind of wrestling ideas onto paper, whether it’s writing about global health or the kind of women that have inspired me, whether it’s with my mom in ‘Gutsy Women’ or certainly deeply here in ‘She Persisted.’

“They mean so much to me because as we’ve already talked about, my kids read these books too, so this does have, I think, a different — a deeper — meaning to in some ways.

I am writing … something I know we’ll read together. So it’s a deeply meaningful part of my life because I love to do it, but also because I get to share it with my kids.

Chelsea Clinton and Ibtihaj Muhammad

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 22

Where: Online hosted by Vroman’s Bookstore, Pasadena

How much: $24 which includes a hardback copy of either ‘She Persisted In Sports’ or ‘The Proudest Blue,’ and, of course, the link to watch the conversation and Q-and-A.

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