clock menu more-arrow no yes

The subtext of Bill Clinton’s speech: women have always done the invisible, thankless work

Democratic National Convention: Day Two Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Bill Clinton did what every good presidential spouse is supposed to do with his Democratic National Convention speech. He humanized Hillary Clinton by telling stories about her life, and about why he loves her. And he used those stories to make an argument about why she would make a great president.

While Bill was busy trying to (repeatedly) propose to Hillary at Yale, he said, Hillary was busy doing things to help other people and make change — like going undercover to bust illegal school segregation, registering Mexican-American voters, or figuring out why so many disabled children in Massachusetts weren’t getting enrolled in school. She kept it up through Bill’s rising political career, and during his tenure as governor of Arkansas, when she worked out successful new education standards for the state. And so on.

Bill’s case for why Hillary should be president was clear: She is an incredibly hard worker who gets things done.

That was the text of what Bill Clinton had to say. But there was also an interesting subtext, as Huffington Post reporter Jason Cherkis pointed out:

It came out in passages like this, when Bill compared his own star power with Hillary’s dogged work ethic:

If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many lives are bettered, you know, it is hard, and some people think it is boring. Speeches like this are fun. Actually doing the work is hard.

Or this, when Bill talked about the all-consuming nature of Hillary’s motherhood role:

Through nursing school, kindergarten, T-ball, soccer, volleyball, and her passion for ballet. Through sleepovers, summer camps, family vacations, and Chelsea's own very ambitious excursions, from Halloween parties in the neighborhood to a Viennese waltz gala in the White House, Hillary first and foremost was a mother. She became, as she often said, our family’s designated worrier. Born with an extra responsibility gene.

Phrases like "designated worrier" or "extra responsibility gene" make Hillary sound, well, extra responsible. Which is what you’d want in a president.

But it’s also a very gendered concept. Women are expected to be the ones to take care of the household, which requires being organized and detail-oriented.

This is the kind of work that doesn’t really reward charisma or star power, nor does it reward those who do it with fame or glory. It’s private-sphere work, which is why it’s often thankless. Most people don’t see you do it and don’t see what goes into it, so how could they thank you for it?

Hillary Clinton’s advocacy work was intended for the public good, so it was hardly private. But because it involved so much detailed grind work, it wasn’t the kind of thing a lot of people would know about or pay attention to. Just like it’s easier to criticize somebody’s parenting than to actually raise a child, it’s a lot easier to propose a policy than to actually figure out how to make it work in practice.

Hillary Clinton’s struggles to be recognized as a professional in her own right parallel those of many working women, especially in the '80s and '90s when she was most in the public eye. Her tendency to do the hard, invisible work is yet another way that many women can probably relate to her.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.