Hillary Clinton: What Happened

In Feminism, Lifewriting by Angelina Eimannsberger

Our lifewriting blog for September continues with some reflections on Hillary Clinton’s just published memoir What Happened.

Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be a major party’s candidate for president. She lost the election in 2016. Donald Trump became president. The Women’s March happened and we’ve felt a surge of resistance alongside the dark and depressing gloom of this intellectually and ethically poorly qualified administration. This month, Clinton published a memoir about the campaign, the election, and how she is moving on from the biggest failure of her life while facing dramatic political developments that she had worked very hard to avoid, to replace with her own work as president. It might seem redundant to read yet again about the campaign, Russia and emails, and a feminist whose womanhood often feels limited to a rarefied set of character traits and looks. And yet, I was very moved having Hillary tell me how she makes sense of what has happened to us on her watch. 

 In the book, Clinton goes into more detail of herself as a woman and a feminist candidate when reflecting on the speech she used to announce her candidacy:

“I’ve never been very adept at summing up my entire life story, worldview, and agenda in pithy sound bites. I was also acutely aware that, as the first woman to be a credible candidate for President, I looked and sounded different than any presidential candidate in our country’s history. I had no precedent to follow, and voters had no historical frame of reference to draw upon. It was exhilarating to enter unchartered territory. But unchartered, by definition, means uncertain. If I felt that way, I was sure that a lot of voters would feel even more wary about it.” (76-77)

She uses her trademark interest in detailed facts to show the real differences for a woman candidate:

“I once calculated how many hours I spent having my hair and makeup done during the campaign. It came to about six hundred hours, or twenty-five days! I was so shocked, I checked the math twice. I’m not jealous of my male colleagues often, but I am when it comes to how they can just shower, shave, put on a suit, and be ready to go. The few times I’ve gone out in public without makeup, it’s made the news. So I sigh and keep getting back into my chair, and dream of a future in which women in the public eye don’t need to wear makeup if they don’t want to and no one cares either way” (87-88)

She reminds us how recent much of the women’s movement is and how her whole life was marked by the developments of this movement:

“I know that for a lot of people, including a lot of women, the movement for women’s equality exists largely in the past. They’re wrong about that. It’s still happening, still as urgent and vital as ever. And it was the story of my life–mine and millions of other women’s. We share it. We wrote it together. We’re still writing it. And even though this sounds like bragging and bragging isn’t something women are supposed to do, I haven’t just been a participant in this revolution. I’ve helped lead it. I was one of just 27 women out of 235 students in my class at Yale Law School. The first woman to chair the national board of the Legal Services Corporation. The person who declared on the world stage that ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.’ The first First Lady to be elected to public office. The first woman Senator from New York […] And I was the first woman to be nominated for President by a major political party and win the national popular vote” (113)

Clinton then connects herself and her experience as being a participant and leader of the Women’s movement to her campaign and the image and narrative of herself as a candidate for president:

“I never figured out how to tell this story right. Partly that’s because I’m not great at talking about myself. Also, I didn’t want people to see me as the ‘woman candidate,’ which I find limiting, but rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent. That’s a hard distinction to draw, and I wasn’t confident that I had the dexterity to pull it off.” (113-114)

“But the biggest reason I shied away from embracing this narrative is that storytelling requires a receptive audience, and I’ve never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one. I wish so badly we were a country where a candidate who said, ‘My story is the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation’ would be cheered, not jeered. But that’s not who we are. Not yet.” (114)

“Maybe it’s because we take this story for granted–yeah, yeah, the women’s movement happened, why are we still talking about it? Maybe it’s too female. Maybe it’s at once too big (a sweeping historical shift) and too small (just another [white] middle-class Midwestern girl finding her way in the world). But I do think it’s special. It’s not a typical political narrative, but it’s mine” (114)

Make sure to take a minute to let this sink in. What would have happened if Clinton, or anyone, had branded herself as a candidate of the women’s movement?

Speaking about her marriage, Clinton reveals herself as the feminist candidate some of us wish she had presented herself as much more strongly. Commenting on her aggressively publicised, often doubted as a power incubator rather than a genuine relationship marriage to former President Bill Clinton, she says:

“He has been my partner in life and my greatest champion since the moment we met. He never once asked me to put my career on hold for his. He never once suggested that maybe I shouldn’t compete for anything–in works or in politics–because it would interfere with his life or ambitions. There were stretches of time in which my husband’s job was unquestionably more important than mine, and he still didn’t play that card. I have never felt anything but an equal. His late mother, Virginia, deserves much of the credit. She worked hard as a nurse anesthetist, held strong opinions, and had an unmatched zest for life. As a result, Bill is completely unbothered by having an ambitious, opinionated, occassionally pushy wife. In fact, he loves me for it. Long before I thought of running for office, he was saying, ‘You should do it. You’d be great at it. I’d love to vote for you.’ He helped me believe in this bigger version of myself.” (160)

What Happened’s opening chapters are dedicated to Clinton’s private and personal experience of the weeks and months after the Nov 16 election. She offers insights on politics, policies and some personal feelings. One insight that has not been voiced very often concerns the relation of party choice and optimism:

“One of the most important but least recognized facts in American politics is that Republicans tend to win in places where more people are pessimistic or uncertain about the future, while Democrats tend to win where people are more optimistic. Those sentiments don’t track neatly with the overhyped dichotomy between the coasts and the heartland. There are plenty of thriving communities in both blue and red states that have figured out how to educate their workforces, harness their talents, and participate in the twenty-first-century economy. And some of the most doom-and-gloom Americans are relatively affluent middle-aged and retired whites–the very viewers Fox News prizes–while many poor immigrants, people of color, and young people are burning with energy, ambition, and optimism” (278)

She gives Pulaski County in Arkansas, Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania as examples of counties she won with a wide margin in states that voted for Trump.

It felt therapeutic to revisit that hard time after the election with her, and learn about her coping mechanisms. Indulgence was founded in the fall of 2016 and we understand our role in part as a response to the political situation that Indulgence was born into. The basis of our approach is connection literature with social justice. Therefore, I espeically enjoyed reading about which books gave Clinton resilience after the election and what novels were of interest for her. Clinton says about the weeks after Thanksgiving in 2016:

“I tried to lose myself in books. Our house is packed with them, and we keep adding more. Like my mother, I love mystery novels and can plow through one in a single sitting […] I finished reading Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels and relished the story they tell about friendship among women […] I went back to things that had given me joy or solace in the past, such as Maya Angelou’s poetry” (29)

That Ferrante’s novel resonated is not surprising given Clinton’s investment in feminism. Her womanhood is white, privileged, highly educated, and cis-heteronormative. Her intervention, her life and career fueled by Second Wave feminism, needs to merge its powers –its by now old and famous and established icons from Clinton to Steinem or RGB– with the fundamental insight of intersectionality that Third Wave feminism has taught us. The goal has to be combining both of these feminist legacies into a new (phase of a) movement that is for all women, that builds on powerful legacies, and that continues to crack glass until holistic and shared liberation becomes possible.