it’s slowly dawning that i’m maybe going to spend my adult writing career writing around hillary rodham clinton. (as opposed to my juvenile writing career which was all about horrible poetry and civil war novels.)
by this i mean writing about a trilogy of female lives that i see as being deeply embedded in the issues HRC raised for me as a teenaged girl. so HRC is there without my actually writing about her. because i don’t want to write about her. because, this many years removed from the 1990s, hillary hurts.
(btw, another reason i don’t want to write about HRC is that she’s a divisive figure and, just writing this silly little post that’ll be read by three people and my parents, i’m haunted by some imaginary internet horde coming after me with pitchforks [a fear not entirely without precedent given the pair of internet slaggings i got over my j.tim analysis], so please note: this isn’t a matter of which party you back and which party you think will ruin the world- it’s about the way we write and talk about women and the effects of such rhetoric.)
in the mid-90s, clinton was portrayed as an overbearing, strident wife and denounced by the new york time’s political columnist william safire as “a congenital liar.”
for me, she excited a vitriol that served as a warning. i was a teenager then and, watching this, the message conveyed was that it was far safer for a woman to remain silent than speak her mind.
it was an impression solidified by the fact that it was precisely jackie onassis’s silence that the press were so quick to applaud upon her death in 1994.
“she did not do the talk show circuit,” exulted a columnist in the boston globe. “she did not write the tell-all autobiography. she wanted to live her life quietly and well.”
“we haven’t seen her for over 30 years,” enthused robert kennedy’s former press secretary.
the message, as i internalized it, was that she was beloved because she’d shut up.
it was something of a relief as an adult to realise i wasn’t alone in noticing this. in july 1994, the guardian ran an article that listed “beauty, silence, and suffering’” as the elements essential to female iconicity.
as the writer joan smith observed, “even at the end of the 20th century, the rule for aspirant female icons is as unbending as ever: say nothing […] women are still expected to be seen and not heard.”
it gets more complicated, obviously, because that interest also lay in the dissonances within portrayals of her- the fact that everyone seemed to want her to be silent and dignified whilst there appeared, to me, to be other things going on: a fierce independence, a mischievous streak coupled with unexpected shyness, a toughness paired with fragility and fury at her own failings. it was a fury which mirrored my own.
i gravitated to her because she was portrayed in largely positive terms–which, given the invective directed at HRC struck me as something radically new— but also because she was a first lady. and, at the time, in america, the position of first lady appeared to be the closest a woman could come to power.
in retrospect, it seems so obvious: reading about jackie was a—safe, socially acceptable, appropriately lady-like—way of reading about power.
in contrast, HRC- though i read about her too- had power but she was decidedly unsafe.
to this day, hillary hurts.
and i’m still not entirely sure why though i think it’s maybe that i’ve become a horrible cynic and she seems, to me, a vivid reminder of how far we have failed to come.
a few months ago- actually, i know the precise moment in the interview with steinem… it was recorded. the moment that it hit me in the heart that our constitution still has no equal rights amendment is actually on tape.
and mourning is perhaps the most appropriate word for what i’ve been doing since then. mourning an amendment that failed the year after i was born and the realization that, since its passage was botched so badly before, another likely won’t be attempted for several generations, until everyone who was alive then to remember has died and it’s been forgotten. then maybe future people will say “oh yeah, maybe we do need an amendment that says all people are created equal… not just the dudes.”
but this isn’t just about amendments. it’s also about first ladies…
in the early 90s, bill clinton complained to newsweek’s eleanor clift: “what’s really amazing is that if [hillary] weren’t my wife, people would be throwing garlands at her feet, probably, for all the stuff she’s accomplished. but if you’re somebody’s wife, you’re still not supposed to have a mind.”
as the NYT observed, the speech given by michelle obama at the 2012 democratic convention “was a vivid, live-on-network-television reminder of how little the role of first lady has changed… no one since mrs. kennedy has worked the camera more astutely or more purposefully to help her husband — the best way is still to be seen as an exemplary first lady. and she looked the part, shimmering in a silky pink sleeveless dress, smiling even more than usual as she spoke of serious things.”
fifty years after jackie, FLOTUS to be linked to surfaces, smiles, and sleeveless dresses, which is not ok.
but it’s also more general than that.
in a discussion of HRC last month, the guardian lodged the broader complaint that “we simply have no template for how a clever, serious woman should look.”
in 1992, the NYT labelled HRC “a lightning rod for the mixed emotions we have about work and motherhood, dreams and accommodation, smart women and men’s worlds.”
HRC herself, we now know from the recently released diane blair papers, was aware of the problem but refused to kowtow to expectations. “i’m not stupid,’ she wrote blair. ‘i know i should do more to suck up to the press, i know it confuses people when i change my hairdos. i know i should pretend not to have any opinions—but i’m just not going to.”
which, well, bravo. but it took 20 years for that declaration to be heard.
growing up, i would pretend to be first lady, never president, and it was always about dressing-up, not about doing things. for this was the apex of american female power and that was what it meant—marriage and clothes. that wasn’t HRC’s fault, but she’s a reminder of it.
one’s experience of history is profoundly effected by many things, one of which is age.
i was 11 when HRC came into the white house, 19 when she left it. my views of the possibilities available to me were profoundly shaped by her and by other people’s responses to her.
my experience of the rhetoric around her was searing. and every time i’ve thought “oh no one could’ve said that about the first lady”, the things i thought impossible were, in fact, true.
there’s no way to protect children from the news, no way to spare them the interior damage such rhetoric, which now swirls all around us, inflicts. but make no mistake, it sticks to the soul like napalm. and it is destructive.
i’ve been thinking recently about what it would mean if she ran in 2016, a possibility i’ve long feared precisely because of the rhetoric against women that it would likely unleash.
but also what it would mean for her- or any woman, but especially her- to win.
it would mean every generation of girls coming after wouldn’t have to dream extra-big to play president.
they could just do it. because it wouldn’t be pretend.
which maybe sounds like small beans until you realize that it is- in the end- the american dream. that we are all equal.