Hillary Clinton stood on the debate stage with Donald Trump in command of her political prowess. She knows how to prevail over domineering men — how to conquer their interruptions and reign over their attacks.
So why is it that this year I, a young, college-educated woman living in the capital city, have wrestled with this question: Why does the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination not feel like that big of a deal?
I’m not alone in my confusion about Clinton’s run. I’ve found myself asking friends this very question. And other questions, too: Why does it seem that, yet again, Clinton, running on a record of getting things done, is faced with men calling for revolution? And should we consider her husband’s legacy in sizing up hers?
One of the smartest thinkers on these subjects is New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister, a journalist who has followed Hillary Clinton’s career in public life for many years. Traister wrote the book Big Girls Don’t Cry in 2008, a feminist’s take on Clinton’s historic first presidential run. Earlier this year, Traister published a much-talked-about feature about the candidate's current election cycle, concluding that Clinton is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be presidential and questioning the credence given to traditionally male traits in a race for the White House — an idea that has reshaped how many in the media think about the race.
I spoke with Traister after the conventions this summer about how we can think about Hillary Clinton in the context of 2016, why women struggle with ambivalence around her run, and the complex legacy of her husband. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
You covered the 2008 election when it was clear that Clinton was trying to run a campaign devoid of her gender — or that Clinton as a political firebrand was trying to emulate the men. What’s changed this year?
I think a lot now about this notion that she was running as a man in 2008 — which was what Mark Penn, her campaign adviser, was instructing her to do. There were those memos that told us so much about the instruction that "they do not want someone who would be the first mama" — it was all this gender crossdressing, regendering. He was directly saying: Act like a man.
The actual history of the 2008 campaign has played a major role in what is different now. Hillary Clinton was not the first woman to run for the presidency — there are maybe 100 women that have run before her — but she was the most serious and credible run for it in 2008.
It’s not as much that she was being told to run as a man, as she was being told to run as a president. You can hear that in some of the critique of the time: She is running as if she has already been president (which, of course, has some complicated echoes because she is married to someone who has already been president), that she is running as if she is an incumbent, that there is no change here.
Presidential in our national imagination is coded male. The only American presidents we have ever known are men. The meaning of what a president is is a very masculinized notion. That is something I didn’t recognize when I wrote Big Girls Don’t Cry. This is a shift.
Eight years ago, after Hillary Clinton ran, we elected another historic candidate — a man. How did our perception of running for the White House change after that race?
When I was writing about how a lot of feminists were uneasy about Hillary Clinton in 2006, 2007 — there is a complicated history — Faye Wattleton, the president of Planned Parenthood, said to me, even if she doesn't win the presidency, she will have done a lot to clear the path.
That campaign in 2008 was so radical, she helped us adjust our imagination. She, along with Barack Obama, allowed us to reimagine what being presidential might entail.
If Hillary Clinton had not run in 2016, another woman probably would have. I think it is entirely possible that Kirsten Gillibrand could have. Not that their paths would have been easy or clear, but they would have had a different experience simply because Hillary Clinton had made such a powerful impact on our national vision.
Now she is being much better about running as a woman, whatever that means. But that is in part because of a change she herself brought. It’s not so much about gender switching as it is about walking into a space — an imaginative space — that is more expansive than it was eight years ago, because she ran.
From the time Clinton entered politics to the 2016 presidential election, there has been a massive shift in feminism. How has Clinton positioned herself in the shift?
I have interviewed her; I have talked to her a bit about this. I can't say with any authority, "well, she learned this from contemporary feminism," but my impression is, like a number of women her age who lived through the women’s movement, [who] were products of the women’s movement, then came to their professional adulthood during a period of anti-feminism — where they were totally vilified — I think it has taken her some time to understand that feminism is back.
Feminism has been re-embraced, popularized, which is often problematic in wide ranging ways. There is more than one generation of women that were totally scarred about what they could actually say: Older women who were at the height of their professional careers in the '80s and '90s. As a teenager I remember it — how vicious the anti-feminism backlash was. Hillary Clinton was the subject and object of so much of it.
My guess is over the years one of her advisers must have whispered to her it’s okay, it’s okay to say it again. Look, she wrote a post for the Toast. Are you kidding? She has been very interested in young feminist writers in a way that suggests to me she understands that there is another media in play and it’s a feminist media.
Hillary Clinton isn’t taking her cues from the feminist movement, but it may have enabled her to be a little more open about her own historic role. It’s kind of a trust fall to say "I am a historic candidate" and wear a white outfit to give her speech about her mother and the 19th amendment. She must understand there is more of a cushion in the media that will understand.
This is my first time covering a presidential campaign. Reading Big Girls Don't Cry, watching moments from the 2008 campaign, I felt like so much of the primaries were on repeat. Clinton has now had two presidential campaigns where she is arguing she can get things done in the face of a message of change.
The funny thing about Hillary Clinton is that she gets this rap as a flip-flopper who changes with the wind. If you go on a position by position basis, you can tell that story — it is a true one.
But what’s also true is that she is one of the most wildly consistent human beings I have ever spent my life studying. Today she is the candidate who is going to get stuff done, and that is also who she was in 1969 when she gave her speech at Wellesley. That is Hillary Clinton — the "I am going to get things done" [person].
She is the ultimate pragmatic politician, absorbing things from the right, from the left, translating it with Congress, doing the gear-grinding work of compromise.
You can hate that or you can say that’s better than coming in with the wind behind your back and hitting a wall. This is an age-old battle in politics: How do you make progress? Hillary Clinton’s guess has always been working with different factions to try to make, perhaps incremental, but what she believes are crucial changes. In college she was working with the administration in Wellesley and working with the activist groups to broker some kind of compromise that would ironically both satisfy and dissatisfy everyone involved.
