Watching Hillary Helped Me Understand America

Part 2: Candidate Hillary

Part 1: From Bad Ass to Punching Bag

While I’d been around for the Clinton presidency, I wasn’t as familiar with Hillary’s history prior to that. There were many things I didn’t know. For one thing, prior to Hillary’s candidacy, she’d been perceived as a radical liberal. She’d fought hard against this label as people tend to be suspicious of those of us who want to transform the system (yes, I’m being sarcastic; why do you ask?). That’s why it was ironic when the media painted her as a centrist, establishment candidate. 

In other words, every time she tried to counter a criticism leveled against her, they came at her from another angle. When faced with the tried and true double standard for women, she just couldn’t win. And after over 30 years of this, I too somewhat bought into the narrative.

The Campaign

Then came Bernie Sanders. I’d loved Bernie for years and was excited when he entered the race. I never intended to vote for him but I was thrilled at the thought he’d move Hillary left during the campaign. Women candidates always have to manage perceptions; they rarely can be as radical or even as progressive as they’d like. 

This was especially true for Hillary, someone who’d constantly been beaten down for her liberalism. Remember the furor over her statement that she wouldn’t be baking cookies or the anger over her not changing her name or the outrage that she might actually be able to do something meaningful while First Lady? Yeah, stuff like that. Thus, I was delighted to think that he could give her permission to move away from the safety of the center.

I attended one of his rallies and participated in his small house party event. I enjoyed meeting Bernie supporters and thought the candidates themselves worked well together. Then it all started to go wrong. Bernie began condescending to her during debates and his followers started being hateful. There was this thrumming sense of anger — vitriol Hillary calls it in the docuseries — underlying their interactions with Hillary and her supporters. She was as puzzled by it then as I was. What was going on? Weren’t we all on the same team?

Later on, much later, I figured it out. If Bernie had never entered the race, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are. Martin O’Malley, the other guy who ran for president in 2016, never truly gained any traction, so he would’ve been gone early. Maybe. But maybe not. Because what I think happened was that people wanted someone else, anyone else, to vote for besides a woman. 

America is a country in denial. We won’t concede to any of our major faults, like the fact that we were founded on genocide and built by slavery. We also won’t admit that we’re incredibly misogynistic. People twist themselves into pretzels trying to ignore these self-evident truths (to turn a phrase). But they’re still there.

Back then, I was in denial too. Back then, I still had hope.

I was in tears watching the Democratic convention. This is who we are, I thought, not that travesty of nastiness and idol worship that was the Republican convention. I still groan in disgust remembering how both Don Jr. and Eric said their dad was their best friend. That’s for family therapy, not the national stage. 

The Democratic convention was different. It showcased tons of well-known and beloved people, excited to be there, talking in a way that made me feel as if America could do anything. There was the “This Is Our Fight Song” playing at full volume (I always cry listening to it, now more than ever), a song with a zippy beat that spoke to all the years it took to get us here. This was the way we should nominate our leaders!

It was so empowering watching Hillary’s life story unfold, both in movie form and in the narration by friends, loved ones, and people she’d helped. So was the knowledge that I was watching history being made. Here was going to be our first female president and what a president she was going to be! I cheered when she came out dressed in suffragist white, her nod to the momentousness of the moment. I even sent her money, something I’d never done for any candidate.

Election Day

Election Day was exciting. I’d recently joined a secret Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation — a group dedicated to supporting Hillary — and was buoyed by all the stories of people meeting Hillary, women wearing pantsuits, and their thoughts about what her presidency would mean. It probably should’ve told us something that the group felt the need to be secret. But back then, we thought her win was inevitable, that women would finally get the progress we deserved. Now that belief just seems naive.

I was going with two of my friends to dinner so we could toast our first female president. We might even — daringly — seek out the local Democrats to celebrate with them too. Although I’ve been a Democrat all my life, I’d never before been involved in local politics (activism is a different story) and I had no idea what to expect.

