Watching Hillary Helped Me Understand America

Part 1: From Bad Ass to Punching Bag

My preparations to watch the Hulu docuseries Hillary? A box of tissues. Others might’ve brought popcorn but I knew I’d need a different kind of comfort. Although it’s been close to four years since I embarrassingly burst into tears on an airplane as I started to read her book, What Happened, I haven’t picked it up since. It’s still too raw. Sure enough, two minutes into the first episode and I was already in tears.

In the docuseries, Hillary was laughing about how she didn’t understand why people felt so negatively about her. She seemed genuinely perplexed but also amused. I’m glad she can laugh. I’m not there yet. She’s had a lot more practice moving forward. I’m still grieving.

There’s no question that I’m sad for what could’ve been. Hillary has been in public service for most of her adult life and was the most qualified person in the history of our country to run for president. Imagine how she would’ve wielded all the international contacts she made while Secretary of State. Envision the implementation of all myriad ideas she had for making our lives better. I mean, she’s basically Hermione. So yeah, her presidency would’ve been great.

If she were in the White House right now, I wouldn’t be sitting at home reading about the unnecessary deaths of thousands, unable to see patients in person or spend time hanging out with friends at their houses. But that’s a topic for another post.

What was an additional gut punch was that I, at least partially, got drawn into the narrative of negativity towards Hillary. And I never should have. I’ve been a feminist my entire life. I’ve seen countless women knocked down to size just because they were women. It’s happened to me, more than once. As a professor who taught the Psychology of Women, I’ve read the vast amounts of research that talks about how poorly Americans view women in power. I’ve written about it, even taught it! And I pride myself on being able to spot sexism 100 miles away. So, I know better yet I still got sucked in. Sexism is indeed insidious.

I started the 2016 campaign being lukewarm towards Hillary’s candidacy. “She’s exactly the kind of woman you should be rooting for!” one of my friends told me in disbelief. I wasn’t certain. Sure, I knew about her attempt at getting people healthcare as First Lady, that she’d been a Senator for New York, and was incredibly popular during her service as Secretary of State. And who didn’t love those Texts from Hillary memes! But she also seemed harsh and unlikeable, brushed with the stench of the establishment, centrism and corruption. After all, she was a high-priced lawyer in Arkansas when Bill was governor there. I absolutely supported her for president but I just wasn’t excited.

I’m not one to sit around having conflicted feelings, so I read her Wikipedia page and was blown away. I had no idea that she’d fought for worker’s rights after college or that she’d worked on behalf of children’s rights during a stint with the Children’s Defense Fund. She went undercover in order to root out racial discrimination in Alabama for goodness sake! She also worked on the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon. That’s some seriously bad ass stuff!

And then there was all her work on behalf of women’s rights, how ably she supported her New York constituents, and the awe-inducing number of countries she visited during her Secretary of State years. Hillary was who I’ve always wanted to be and everything I ever wanted in a president. After that, I enthusiastically boarded the Hillary train.

The Personal is Political

Given all Hillary’s accomplishments, how in the world did I get taken in by all the negative press? I may not have known about her bad ass early years but I was there for everything since Bill ran for president. I can recall my anger towards the press who seemed determined to attack her appearance (sniffing at the headbands), her ideals (mentioning she only changed her name because of politics), her personality (accusing her of being cold) and her accomplishments. As someone who didn’t care much about fashion, planned on keeping her own name, and was shy (thereby garnering my own accusations of aloofness), the attacks on Hillary felt deeply personal. And the hits kept on coming.

I’d just graduated college and was working on a presidential commission when the flak over her “tea and cookies” comment reached fever pitch. I was angry. Not only had her comment been taken completely out of context but the underlying message was to slap back at those of us who desired work beyond the home. This idea permeated everything in my life since the Commission I was working for was specifically looking at the roles for women in the military. Here were numerous women pleading for the chance to advance in their chosen career, pushing back against the old guard in order to be acknowledged for work they were already doing, and the press was busy lambasting Hillary for daring to have goals beyond the domestic. At times it felt surreal, like I was living in one world while watching a completely different one on TV.