But that also puts her in a difficult position running for president, when she is trying to inspire people to vote for her, no?
That — the worker that does the practical stuff — it’s a very gendered role historically. The fact that she is running against a lot of people promising change, is that we don’t have a lot of models for the women that come in and tell us they are going to lead a revolution. We don’t love those women.
Everyone said the Bernie Sanders thing of "can you imagine a woman with unkempt hair and a suit that doesn’t fit." That never happens. That does not exist in nature on a political level. All of that is kind of beside the point — for me it was the context.
Try to imagine a woman of any age that says, "I'm going to take this country and lead it to revolution. I am going to upend everything. I am going to make radical change." Can you think, in this country, of any woman who has gotten up and yelled that she wants a revolution, that we have been like, yay? No, not at all.
When Elizabeth Warren was making those promises while running for Senate, there were scads of stories that she was a bad candidate, she wasn’t inspiring, she wasn’t connecting with people, she wasn’t a natural on the stump. They are two completely different candidates, but bizarrely you could replace the language used about Elizabeth Warren with the language used about Hillary Clinton.
Fair enough. Let’s say Clinton wins. What’s going to be the media narrative of the first woman president?
It will be credited to Donald Trump. And no one will consider that we got Donald Trump because she was Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump wouldn’t have arisen if it was in competition with John Kerry. Donald Trump was the candidate Hillary Clinton made come into life because he is built on resentments to progress made by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
No one ever says she is a very strong candidate, she is beating this guy that no Republican can beat, that she has had 30 years of people hating her so powerfully and she remains so popular in this country.
You already saw with Bernie: If you have read the press, Bernie could have beaten her if he had only gone after her harder. He was such a mensch. It was Bernie who won the primary for Hillary, according to popular narratives. It will be Trump who won the presidency for Hillary because he was such a spectacularly crappy candidate. It will be Bill Clinton, if she wins some larger percentage of the white voters. They are going to say all these different factors — dudes — made it possible for her to win.
Do you think media coverage of Hillary has become less sexist or more sexist?
Her gender has shaped our responses to her so much that it’s too easy to say its sexism. It’s much more accurate to say that she is fighting a battle that an equivalent man would not have to fight.
Some of the blunt sexism is not here this year. There is a much more vibrant and cohesive feminist community. You see a lot less of "she reminds me of everybody standing outside of probate court" and the comparisons to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. It’s just so much more subtle.
There is a weird allergy to be able to say that I crawl under the couch when she yells in the microphone even though I rationally know that she is yelling no louder than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. This is to point out that we absorb her in ways that are fundamentally sexist.
We are still operating with hundreds of years of bias and expectation. We all receive women in unusual historical positions in ways that reflect the unprecedented nature of their perch. We have grown since 2008. In our comprehension of what constitutes sexism, in our thinking about it, in our thinking of her campaign, we have all matured and become more thoughtful about it. This whole experience is changing us.
You have written that you wish you could get over Bill Clinton, but you were sad to see the "emotionally abusive, constantly disappointing, dissembling, philandering leader" leave office. Have we matured in our understanding Bill Clinton?
He was so fundamental to my life as a young woman because he was the first president I voted for. One thing that has changed for me in eight years is that I am over Bill Clinton. But that thing in I wrote in the book, that I had trouble getting over [Clinton] — yeah, I’m over him. Time heals all people you can’t get over.
I was extremely critical of welfare reform, of the crime bill — the stuff that has really come back this time as points of contention during the presidential election — but he was also so appealing to me.
I can't imagine how young women perceive Bill Clinton. We have a heightened awareness and understanding of what sexual power imbalances mean. If my feminist sensibility had been shaped with an awareness of rape culture of sexual power imbalance and then I looked backward at a president that never meant anything to me personally, I don’t know how I could even comprehend how we had that guy.
And to have also not experienced the weirdness of Bill Clinton magnetism — it’s often talked about in a sexual way and it’s true, it’s a sexual magnetism, but it was true on a political level and a charismatic level. He was a shockingly magnetic politician in his time.
I wrestle with this question a lot. Talking to college students — women — who both grew up with an expanded vocabulary on racial injustice, rape culture, etc., but were also raised in households that preached Bill Clinton as the greatest president ever.
That’s the complicated thing about politics. Same is true with Hillary Clinton. It’s hard to understand that Hillary Clinton can be very disliked as a politician while also being very excellent at the job of being a politician. There are people that accept that and people that say, "no, we can do better." I am far to the left of any candidate I have ever voted for, yet I have voted for them with enthusiasm. The people are often not your ideals but, God, it’s so important that they win.
What do you make of the argument that young women don’t care that Hillary Clinton is a woman?
It is a sign of terrific health of feminism that young women don’t have the same perspective on voting for Hillary Clinton that older women do. That means it’s working. Young women who have come of age in the last decade of politics have grown up with eight years of Barack Obama as the president, his major opponent in 2008 was Hillary Clinton and she was secretary of state. They don’t see an endless sea of white guys that preceded them. That’s great. They know a Supreme Court that has not only Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, but that also has Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. This is a different view of the world.
Isn’t there a danger to that?
It doesn’t mean this has been fixed and that everyone can become apathetic. No, they just don’t have to feel the urgency, and they shouldn’t.
We should understand that there is something really fucked up about the fact that this country is half female and has never had a female president. Or that we have only ever had one black woman in our Senate ever. Ever.
We too easily scrub over that fact as if it is natural. It is the most unnatural and undemocratic thing that we literally never have had a woman president or vice president. That is banana pants. It is un-American.