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Hillary Clinton’s What Happened and its place in feminist history, explained

Clinton’s book isn’t perfect. But for women in politics, it matters.

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Hillary Clinton signs copies of her new book “What Happened”
Hillary Clinton signs copies of her new book What Happened in New York City on September 12, 2017.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Americans have been fighting about Hillary Clinton for more than 25 years. In her 2003 book Living History, she writes about realizing, during her husband’s first presidential campaign, that her life was being scrutinized in ways she couldn’t control.

“I was called a ‘Rorschach test’ for the American public,” she writes. “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.”

Clinton doesn’t always come off as the most self-aware politician, but her own words, written nearly 15 years ago, are as good an introduction as any to the controversy around her latest tome, the campaign postmortem What Happened. It should come as no surprise that the book inspired polarized reactions (beginning long before it was even published) — as Clinton knew back in 2003, that happens every time she does anything. In her decades of public life, she’s had to play an unenviable double role — as herself, and as a kind of placeholder for all Americans’ opinions about powerful women, good and bad. Because of this, everything she does becomes a referendum on American gender politics — and her latest book is no exception.

How it all started

Hillary Clinton entered public life during a time of upheaval for American women. She became first lady of Arkansas in 1979, six years after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across America, five years after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to apply for credit cards, one year after the Pregnancy Discrimination Act protected women from being fired for getting pregnant, and two years before the first woman was nominated to the Supreme Court. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was 16 years old, but the subjects of white, middle-class women working outside the home — and of any woman having what could be called a career — remained controversial (as, you could argue, they still are today). Women had begun to keep their maiden names after marriage, but the practice was not yet widespread.

In fact, Hillary Clinton’s introduction to life as “a symbol for women of my generation” may have come through her name. After her husband lost reelection in 1980, she writes in Living History, “a few of our friends and supporters came to talk to me about using ‘Clinton’ as my last name.” She’d kept her maiden name after her 1975 marriage to Bill, “a small (I thought) gesture to acknowledge that while I was committed to our union, I was still me.”

But Clinton has never been able to be just herself. Persuaded that changing her name would help Bill win again in 1982, she started going by Hillary Rodham Clinton. So began a series of similar trials: Clinton got flak for making a comment about baking cookies and having teas that seemed to slight stay-at-home moms, for allegedly insulting Tammy Wynette, and for changing her hairstyle — and that was all before her husband had even entered the White House.

The controversies changed over the years — during her 2008 presidential campaign, the question was whether Hillary Clinton should cry — but the story has always been the same. Clinton has never been politically radical; one thing Living History makes clear is that the former Goldwater Girl has always been, at heart, a moderate and a pragmatist. But at every point in her career, she’s been just enough out of step with the conventions of American womanhood that a certain segment of the electorate vehemently hates her.

That, in turn, can make another segment of the electorate (feminists and their allies, but also plenty of women who might not necessarily call themselves feminists but who may have forged a career when it was hard for women to do so, or kept their names, or wanted at some point in their lives to be a little bit more than society expected them to be) feel protective of Clinton, even when she’s doing something that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“Shut up and go home”

That dynamic has been clearly on display in the runup to Clinton’s book release. After losing the election, Clinton did a lot of walking in the woods. This makes sense, because every time she went out in public, she got lambasted for it.

In March, she gave a speech to the Society of Irish Women in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in which she joked that she was “ready to come out of the woods.” Bill Maher’s response: Get back in there. “You had your shot,” he said, and “you fucked it up.”

After she criticized the Democratic Party in a speech at the Recode Conference in June, she was roundly criticized herself. “She's apparently still really, really angry,” a Democratic aide told the Hill. “It's not helpful to Democrats. It's not helpful to the country, and I don't think it's helpful to her.”

Perhaps the most blunt and brutal expression of Hillary fatigue came from Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News, who wrote, “the American public does not want a book from Hillary Clinton. It wants an abject apology.”

“She lost,” Kuntzman added. “Now she needs to shut up and go home.”

It’s no surprise that a lot of people are tired of talking about the 2016 election. Online and offline, fights between Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters have left many in both camps — and many in neither — feeling bruised and uninterested in rehashing the conflicts of last year’s Democratic primary. Peter Daou, a former Clinton aide, didn’t help matters last week by rolling out Verrit, a “media platform” for Clinton supporters, which was roundly mocked for its dubious utility. (“What even is Verrit,” one Washington Post headline asked.)

