Dear Mr President
An open letter to Mr President Joe Biden
31st August 2021
Dear Mr. Biden,
You don’t know me. You probably never will. But my name is Jessica O’Leary and I hope you do know me some day. I hope you remember my name. I hope you remember my name because I hope I will do what countless presidents have never succeeded in doing: I hope to leave the world slightly better than I found it.
Apparently you are one of the most powerful men in the world. That’s what a quick Google search told me.
The most recent data for the Forbes list of “The World’s Most Powerful People” is 2018:
Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, Jeff Bezos, Pope Francis, Bill Gates, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Narendra Modi and Larry Page.
I’m a 25 year old woman and when I look at that list all I can see is the name of one woman, surrounded by a few nice guys and few alleged terrorists, rapists, dictators and billionaires thrown in for good measure.
Let’s continue, shall we?
Jerome H. Powell, Emmanuel Macron, Mark Zuckerberg, Theresa May, Li Keqiang, Warren Buffet, Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, Mario Draghi, Jamie Dimon, Carlos Slim Helu.
Two women out of twenty.
Jack Ma, Christine Lagarde, Doug McMillon, Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ma Huateng, Larry Fink, Akio Toyoda, John L. Flannery.
Three women out of thirty.
Antonio Guterres, Mukesh Ambani, Jean-Claude Juncker, Darren Woods, Sergey Brin, Kim Jong-un, Charles Koch, Shinzo Abe, Rupert Murdoch, Satya Nadella.
Three women out of forty.
Jim Yong Kim, Stephen Schwarzman, Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Haruhiko Kuroda, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Li Ka-shing, Lloyd Blankfien, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Bob Iger, Michel Temer.
Three women out of fifty.
Michael Bloomberg, Wang Jianlin, Mary Barra, Moon Jae-in, Masayoshi Son, Bernard Arnault, Justin Trudeau, Robin Li, Michael Dell, Hui Ka Yan.
Four women out of sixty.
Lee Hsien Loong, Bashar al-Assad, John Roberts, Enrique Pieta Nieto, Ken Griffin, Aliko Dangote, Mike Pence, Qamar Javed Bajwa, Rodrigo Duterte, Abigail Johnson.
Five women out of seventy.
Reed Hastings, Robert Mueller, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Jokowi Widodo, Gianni Infantino.
Five women out of seventy five. Five of the “World’s Most Powerful People” are women.
6.67 for every hundred men.
Now, I don’t think it takes much to look at those numbers and have a question or two. The last I checked (today, in fact), the sex ratio for the entire world population is 101 males to 100 females (2021 est.). That means the world is made up of 49.58% females and 50.42% males.
Why am I asking these questions? Why am I stating such obvious and easily accessible facts? Because, sir, I believe that if you have read this far and do not feel uncomfortable, upset, frustrated and hurt to the point of breaking down, you should not be the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world.
With power comes responsibility. The lives of your citizens, and in turn, the citizens of the world, are your responsibility. I don’t envy you for a second. But whilst you try figure out what it is you should be doing and are doing on a daily basis, please allow me to offer an alternative perspective. If nothing else, I hope it will give you food for thought.
Mr. Biden, according to the Oxford dictionary, democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
In your speech/open letter from the 7th of November you wrote the words:
A victory for “We the People.”
“I am humbled by the trust and confidence you have placed in me.
I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify.
Who doesn’t see Red and Blue states, but a United States.
And who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.
For that is what America is about: The people.
And that is what our Administration will be about.
I sought this office to restore the soul of America.”
Have you forgotten those words already? Have you forgotten to listen? Have you forgotten that we were all rooting for you? Looking up to you with open eyes, with hope in our hearts?
How can we take your words seriously when we turn on the TV or open our phones and witness the atrocities being commit as we speak against women, children and those others caught in the crossfire in Afghanistan? A mess that feels very quintessentially American?
You don’t get to start with a clean slate. You get to start with the work of all those presidents and administrations who came before you. Some of them did great things but many of them did not. You and you alone have the power to change that.
“To make America respected around the world again and to unite us here at home.”
How do you think that’s going? From where I’m standing, it’s looking a little worse than it did in November. A little more tired than it did in January. Filled with considerably more despair, pain and suffering. What good are the trojan hours spent reforming policy if women and children are dying? Starving? Being left behind? Assaulted? Erased?
I wish I could say I were just speaking about Afghanistan, but I’m not. These things are happening every second, minute, hour of every day, right at home. All over America, all over Europe. All over the world. Right on your doorstep in your own city. My heart breaks for the women of Texas. Democracy is supposed to be about representation. About support, about elected officials making decisions with the best interests of the masses. It’s supposed to create order, facilitate community. Laws and proclamations were designed to make sure everyone was kept safe, equal and we could all be held accountable to the same standards.
What happens to those standards when I, a young white woman, fear for my life every day? I, a privileged person with an education, am afraid to stand up for what is right? Because it risks putting my physical safety at risk. I, by the luck of my birth family, country and location, am highly unlikely to ever spend a night without a bed when young children cry out for their mothers in the dark? Many of them will never see their family ever again. Why do I cry myself to sleep every night over a sexual assault that happened to me one night three years ago, when people all over the world are being assaulted right now, and will never ever get to speak to a psychologist.
