The looks we've gotten into Hillary Clinton's emails so far have generally been more comedic than revelatory about her inner thoughts. But one released in the most recent batch is rather more enlightening — showing her instinctive, defensive fear of criticism from the right on social issues:
Clinton's email comes in response to this 2011 Washington Post report that the State Department would no longer ask people to list their "mother" and "father" on passport application forms — and instead would only ask about "parent one" and "parent two." The change, the Post reported, came at the behest of gay rights groups that had been pushing for it for years.
But Clinton was blindsided by the report — and her response was furious. "I'm not defending that decision, which I disagree w and knew nothing about, in front of this Congress," she wrote. "We need to address this today or we will be facing a huge Fox-generated media storm led by Palin et al."
It was addressed. The Associated Press's Matthew Lee reported the next day that Clinton "had ordered" the State Department to amend the change so that it would no longer ditch "mother" and "father" entirely. Instead, the forms would ask for "mother or parent 1" and "father or parent 2."
This fits with what Clinton wrote in the email: "I could live w letting people in nontraditional families choose another descriptor so long as we retained the presumption of mother and father."
Hillary Clinton's instincts on social issues were forged in 1970s Arkansas controversies and 1990s national controversies
It's no surprise that Clinton responded so quickly and defensively. Throughout her career, she herself has been blasted for not adhering to traditional gender roles — as first lady of both Arkansas and United States.
For instance, when Hillary Rodham married Bill Clinton in 1975, she initially kept her last name. But after Bill failed to win reelection as governor in 1980, the couple's friends speculated that her maiden name was part of the problem — and urged her to change it.
"Ann Henry told me some people were upset when they received invitations to events at the Governor's Mansion from 'Governor Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham,'" Hillary wrote in her memoirs. "Chelsea's birth announcement, also featuring our two names, was apparently a hot subject of conversation around the state." After several of these appeals, she wrote, "I decided it was more important for Bill to be Governor again than for me to keep my maiden name."
Once Bill Clinton ran for president in 1991, these challenges only became more fraught. A Nightline report dubbed Hillary "the new political wife," because she shockingly had "a career" and "opinions." At first, Bill thought this was a selling point — he joked that the campaign slogan "might well be, 'Buy one, get one free.'" Eventually, though, Bill was forced to clarify that "she wouldn't be a co-president. We have our differences of opinion and, in the end, I have to decide."
Later, when one of Bill's primary rivals, Jerry Brown, accused him of "funneling money through his wife's law firm for state business," Hillary's response was memorable — and controversial. "You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she said. "But what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life." Though she also said women should be able to choose their own paths, her remarks came under fire as being condescending to stay-at-home mothers.
Now, facing a Democratic presidential primary, Clinton has tried to move to the left on social issues. But this email is an interesting indication that, having lived through so many of these media and political firestorms, she seems to have a deeply ingrained fear of the right's ability to whip up similarly damaging controversies over "family" issues.
It should be noted that Clinton didn't entirely roll back the change. Making the forms ask for "mother or parent one" or "father or parent two" is a pragmatic Clinton compromise that's typical to her approach to politics — it's a progressive move, but watered down somewhat and designed not to be inflammatory to the broader public. As she told Black Lives Matter activists in August, "In politics, if you can't explain it and you can't sell it, it stays on the shelf."