But the calls for Clinton, specifically, to stop talking go beyond the mere desire to move on from 2016. As JT and others have pointed out on Twitter, it’s not at all unusual for losing candidates to make media appearances. Sanders published a book in August, has delivered several speeches since Election Day, and is seen as a possible 2020 candidate, while Clinton has assured the nation she won’t be running again.

Many of Clinton’s critics have urged her to follow the example of Al Gore, who “went to Europe, gained weight, and grew a beard” after his loss, as Jamal Simmons, a strategist who worked on Gore’s campaign, put it to the Hill. But Gore didn’t stay out of the spotlight forever. He began traveling the world to give presentations about climate change — by the time Davis Guggenheim made the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, based on Gore’s climate work, Gore estimated he’d given his presentation more than 1,000 times.

As with anything Clinton, any one critic may well be responding to her without a hint of sexism. But in the aggregate, it’s hard to imagine her post-election activities garnering the same level of scrutiny if she were a man.

So, What Happened?

Into all this, on Tuesday, dropped the book itself. From the very beginning, Clinton pledges to offer not just a rehashing of the past but a prescription for the future. “The lessons we draw from 2016 could help determine whether we can heal our democracy and protect it in the future, and whether we as citizens can begin to bridge our divides,” she writes in an introductory author’s note. She adds, “I know some people don’t want to hear about these things, especially from me.”

This is an understatement. Clinton isn’t just a polarizing figure — she’s also a centrist and a realist whose message was faulted on the campaign trail for not being transformative enough. Many readers on the left will naturally wonder what she can offer at a time when the Democratic Party is seeking a new identity and Sanders-style democratic socialism is mobilizing people around the country.

But there is something only she can do, which is tell us what it was like to be the first woman running for president as the nominee of a major party, and she does this in one of the book’s most effective sections, called “On Being a Woman in Politics.”

“I was born right when everything was changing for women,” she writes. “Everything I am, everything I’ve done, so much of what I stand for flows from that happy accident of fate.”

But she was still born at a time when men dominated American politics, and over her long lifetime, that hasn’t changed very much. “Historically, women haven’t been the ones writing the laws or leading the armies and navies,” she writes. “We’re not the ones up there behind the podium, rallying crowds, uniting the country. It’s men who lead. It’s men who speak. It’s men who represent us to the world and even to ourselves.”

“That’s been the case for so long that it has infiltrated our deepest thoughts,” she explains. “It’s not customary to have women lead or even to engage in the rough-and-tumble of politics. It’s not normal — not yet. So when it happens, it often doesn’t feel quite right. That may sound vague, but it’s potent. People cast their votes based on feelings like that all the time.”

Pointing out the internalized sexism of the American electorate isn’t revolutionary, but Clinton’s diagnosis is as clear-eyed as any out there. Clinton is clearly a biased observer, of course, but she doesn’t shy away from pointing out the many reasons people have opposed her that have nothing to do with sexism. And there’s something powerful about witness testimony from someone who has been there and seen the knots into which a female politician must tie herself in order to seem likable.

Clinton vents her frustration with the question “Who are you really?” “I’m ... Hillary,” she writes. “You’ve seen me in the papers and on your screens for more than twenty-five years. I’ll bet you know more about my private life than you do about some of your closest friends.” Looking back on the tearful moment on the 2008 campaign trail that supposedly “humanized” her, she writes, “I’m a little beleaguered at the reminder that, yet again, I — a human — required ‘humanizing’ at all.”

She describes consulting with a linguistic expert “after hearing repeatedly that some people didn’t like my voice.” He told her that she needed to keep her voice “soft and low” even when the crowd started shouting, because women couldn’t get away with yelling from the podium — but, pressed to offer an example of a female politician who had followed this advice, he came up empty.

“Other women will run for President,” Clinton writes, “and they will be women, and they will have women’s voices. Maybe that will be less unusual by then. Maybe my campaign will have helped make it that way, and other women will have an easier time. I hope so.”

“On Being a Woman in Politics” isn’t all about sexism — Clinton also writes about how her gender has informed her politics. “Life naturally pushed me” in the direction of issues that affect women and children, she writes. “A young mom interested in policy often ends up working on kids’ issues. A First Lady is often involved with women’s issues. That was okay with me.”

Being a woman has also meant that other women confide in her about their reproductive lives — about birth control, fertility struggles, pregnancy, and abortion. On the last, Clinton is as forceful as she’s been anywhere, and significantly more forceful than she was in 2005, when she called abortion "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.”