Why, sir? Please tell me why? Because I choose to believe that people are not born inherently bad. The worst of humanity? Those behaviours are learned. And what can be learned, can also be unlearned. I truly believe that to my core, and I know many of the most respected educational academics and neuroscientists do too.
So where should we begin? What can I do? What should I do? What will I do? I’m not quite sure. One look at that list, the list of most powerful people, shows me there isn’t really a defined path for someone like me. The youngest person on that list is 36 and a billionaire who was born into power. Is there an outside chance that my words can do something? That my actions will make a difference? The lady I helped last week on the street in my home town of Dublin, Ireland, sure thought so. She thanked me as we spoke, because she would now have a bed for the night and wouldn’t go hungry.
I’m a 25-year-old woman. I should have my “whole life ahead of me”, but instead I feel broken, traumatised, useless, helpless, powerless, insignificant, hurt, guilty, privileged, exhausted, broke, lost. I cried myself to sleep last night. It wasn’t the first time and it certainly won’t be the last.
You told us that Jill is your heart. As are Hunter, Ashley, (Beau), (Naomi), all of your grandchildren and their spouses, and all of your family. What about the rest of us? What about our families? And our hearts? What about those of us who are not fortunate enough to have or know what the word family means? What about those of us who have families but feel more alone than ever? Lost and empty inside. My generation is the first generation that will never be as wealthy as the generation before us. Not because of the total material wealth of our generation, but because the spread of that wealth is more unequal than ever. The spread of education is more unequal than ever. The spread of food is more unequal than ever. The spread of catastrophic weather events is more unequal than ever.
You said on the 7th of November 2020 that America had bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Forgive me, but I am confused. America is one of the most divided and polarised countries in the world. Where hate spreads faster and more freely than love.
Billie Eilish is one of the voices of my generation. Her songs are powerful, not only for their musical genius, but the depth and expression of her lyrics. Why is it sir, that our teenagers are singing about Xanax and suicide? About coercive power and sexual assault? About killing their friends and being buried six feet under? This music speaks to us, because this is how we experience the world. We are more connected than ever, yet we have never felt so alone. We are slaves to dopamine hits, via screens and sugar, we argue with our parents and do things teenagers from decades gone by could have only dreamed of.
We live in a world more abundant and full of possibility than any generation gone before us. Yet it feels like we are the first ones to wake up. The first ones to question why we should clean up your fossil fuel burning mess? We don’t have a choice. Our planet is currently dying and you won’t be around to save it. We are the first ones to take technology into our own hands - en masse - and create content to our heart’s desire. We are the first ones to openly talk about mental health and pharmacy. The first ones to be slaves to the pharmaceutical, healthcare, insurance, technology and food industries. Slaves to the screens. Slaves to the American Dream. Slaves to being told that we can do anything we can dream of…
But… there’s always a but.
There has never been a female president. Ever. So if you want to be one, you’re going to have to be the first. There are currently only five women in group of the most powerful seventy five people in the world. Please tell me how that makes sense? Equality who?
So to all the young women out there, sure, be my guest, work your socks off. Study hard, diligently. Make sacrifices and put others in front of you. Keep your head held high and get right back up every time you get pushed down. Get assaulted (globally, almost one in three woman have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life) .
That’s 30% of ALL women aged 15 and older.
(To note, this figure does not include sexual harassment. The rates of depression, anxiety disorders, unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV are higher in women who have experienced violence compared to women who have not, as well as many other health problems that can last even after the violence has ended.)
Most violence against women is perpetrated by current or former husbands or intimate partners. That means that the violence we are talking about here? The real insidious type? It’s invisible. It’s not the horrific case involving strangers on the news, it’s happening right next door in your neighbour’s house. More than 640 million women aged 15 and older have been subjected to intimate partner violence. That’s 26% of women aged 15 and older.
Of those who have been in a relationship, almost one in four adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 (24%) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner or husband. 16% of young women aged 15 to 24 experienced this violence in the past 12 months.
In the past 12 months, at least one in every six of my friends has experienced sexual violence from an intimate partner. Now let’s broaden the definition to sexual harassment. It’s at least five in every six.
Five in every six girls aged 15 to 24 have been sexually harassed in the past 12 months.
And 93.33% of our world’s most powerful people are men.
How well do you sleep at night?
You asked us to give each other a chance. You said it was time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. "To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.”
What happens when our opponents are our husbands? Our lovers? Our partners? Our brothers? Our friends? What happens when our opponents are our colleagues? Our politicians? Our world leaders? Our doctors? What happens when our opponents tell us they love us but attack us anyway? Force themselves on us when we say no? Again. And again. When we write letters, essays, poems and songs that go unanswered? Cry out for help and get shot down or pushed aside for “more important or pressing matters”. What happens when the world calls for equality and all we hear back is deafening silence? What happens when we decide enough is enough?
