Watching Hillary Helped Me Understand America

Part 3: Lessons from Hillary

Part 1: From Bad Ass to Punching Bag

Part 2: Candidate Hillary

The immediate aftermath of the 2016 election almost broke me. I was a mess watching Hillary’s concession speech. Not only was I upset over the outcome of the election but I was extremely distressed for her. How can she be so strong, I wondered (not for the first time). It seemed so unfair she had to console everyone else when she had to be dying inside. Watching it the second time via the docuseries wasn’t much better. Even though I now know what happened, it still hurts.

It wasn’t enough that the Republicans got what they wanted (by cheating, something you know they’re going to do again) but they had to try and humiliate her too. The third part of the docuseries was entitled, Be Our Champion, Go Away, and that’s exactly what it felt like back then. Pundits, politicians, the press, and people on social media demanded Hillary “take up knitting” or just drop out of the public eye. No other “defeated” politician has been treated in such a degrading way. Nope, that’s something they cooked up just for a woman. 

I was furious and wrote several scathing emails to reporters and editors. It was all I could do.

Then there was the Inauguration. I didn’t want her to go. Although I understood why Hillary believed she had to attend, it felt like one indignity too many. I desperately wished she’d just skip it. The people who’d vilify her for it didn’t matter anymore. But she went because she thought it was thing to do for democracy’s sake. Damn! When is it that women get to think about ourselves first?

The people in my community didn’t behave much better. Yes, there was anger, lots of it. But what I saw most was resignation and blame. I attended a friend’s party to communally grieve and left early in disgust. One woman blamed Hillary for not campaigning enough in the Rust Belt (we now know it was more about voter suppression, a narrative that’s never gotten the attention it deserved). Others smiled indulgently at their teenage daughters as they expressed their hope that they’d be the first woman president. Sorry girls, I’d be happy for you to be one in a long line of female presidents but I don’t want to wait over 20 years to have our first.

Then there was the ignorance. So many people, including women, didn’t understand the foundational sexism that puts women at a solid disadvantage in politics and other leadership positions. They didn’t get the role the media played in undermining Hillary’s candidacy. Most of all, they didn’t recognize that changing things takes a lot of hard work, persistence, and a constant push to do things outside your comfort zone. Many enjoyed doing fun things like the Women’s March but couldn’t be bothered to blockwalk, phone bank, or even attend local governmental meetings, like city councils. They didn’t (and still don’t) realize that all politics is local.

But Hillary’s never given up and neither will I. She learned lessons from her negative life experiences.

Lesson 1: Men are totally fine letting women do all the work, so we must fight for ourselves. We can’t win if we don’t try.

When Hillary was in high school, she ran for student council president even though no girl had ever won before. Sure enough, a boy won the race. He then immediately went to Hillary to ask if she’d do all the work. She agreed because she was interested in the work but it was her first lesson in gendered political dynamics. Clearly, it wasn’t her last.

Lesson 2: You must toot your own horn because no one else will. The best defense is a solid offense.

People often remember the bad but forget the good. They forget Hillary’s powerful speech 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where she said, “…human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” Although she faced enormous pressure not to even go, she went and delivered a statement you’d think would be factual but was, in fact, controversial. 

They forget she was responsible for passing the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which gave 10 million kids health insurance. As a senator, she worked across the aisle so successfully that Lindsay Graham wrote the essay for her 2006 Time magazine’s 100 Leaders and Revolutionaries entry. She also crafted numerous pieces of legislation. 

Please tell me the last time you heard people mention these things when talking about Hillary. I’ll wait.

Lesson 3: The media and much of the country are run by sexist men who will never give women a fair shake. Play your own game because they’ll be critical either way.

Many in the media disparaged her, not for her ideas, but for gendered reasons: her hairstyle, her voice, her manner. Even male “allies” were sexist. During a debate, Senator John Edwards said, condescendingly, “I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America. I’m not sure about that coat.” Hillary did what most of us would do in that situation: she laughed. She couldn’t get angry because then the story would be about her anger, not that he was sexist and rude. 

I seethed when then-Senator Barack Obama commented, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary, no doubt about it.” He seemed not to realize that likeable is a weapon used against women, not men. So typical. Most women have been in that situation, perhaps not so publicly, but we’ve all swallowed what poet Edna St. Vincent Millay called the “gall of humiliation” for being treated differently because of our gender.

Lesson 4: Be confident in who you are and remember the important things.

I’ll let Hillary’s own words explain this one. “Take criticism seriously because you may actually learn something. But don’t take it personally because it can knock you to your knees if you take it personally. And you begin to doubt yourself. Everybody has a motivation…but that can’t affect who you are at your core…I’ve loved and been loved and all the rest is background music.”

Lesson 5: Keep fighting.

The Hillary docuseries was a five-tissue viewing for me (one for each of the first three episodes and two for the last), mainly because this woman — this smart, tough, ambitious woman who’s been a lawyer, a mother, First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State — is such a legend. Cheryl Mills, one of her advisors, commented that Hillary was “the tip of the spear.” She walked so many paths first so women following in her footsteps could shine. 

I’ve been a loud feminist all my life but, after the 2016 election, I’ve been feeling defeated. Watching Hillary changed that. Seeing her courage, moral convictions and resolute lack of self-pity helps me remember that when nothing you do matters, all that matters is what you do. I may go down but at least I’ll go down swinging.

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