And then there was the sex. When the rumors about Bill’s infidelity threatened to derail his candidacy, it was Hillary — the injured and humiliated party — who had to save his campaign. She wasn’t the first wife who stood by while her husband offered a mea culpa (and she certainly won’t be the last) but she was the most public. I’ll never forget my mom whispering to herself, “They never should’ve made her do that,” as we watched Hillary discuss Bill’s affair on 60 Minutes. But do it she did and she saved him.

Women often get wounded by men’s issues, especially when dealing with men in power. This too was personal for me since my mom, like many other women of the time, has an origin story similar to Hillary’s. My mom grew up in a Republican household and was religious. She became radicalized in college and believed her calling was in the ministry. As a woman, the closest she could get was as a minister’s wife, so she ably assisted my father in his ministerial work despite working full-time as a teacher and raising two small children. Just like a political wife, her work was expected but unsung and unpaid.

When my mom decided she didn’t want to do all the work, their marriage failed but only she was blamed and ostracized. My dad will tell you that the divorce was his fault (he’s grown quite a bit) but, knowing both of them, I’d say they just weren’t well-matched. After the divorce, she returned to the town she grew up in and was thrilled to land a job as youth director at the church she’d attended as a teenager. Although everyone was pleased with her work, she had her #MeToo experience when the minister started sexually harassing her. The church leaders chose to back the minister (leaving him free to abuse other women) while she left not only her job but also the church itself. Thus, watching Hillary suffer for Bill’s mistakes was something neither my mom nor I took lightly.

There’s a Cycle to These Things

Due to my work on the Commission, I was lucky enough to be in DC during Bill’s first election victory. The excitement was palpable and I was delighted to hear people saying how great it was that we got two presidents for the price of one. Having her as Co-President seemed like we’d made some big steps forward for feminism. I was even more convinced when Bill named her chair of the task force on National Healthcare Reform.

Healthcare was important to me. Graduating college was a great first step towards my career but it also meant I could no longer use my parent’s insurance. All I could afford was catastrophic coverage which meant if I fell into a coma, I wouldn’t go bankrupt. I still would’ve been in a financial hole, just not one I couldn’t climb out of. Doctor’s visits, preventative care, medications, even getting tested for asthma — which I later discovered I had — were all financially out of my reach. I was counting on Hillary to solve our healthcare crisis. And she could have too had there been the slightest political will to (a) do what was right; and (b) allow Hillary a win. But Republicans were determined to do neither and the healthcare crisis continued unabated (although working behind the scenes, Hillary did manage to get the Children’s Health Insurance Program passed).

I was young then. I didn’t understand yet just how often women’s rights take two steps forward and three steps back. Women rocked the paid workforce during World War II only to be forced back into the domestic sphere during the 1950s. Women demanded equal rights and got reproductive freedom passed in the 1970s only to see the ERA smacked down and healthcare rights whittled away by the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Every time we move forward, there are those trying to prevent our momentum. I didn’t realize it then, so when the inevitable backlash came, I was unprepared. Not only did I not see it coming but I’d been too busy rooting for Hillary to succeed at to even pay attention to the rumblings in the background. I also didn’t realize just how high a price she’d pay for even the attempt.

So yes, I was there for all that transpired on the public stage but I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. I didn’t understand that the warm, brilliant, confident Hillary took some hard hits during Bill’s first presidential campaign. Not only did she have to change what she looked like (she’d already changed her name for him) but she had to change how she spoke to people, most particularly the press. She’d experienced firsthand how quickly they’ll turn on you if they perceive you to be a threat. She learned how to be tightly controlled in order to just survive which made her seem cold and inauthentic. And when she claimed that there was “a vast right-wing conspiracy” against them, I thought she was being paranoid. I didn’t know that the Clintons had dealt with plenty of right-wingers throwing everything they could at them, conspiracies like Whitewater and the death of Vince Foster.

I didn’t know that she was right. But she was. Heartbreakingly right. And thus, with the problems of eight years of the Clinton administration, the Republicans and the mainstream press successfully transformed Hillary from bad ass to punching bag.

But there was one more thing added to the mix. Once she was liberated from the confines of being First Lady, Hillary was free to nurture her own goals. It’s well-established that when women are actually doing a good job, they’re liked and respected. It’s only when they’re ambitious and seek a higher position that it gets dicey. We hadn’t seen anything yet.

Part 2: Candidate Hillary

Part 3: Lessons from Hillary

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