The Divisive Legacy of Hillary Clinton
"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." These were the words of Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was slandered for continuing her work as a lawyer when Bill Clinton became the Governor of Arkansas. It was the first of a trail of sexist remarks that she would receive in her illustrious career, one that oscillated between the controversies of her First Lady days, to the policymaking of her senatorial days and as Secretary of State to the tragedy of her 2016 loss, one that cast a shadow over any possibility of political recovery.
Her life, especially professional, has been fraught with sexism, misogyny, and double standards. Her determination to refuse to conform to the role of an ideal woman of her time was seen as a threat by several conservatives. In an interview with Howard Stern, she recalled that her experience with sexism began in high school when she wasn't made student government president because she was a girl. After college, she was verbally assaulted by a group of boys when she wrote her law school examinations in 1969. When she was at a cocktail party for prospective Harvard law students, she was introduced to a famous law professor, who was told that she was in the decision process of choosing between Harvard and Yale to pursue her law degree. "We don't need any more women at Harvard" were his words to a young Hillary, who ended up going to Yale. The blatant sexism continued when she became the First Lady of the United States, where her professional and personal life were gravely challenged. It was a series of events- the failure of her healthcare reforms to Bill Clinton's infidelity that made her the centerpiece for media attention.
She was the first First Lady to have a law degree and her professional career up to the time of entering the White House. The role of a First Lady was one that had consistently evolved, from the private support of Edith Wilson to the activist days of Eleanor Roosevelt. Their influence on political matters had always been rather barren, up to the Clinton administration. Hillary was the first FLOTUS to have an office in the West Wing. She was part of the innermost circle vetting appointments to the new administration. She is considered one of the most openly empowered presidential wives in American history, a title that came with unprecedented political scrutiny, the media holding her to impossible double standards.
In her autobiography Living History, she writes about realizing that her life was starting to be scrutinized in ways she couldn't control. "I was called a 'Rorschach test' for the American public," she wrote. "I was being labeled and categorized because of my positions and mistakes, and also because I had been turned into a symbol for women of my generation. That's why everything I said or did — and even what I wore — became a hot button for debate." This media scrutiny extended beyond conservative articles to the popular media of the day. In an episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Season 5 episode which aired on 21 January 1999. Doug, Chandler's boss, joked, "Seriously, I strongly believe that we should all support President Clinton... and her husband, Bill."
The biggest criticism was her policy influence. Some found it inappropriate for the first lady to play such a central role in public policy matters. "I don't know that I have any more influence than anybody else who is an advisor to the President," Hillary responded in a 1993 interview.
The media stir became worse when Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was revealed to the public eye- and Hillary announced her decision to stay with her husband despite the infidelity. While some portions of the media criticized her move and labeled it a political partnership, several sources praised her for making the 'brave decision' of staying with her husband. Her decisions with marriage were almost more applaudable than any political achievement. Despite her best efforts, the media refused to see her as anything more than a "dutiful wife." No decision of hers could ever be right. If she chose to stay, it was a political partnership. If she decided to leave, she gave up on her marriage. There was no avenue to win.
Despite the horrendous double standards, Hillary continued to forge policymaking ambitions, even taking it abroad. She denounced human rights violations against women in a 1995 UN meeting in Beijing. "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."
Her aims with gender equality policy were simple and lucid. As she rose to the rank of senator, she wrote the Paycheck Fairness Act—to give women the tools they need to fight discrimination in the workforce. Her aspirations when she ran for President were to ensure women's rights and opportunity through fighting for paid leave, increasing the minimum wage, defending Social Security, confronting violence against women, and promoting reproductive rights for women.
But it didn't get any better. Notes of explicit sexism were seen decades later in the 2016 Presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Peter Beinart described the atmosphere at the Republic National Convention as "fervent hostility." in an article written for the Atlantic. The supporters brandished violent and derogatory merchandise- black pins reading "Don't be a Pussy, Vote Trump," white t-shirts reading "Hillary sucks but not like Monica." A pin even advertised "the KFC Hillary Special"- 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … a left-wing.
Political analysts have struggled to understand the sheer magnitude of Trump's victory in 2016. Clinton often justified her defeat as a sign that Americans are resistant to a female president. Some on the right disagreed, attributing it to her lack of likeability. Thus, a relevant question arises: whether those who chose Trump over Clinton were motivated primarily by gender bias — or something else. Nationwide, 53 percent of white women favored Trump. Hillary responded to this statistic by saying that men instructed women to vote for Trump. It is statements like these that motivated the right to believe that Clinton's claims of sexism are simply an excuse for her political losses. In her case, her perceived honesty was a weak spot. The media grilled her aggressively on her alleged mishandling of classified emails, her 'mistake' in supporting the war on Iraq, and more scandals that resulted in a lack of faith in her prospective presidency. Perhaps Hillary Clinton was a misogynist at times herself- accused of laughing at rape victims and defending a sexual offender in her tenure as a lawyer. In a world with successful female politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and even Nancy Pelosi in California, sexism cannot be the only factor attributed to Clinton's losses, though it can be seen as a rather significant one.
A sense of untrustworthiness had haunted the Democratic party in the 2016 election, but the roots of hostility against her are much deeper. Her tense Primary battle with Bernie Sanders and the subsequent schism within the Democratic party lead to a large opposition to the candidate. She claimed that Bernie endorsing her late was extremely hurtful. According to some sources, the Clinton candidacy ironically brought out the fractures in modern feminism. While putting a woman in the White House remained a major goal, younger feminists, many of them Sanders supporters, reminded us this is not the 1970s or even the 1990s, and that wealthy white female figureheads who promise to shatter glass ceilings don't automatically get a feminist stamp of approval. While most feminists centered around her policies emphasizing women and families, Sanders-inspired progressive supporters often opposed her.
The Hunting of Hillary by Micheal D'Antonio perfectly traces how an entire industry of hate, lies, and fear was created to persecute Hillary Clinton for decades and profit from it. Defined by right-wing conspiracies about all aspects of her life, she couldn't declare what was happening lest she is cast as weak and whiny. Considering the sheer opposition that she endured, her achievements were a watershed moment for women in American politics. The hatred she endured is surely unrepeatable. As the book puts it- "The 2016 presidential election can only be understood in the context of the primal and primitive response of those who just couldn't imagine that a woman might lead."
Even though she remains a political outsider in the 2020 version of the Democratic Party, it is impossible to ignore her legacy. Hillary Clinton ought to be remembered for more than her tragic loss. Reading accounts of her tireless dedication and determination to continue to serve the country despite the myriad of obstacles is what inspires me and thousands of women across the world. It's only apt if I end this article quoting the Secretary of State herself,
"I have always believed that women are not victims. We are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace—all we need is a fighting chance."
Illustrated by Teresa Paul