Late Wednesday morning, I found myself seated in our office common space, in a room packed with more than 100 of my colleagues, most of whom were women, our eyes trained on CNN. We were waiting for Hillary Clinton to appear on the screen and deliver the final remarks of her 19-month presidential campaign, the ones we were hoping not to hear: her concession speech.
At that point, I had been crying, on and off, for a solid 24 hours. I cried Tuesday afternoon when I cast my vote for the first-ever female major party candidate for president. I teared up when early data started coming in, because it suddenly seemed like all the predictive models had been wrong. I cried at midnight, and again in the wee small hours of the morning while watching Donald Trump give the acceptance speech that I thought for so long would belong to someone else. I cried this morning, just thinking about how a lifelong public servant who has spent decades telling women “yes we can” would have to stand in front of the world and admit that this time, we actually cannot.
And of course, I cried during the speech itself, because her graciousness and strength and passion were almost too much to bear, and watching your champion accept defeat is a terrible feeling, especially when a victory would have meant so much.
I was far from the only one. Looking around the room, where someone had thought to strategically place Kleenex boxes, plenty of people had unchecked tears running down their cheeks. There were audible sniffles, and a few actual sobs (one of which definitely came from me). It was a somber hour we spent packed into that space, many of us seated on the floor, our wet faces upturned at the TV. At a glance, we looked both older and younger than we had the day before. The word that comes foremost to mind about the mood of the room is: heartbroken. As Clinton spoke, our collective sadness spilled over.
And yet: It was under that bell jar of emotional upheaval that I felt more hopeful than I have since the moment Donald Trump became the president-elect. There is something powerful about a space full of women who have given themselves permission to experience, and express, their feelings, without worrying that being publicly vulnerable might make them seem more fragile than they truly are.
It’s a contentious behavior, crying in public. I remember, way back in high school, being told by a soccer coach that the worst thing I could do is show my opponent that they’d managed to hit me in a place that hurt. Girls get the message early (as do boys, whom I would argue it damages just as much, if not more): If you want to be taken seriously — if you want to be perceived as strong — don’t let them see you cry.
And so we don’t. We cry on the subway, behind our sunglasses, in a dusty stairwell, or silently in a bathroom stall. Or we cry at home, behind a closed door, with the faucet running so no one can hear, and later pretend it’s just allergies, or an errant lash, making our eyes red.
We hide, despite the fact that crying is a completely normal, even healthy, response to stress — not an admission that we’ve suddenly gone all “hysterical female.” (Did you ever have a partner who, when you cried during a fight, asked if you were on your period?) We pretend, even though repressing feelings can have consequences on our well-being, because despite all the gains we’ve made as women in the workplace — and the world — there is still a stigma associated with wearing your heart on your sleeve.
Crying remains a sign of weakness in many circles, while the ability to choke it back is the opposite: a warped indication of strength. To be honest, my original plan was to call in sick and spend the morning with a box of tissues and MSNBC talking heads, trying to make sense of how voters could choose an inexperienced loose cannon who had been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan over Hillary Clinton, who has fought for the underserved and vulnerable nearly every single day of her adult life.
But regardless of whatever propelled me out of the apartment this morning and into the office, where I knew at least I would find the solace of like-minded disappointment, I’m glad it did. Because we found the right place to cry: together, with our arms looped over one another’s shoulders, like girls first learning to comfort one another, like women who know that letting go is its own version of strength. We were not alone in our heartache this week. We were not alone, because we had each other.