One Year Ago

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

The other day, I found a piece of paper with one of the last things I wrote for Senator John Edwards in the 2004 presidential campaign. It reads, "We've waited a long time for this moment. For months, we've told you that help is on the way. For months, we've told you that hope is on the way. Tonight, help has arrived. Hope has arrived. Your president-elect, John Kerry."

That piece paper never met its podium and sat folded in a coat pocket for almost a year. Instead, one year ago today, people heard the 1am speech in the drizzle about "counting every vote." And then the concession and the heartfelt plea, "You can be disappointed, but you cannot walk away."

It was a job of a lifetime many of us had hoped would turn into the job of our lives. But history wasn't with us. It seems to hurt more today than it did that afternoon in Faneuil Hall. What a difference a year can make. Even though hope's gone away, I can still call it the job of my life, not because of the experience, but because of what it meant.

People my age -- 37 and younger -- grew up in a changing world. We were the first generation to regularly see all kinds of people in traditional jobs and roles. We expect our teachers to be African-American, our pharmacists to be Latino and for our god fathers to be gay. Asian-Americans sell us insurance and people with disabilities lead us in prayer. Nurses are men and women are doctors.

We are blessed that America is starting to look like this. And we benefit because of women like Rosa Parks who refused to move; the women who never gave up on the right to vote, and every American who refused to give up when they were told, "You can't do this because you're supposed to be a mother, a janitor, or a waiter." Their struggles are our reward: a melting pot that's finally starting to melt.

When we see our world in action, we know that the work toward a more perfect union continues. But it is, also, easy to get the impression that the pioneering -- large and small -- has all been done. So many doors have been kicked open; we assume that we walk forward because someone else has already cleared the path for us.

That's what I thought.

More than two years ago, Senator John Edwards hired me as his speechwriter. Someone said that I was the first woman in the Democratic Party to hold that job -- to be a chief speechwriter on a presidential campaign. And when the general campaign started, they said that I was the first woman in at least twenty years to be in the room, let alone given the lead pen, to write a nomination speech.

I didn't believe it. We're the Democratic Party -- the party of the big tent and equal opportunity for all, special privileges for none and all that jazz. It's 2005; the Democrats must have had their own version of Peggy Noonan by now, right? I dismissed all of that as schmooze talk and I didn't care. I was trying to do my job: word by word.

When it became clear that I was -- in my very small way -- walking first, I had a strange 1950's reaction.

My first thought was that I should have looked better, dressed nicer, and looked harder for the Bobbi Brown make-up I lost on the train trip. My second thought was that I hope I behaved well so that future politicians wouldn't think, "We can't hire a girl for this job. They're too moody." And my third thought was self doubt -- how is it possible that someone like me could accomplish something like that? (I mean, you should have seen what I did in college and what almost got me expelled from Miss Porter's School for Girls.)

Speech writing is the most personal of all political jobs. Someone hires you to think like them. They trust you to give them the words they need to communicate. And I know of only a handful of other women speechwriters from both sides of the aisle. It is hard to explain this small number. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps male politicians wonder, "How could a 37-year-old woman think like me?" and so they hire the man instead.

It's an honest question. It's right to ask. But women politicians hire male writers all the time. And I wonder if they ask another question, "Is this person a good writer?" For in the end, all that matters is that we write well and capture their voice. But there is still a glass-ceiling. It might not break immediately from the force of a fist, but slowly from the prick of the words that come from our pens.

Politics is still largely a "man's world," but women have joined the club now. We can lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda. We can wear pink Members Only jackets if we want (not that any woman would). There are women chiefs of staffs up and down the Hill, campaign managers, legislative directors, communications directors, pollsters, a withdrawn Supreme Court nominee, and not enough speechwriters. And I may disagree with what President Bush has done to our country but he has put America around his Cabinet Table: reminding us that the pioneering -- large and small -- is never done.

To them it's not even pioneering, it's just doing their jobs. That's what it was for me.

I have had the privilege to write for three men and one woman. Mayor Tom Menino of Boston gave me my first chance. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton took a big chance that a local writer could work at the national level. Senator John Edwards took the bold step to put this Yankee lady at the table, and Senator John Kerry made sure that I stayed there. That's the path I walked. It's been cleared.

But none of this matters if no one comes next. And when I look around for others to do this job, it's the same feeling as reaching into a coat pocket, and pulling out an old folded-up piece of paper with unrealized hope. It's that Hank Williams feeling, "I'm so lonesome I could cry."