Before our dinner, I went to the library, a major polling location, to poll greet. I stood holding Hillary/Kaine signs with some new friends I’d met online in a small Facebook group for liberal women in our area. The Trump supporters poll greeting were terrible (shocker). They had a gargantuan sign calling Hillary a child abuser because she’d once defended someone accused of it. I can’t remember what exactly the sign said but I do recall being dismayed they thought it was appropriate to place near a library, a building where children went to get books. We were there to counteract their hate (a sign of things to come).

Despite the tension, it was fun. People from our Facebook group came to express their support and excitement. Teenagers were poll greeting for extra credit. Passing cars honked in a friendly way and we waved at all of them. What a difference our group was in comparison to the Trump supporters who apparently thought being ugly was the way to go (clearly, they’ve never wavered from that belief). A Black woman asked if she could take a picture with us since we clearly were her people. She expressed fear that Hillary wouldn’t win, something I found laughable. “Don’t worry,” I told her confidently. “We’ve got this.”

I kept that attitude of confidence throughout the early hours of the night, when returns were trickling in. As the night wore on, my two friends got increasingly worried yet I remained upbeat. “There’s no way this country is going to elect Donald Trump over Hillary!” I kept telling them (I was right but that’s another story). Finally, we went home defeated. We never were able to toast and we never found the Democrats. 

I still believed we’d turn it around at the last minute because how could we not? Even so, I was deeply concerned. I went to bed early, hoping to wake up to President Clinton, but I couldn’t sleep. There was a pit of fear in my stomach, one that wouldn’t go away. That’s why I was still awake at 1 am when my husband came in to tell me it was all over.

Everyone has their story about November 9, 2016. It’s become one of those life-changing moments, like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion. I was in a daze. Thank goodness I was off work. If I hadn’t been, I would’ve cancelled patients because I was in no condition to counsel anyone. Instead, I sat outside, reaching out to friends via Facebook and reading endless articles about what happened. Those few that reported on voter suppression in swing states and a weird phenomenon of Russian interference caught my attention but, overall, I was in needing my friends mode.

Going on Pantsuit Nation was like attending a wake. People were furious, sad and afraid. My usual Facebook feed was like a ghost town. The overall silence and the few hesitant postings made it seem like the whole app was appalled. It felt like there’d been a death in the family. But that was only for a certain segment of the population. I immediately unfriended anyone who mentioned they voted for Trump. I haven’t missed them.

I was livid, miserable, and terrified but, more than that, I felt betrayed. How could my fellow Americans have done this? When I saw the statistic that 52% of white women voted for Trump, I was devastated. How could they? We had this amazingly qualified woman who had great plans and the experience to implement them and they chose the ignorant, cruel, racist, mentally ill, sexual predator. We had a great opportunity to move forward, to make America into something wonderful for everyone, and we squandered it in favor of a man who doesn’t deserve anything other than prison. 

What in the ever-loving hell was wrong with them? For weeks, every time I passed a white woman, I thought to myself, “Was it you, sister? Was it you who sold us down the river?” Since I live in an overwhelmingly conservative area, the answer was likely to be yes.

I also felt stupid because I should’ve seen this coming. I’ve fought for women’s rights my entire life. I’ve been a feminist since practically birth. When I was growing up, I attended women’s groups, organized Take Back the Night Marches, and wrote op-eds on feminism for my campus newspaper. It wasn’t much but I always got pushback, even from people who should’ve been allies. 

My first professional job was as a research analyst on the Presidential Commission for Women in the Armed Forces. Although the Commission itself definitely wasn’t feminist, the pushback we received was big, some it coming from women. I went on to teach, research, and focus my clinical work on women’s issues throughout my master’s and doctoral programs. There were always those who didn’t appreciate it. Once I became a professor, my work on women’s issues began in earnest but, even at a women’s university, some of the students weren’t on board with women’s liberation.

My fight for women’s rights had been difficult but I’d always had hope. I’d tell my students we were making progress and we have. I taught about and wrote on issues on which we still have so much work left to do (just check out my prescience in this post from 2016) but, oddly enough given my lifetime of experiences, I never thought we’d backslide. I truly believed I’d see a female president in my lifetime and that Hillary was going to be the first. 

I irrationally imagined we were much further down the road of true equality than we are. On that terrible November day, I realized just how much of a fool I’d been.

Part 3: Lessons from Hillary

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