I didn’t like you when I first became aware of you. I was twenty-two, and you looked ancient to me at forty-five. (Ha). But not just ancient… grating. Presumptuous. Your husband was running for president, and you had the helmet hair and the perma-smile, but not of the vapid blandness of most political wives. You were a lawyer. You were mouthy. When you made the crack about “not staying home and baking cookies,” I thought “My mom makes cookies. What the hell is wrong with making cookies?”
It would be years before I realized you weren’t talking about baking cookies, but about having choices. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After that, you disappointed me thoroughly by sticking with a man who was clearly dogging you and humiliating you. So much for feminism. Throughout the 90s, I disdained you. Eight years later, when you announced your candidacy for the Senate in my neighboring state of New York, I thought I was seeing a method to your madness. You’d stuck it out for the business arrangement: you smile and give him cover, he takes care of you later.
You seemed to do a passable job as a senator, although you mostly fell off my radar. When 2008 rolled around, I was deeply enamored of Obama (and had been since 2004, when I’d read his book), so I didn’t pay you much mind. Meh, first woman president, I thought. I was far more dazzled by him. Still, you ran a good enough campaign that I made you a deal, silently, a deal of one: if you exit gracefully, I will support you in 2016 when it’s your turn.
You exceeded my expectations. In a testament to the civility and high-mindedness of both of the people involved, Obama sought to bring you into the fold. You accepted. You acted with dignity and capacity as Secretary of State. My deal began to feel not just the fair thing to do, but the best thing to do. Who would have such a panoramic view of history, such a muscle memory of all things politic? I began to get excited. 2016 would be our year.
And, then, the whole country collectively collided in a heap of twisted metal and billowing smoke that was the 2016 election.
I’ve been a feminist most of my adult life. I was a Woman’s Studies minor in college. I’ve had men talk over me at meetings, tell me I’m too pretty not to smile on the street, grab my ass in broad daylight when I was too young to know that was a thing that could happen. I understand the peril of being female.
But I did not understand the roiling, bubbling cauldron of anti-woman sentiment which was ready to pour on us like boiling oil if we stirred the pot too much. Yes, men would wear pink breast cancer ribbons and talk about loving wives and daughters, but would still dismiss the “grab them by the pussy” tape as nothing more than “locker room talk.” They would say they thought genders were equal, but that a woman might be too emotional to lead, or not have “the stamina” or “the look” and other coded language for “penis.”
And it wasn’t just men. When I saw woman after woman on the news say things like, “Trump can grab me by the pussy if he wants,” I understood that misogyny is a system we perpetuate as a culture, not one that is foisted upon us. It took the machine cranking into gear and pointing squarely at you for me to see it fully.
This past week, I read your book. I listened to it, actually, because my ability to sit still and squint at books is currently, hopefully temporarily, on the wane. I was glad I listened to it. You are an uninspiring narrator, I’m sorry to say, although I’m sure you’d laugh at that as a insult since you’ve been the target of much better ones. And I don’t mean it as an insult. Your reading was mechanical, thorough. You even said out loud the word “quote” when coming upon a quote, where a more charismatic narrator might emphasize the word to help the listener understand that quotes are implied. It felt so emblematic of you, little razzle dazzle, but making sure to get it as right as you know how. Damn, what a president you’d have made.
Even with your sometimes stilted read, listening to your words gave them immediacy. It was like you were telling me a story. It was a painful one, one which I knew I should hear but which scraped my heart raw. I learned how you felt at many crucial moments in the campaign, the guilt and sorrow you feel at thinking you let us down. I heard little stories of playing with your granddaughter at moments I only saw from the other side of pomp, behind the scenes at debates, talking to friends to cope with the damage of one of the biggest losses a human can endure. Your stories about your mother and her difficult childhood made me shake with sobs.
And you sounded pissed. I was glad you sounded pissed. If I had one complaint about you on the trail it’s that you were always so guarded, so polished. I wanted to see you just be you a minute, the us we all are when we’re frustrated or exasperated. I know why you couldn’t be that then, but I’m so grateful to have learned it was in you all along.
I fell asleep listening to your book. I had dreams we met at a coffee shop. It must be so weird to have millions of strangers feel like they have a relationship with you when you don’t know they exist. I listened to your bitter analysis of what went wrong, the much ridiculed What Happened of your book title, and concurred. The mechanism that ground into gear to oppose you was complex and multi-faceted, and it’s not about the “blame game” to understand that there was more than one reason for the most nonsensical outcome to a presidential campaign in modern history. I’m glad you know that. And I hope you know millions of us know it, too.
In the ways of people who become symbols, much of your story is calcifying into myth. I was glad to take a week to peek beyond it at the woman. In the end, you are one human. A human with flaws, ambitions, talents, shortcomings, just like the rest of us. But you took a bullet for all of us. I’m sorry that it hurt.
Uncovering a festering wound is painful. Many of us don’t want to do it. Yes, there’s the wound of woman-hating. But there are many others, seemingly more innocuous but equally destructive. Like the belief that of course CEOs are mostly men, that, sure, women earn less but that’s just because they get distracted when they have babies and there’s nothing systemic about it, that singers shouldn’t just have great voices but also dress like porn stars (and not be taken seriously if they don’t “have the body” for it), that women talk so much, are so emotional, are so catty with each other, that, listen, women just aren’t cut out for the stock market/the battlefield/the police force/manual labor. That we’re doing women a favor by letting them just take it easy and let men handle it.
It was during the week I was reading your book that the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations came out. Here I was, reading your story about the massive uphill climb, and there was the media, the same media that a month ago moaned that you should go away when you were on your book tour, that no one wants to hear from you, make a main pillar of the Weinstein story “But where is Hillary Clinton? Why hasn’t she denounced him yet?” Never mind that the actual president hadn’t said a word, and would not have much high ground to stand on after his own barrage of pussygate allegations. Never mind that you’re a private citizen with no obligation to say anything at all.
It hit me, then, that the substance of your imaginary transgression didn’t matter so much, because it was never about that. You’d dared stick your neck out, and you would not easily be forgiven. You were the face of every “ball-busting” woman who’d tried for the promotion, argued her case, demanded equal treatment. You were the ultimate symbol of how we’ve changed the rules. You had done it backwards and in high heels and it still hadn’t been enough, because the point is it’s never supposed to be enough. The barriers are supposed to be high enough so that we just shut up and sit down.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from you, is that we never shut up and sit down. And for that, I thank you with all my heart.