“At the end of the day, who decides whether a woman gets or stays pregnant,” Clinton asks in What Happened. “A Congressman who has never met her? A judge who has spoken with her for maybe a few minutes?”

“Someone’s got to decide,” she writes. “I say let women decide.”

The Bill question

In “On Being a Woman in Politics,” Clinton describes her reactions to Donald Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail, including the way he loomed behind her during the second debate. She also notes that he “brought to our second debate three women who had accused my husband of bad acts decades ago.” And here’s where things get sticky.

Trump brought Kathleen Willey, Juanita Broaddrick, and Paula Jones to the debate. Jones famously accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment in 1994; Willey has accused him of sexual assault, and Broaddrick has accused him of rape. Broaddrick has also said that Hillary Clinton threatened her: At a rally soon after Broaddrick says the rape occurred, “Hillary shook her hand and thanked her for everything she had done for Bill,” Kate J.M. Baker writes at BuzzFeed. “To Broaddrick, the gesture felt like a threat to stay silent.”

But Broaddrick acknowledges she’s not completely sure about her interpretation: “When you look back over almost 38 years, some of the anger fades, the fear fades, and you think, I hope she didn’t know,” she told Baker.

Whatever the case, it’s hard to read “On Being a Woman in Politics” — especially its sections on women’s fear of assault — without expecting some analysis of the accusations against Bill. It doesn’t happen. Trump “wasn’t trying to make a stand for these women,” Clinton writes. “He was just using them.” That’s certainly true, but Clinton could have offered, at the very least, some analysis of why that tactic might have worked on some voters.

In the following chapter, “Motherhood, Wifehood, Daughterhood, Sisterhood,” Clinton talks about her marriage, which she calls “the most consequential decision of my life.” But she’s tight-lipped on the subject of the allegations against her husband, saying only, “there were times that I was deeply unsure about whether our marriage could or should survive. But on those days, I asked myself the questions that mattered most to me: Do I still love him? And can I still be in this marriage without becoming unrecognizable to myself — twisted by anger, resentment, or remoteness? The answers were always yes. So I kept going.”

As long as Clinton stays married to her husband — their marriage appears, despite everything, to be quite a close one — it’s hard to imagine what she could say about the accusations against him that could be satisfying. At the Washington Post last year, Alyssa Rosenberg put the question this way: “What is it we want Hillary Clinton to do about her husband? Because however unfair or incoherent that desire is, Americans seem to want her to do something.”

At the Cut around the same time, Rebecca Traister wrote that the expectation that Clinton answer for her husband’s alleged crimes “is emblematic of the double binds placed on wives in all kinds of circumstances. Husbands act; wives react to them. Husbands behave poorly; people look to wives for explanations of why.”

Wives, she added, “are offered impossible choices: Do they condemn their partners and thereby destroy the legacies and legitimacy they have helped to build, and if they do not, do they become culpable in those partners’ misdeeds?”

When it comes to the allegations against her husband, the choice before Clinton is certainly a difficult one, and she’s chosen, at least for now, to stay largely silent. And so the allegations run like unwritten footnotes alongside the text of “On Being a Woman in Politics.” Run for president as a woman, they remind readers, and you’ll have to deal not just with the men who oppose you but with the men closest to you — and the latter might be even harder.

Clinton’s legacy

Clinton has said that though her time as a candidate is done, her political work isn’t, and it’s certainly hard to imagine her simply retiring to the woods. Still, now that her last campaign is behind her, it’s not too early to think about how history will remember her, what legacy she will leave.

Always more interested in getting things done than in forging big ideas, she’s not going to leave behind a groundbreaking body of political thought. And though she can claim plenty of accomplishments from her time as a lawyer (during which she helped work on Richard Nixon’s impeachment proceedings) to her tenure as secretary of state, she won’t have a presidency to point to, or the signature policy achievements that go with it. Much of her legacy remains to be written, and depends on how she supports candidates in the future. But part of it is available now, in “On Being a Woman in Politics.”

The chapter, which seems destined to be read as a standalone work, won’t convince Clinton’s critics that she’s worth their attention. It’s unlikely to make any Trump supporters regret their votes. But it will explain to future generations what it was like to be the first female candidate to be nominated by a major party for the presidency of the United States. Whether it helps the next female candidate remains to be seen. But at the very least, it will show her — and anyone else who’s willing to listen — what she’s up against.

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