How many lives will we have to lose to start listening? How many calls of action do we have to listen to? How many do you need to receive to act? You say we are not enemies. We are Americans. But then why do Americans draw violent weapons of mass destruction against each other? In the name of protection? Where did we go so far wrong that we now believe it is fair to take a life for a life? When did we decide who gets to play god? Who should live and who should die? Who should be offered refuge and who should be turned away? Who should get the last bed? Who should be the first to colonise the next planet over?
When did we lose sight of all we have? We have so much! More than anyone else, more than we could possibly ever need. Yet this year, we continued to pillage the earth’s natural resources in the name of the economy. What good is a free market if only the wealthy can access it? When more than half the world are unbanked? Please explain to me how critical the Nasdaq is whilst I console your teenage granddaughter. She misses her family. She doesn’t understand why her parents have to work themselves into the ground every day. Don’t they have enough? Don’t they want to listen to her? Don’t they care about the environment and her education? Her future? How can she possibly tell them that her teacher is hitting on her and there’s a guy in her class sending her photos of things she doesn’t want to see? How can we protect her? How can we give her the tools to protect herself?
I didn’t have those tools. I didn’t have that protection. I didn’t have that support. This year it all became too much for me. The weight of the world felt so heavy on my shoulders. I crumbled under it. There was no way out. I was suffering. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care. All I could see were my attacker’s eyes. Etched onto mine, whether mine were open or closed. It was too much. I gave up. And I fell backwards. Into the abyss. I wrote countless suicide notes. I researched death methods. I discovered some seriously dark places on the internet. And the sheer volume of people there terrified me. Little boys. Lonely grandparents. Little girls. So many students. Desperate parents. Each and every one of us had lost hope.
Have you ever lost hope? I think you might have. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a child, as a new-born or as an adult. I hope you had shoulders to cry on. And I hope you had and still have a support system for the days that feel a little bit tougher. I didn’t have that before. It was available to me, but I was so far gone I couldn’t access it. I truly believed that the only way out was death. That’s not even a guarantee if you believe in an afterlife. But nothing could be worse. I was willing to put my family and friends through devastation because my pain was so great it blinded everything else.
Fortunately, I kept going. For eight months. I survived each day. For three years now, I have faced the morning every single morning and had to make a conscious decision that my attacker was not going to be the death of me.
I don’t believe a single child should ever be faced with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
You said the bible tells us that “to everything there is a season - a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal.” It is the women of the world whom have helped me heal. My mother. My grandmother. My sister. My aunts. My cousins. My friends. My heroes. The women who work three jobs just to put a meal on the table. Your wife Jill Biden. Your children. Your nieces and daughters and grandchildren. My teachers, my professors, my doctors, my caregivers. My colleagues and classmates. Public figures: Samantha Power. Cindy Eckert, Caroline Dohack, Amanda Gorman, Christina Najjar. Billie Eilish. Meryl Streep. Malala Yousafzai. These women changed my life. Because they paved the way for me to do what it is that I’m doing now. And they showed me what it meant to believe in myself. And how much power and strength there is in unity.
You asked what is the people’s will? What is our mandate?
I wish for you to hold true your self-proclaimed mandate. “Let this grim era of demonisation in America begin to end - here and now. Every single action we take. Is a decision. It’s a choice we make.”
You said the American story is about the slow, yet steady widening of opportunity. Please allow me to ask you sir, why does it have to be slow? Why should it take another hundred years for us to add another ten women to that list of most powerful people? Why can’t we open the floodgates of opportunity? Work as hard as we possibly can every single day, as you have demonstrated with your cabinet, to level the playing field. Women undoubtedly make the world go round. Let’s listen to their voices, lift them up, empower them, as you so graciously empowered Amanda Gorman and gave her incredible words a platform this January.
“Too many dreams have been deferred for too long. And we must make the promise of the country real for everybody - no matter their race, their ethnicity, their faith, their identity or their disability.”
The promise starts with you, Mr. Biden. You have to live it and you have to lead it. Every single day. Show us the way. Use the power you do have for good. Because you can make a difference. This is an inflection point. And it’s yours for the taking.
Biden in 2020 – to be continued – what words will fill this gap?
That is something only you can decide.
The whole world is watching you. I believe you at your best could be the beacon you hope America can be for the globe. Lead by the power of your example. Lead by creating possibilities and following through on your promises. We all want to be given the opportunity to go as far as our dreams and God-given ability will take us. You say you believe in the possibility of this country. But that we’re always looking ahead. To an ahead “that’s more freer and more just”. What about the America that is here right here and right now? The president that is here right here right now?
Our hearts are broken and our hands our shaking, but we do still have faith, maybe not in America but we do in each other. And we will learn how to heal and grow and be the nation we know we can be. United. Strengthened. Healed.
It’s time. Please show us the way.
If this piece has spoken to you in any way, please reach out to let me know. I found this work very difficult to write. The news of late has felt quite hopeless, and I have been sitting on these thoughts for a very long time.
It would mean the world to me if you could share this writing with the people in your life. If you could discuss its contents. If you could have the difficult conversations with the young women in your life. Give them a platform and a safe space to share what is on their minds. I promise you will be blown away.