Say what you want about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s politics, her campaign calculus and her “likability.”
Throughout her decades of public service, one thing has never changed: People refuse to accept her right to speak her mind. Now that Secretary Clinton has emerged from the Chappaqua woods with the publication of her 2016 election postmortem “What Happened,” we are seeing a familiar narrative play out. Republicans — and even some Democrats who had formerly begged Clinton to run — have hardly stopped short of telling her to sit down and shut up.
Even as one of the smartest and most influential women of our time, Secretary Clinton is no stranger to being told to be quiet. A calcified indicator of the sexism still lingering in American politics took place nearly 25 years ago, when Bill Clinton was running for his first term as president and Secretary Clinton was honest about her ambition. She said that she preferred to pursue her career in the public sphere than to stay home and bake cookies, and her favorability rating dropped 14 points to 38 percent — lower than it was after Benghazi. Later, she was attacked for staying by her husband’s side following his extramarital affair. When she ran for Senate, she was subject to all the usual criticisms of strong women in politics. Just as she told Max Linsky in the recent reboot of her campaign podcast, “With Her,” ambitious and successful men are commonly seen as more likable while ambitious and successful women are seen as shrill and bossy.
When Secretary Clinton lost the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, she immediately endorsed Barack Obama with grace and passion and fought her heart out to get him elected. But she was a lightning rod at every turn for the Obama administration’s perceived flaws. She was accused of being against universal health care when she’d been a driving force behind a 1993 health care reform package as First Lady. As Secretary of State, she was held responsible for mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, nay, every foreign policy mistake of the decade. She was accused of being too close to Wall Street. In reality, Secretary Clinton is a fairly mainstream progressive Democrat who has made human mistakes both big and small. But no one listened to what she had to say; instead, they listened to an overblown, vilifying narrative of their own creation.
And to the most deleterious effect, the collective body politic failed to listen to what she had to say last year. She warned us with extraordinary prescience and wisdom about Donald Trump and what he would do to the environment, to health care and to DREAMers. She warned us and we failed to listen. She ran on the most progressive platform in the country’s history, containing smart and thoughtful solutions to critical problems such as campaign finance reform, criminal justice, immigration and the list goes on.
But we didn’t listen. We listened to sensationalized news coverage of her bout of pneumonia or another hot take in the endless, godforsaken stream of hot takes about her email server.
And now Secretary Clinton has written a book, and the same people who told her to be quiet in the 1990s and 2000s are telling her to be quiet now. The book isn’t going to change the outcome of the election, and it’s unlikely to change the minds of the people who repeatedly denigrate her. But her supporters, who constitute the majority of those who voted in the presidential election, want to listen. As one of the 65 million people who voted for her, I feel an acute desire to hear her out; even a year after the election, many of my conversations with friends and family still turn to “what happened.” We need her words to help us progress in the painful process from disbelief to suspension of disbelief to a bitter acceptance of reality. Never mind that only Secretary Clinton can tell us what it is like to run for president as the female nominee of a major party, a first in American history. She was at the center of an extraordinary turn of events in politics. Who can possibly make the argument that historians in 50 years would debate her “right” to put pen to paper in chronicling this earth-shattering election?
If you take issue with her book, there’s a simple solution: you don’t have to read it.
But this book matters for people such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Maxine Waters, who are left to persist nevertheless and reclaim their time in this broken political era. It matters for little girls and young women across the country who need to be reminded that smart, ambitious and successful women aren’t shrill or pushy, and that they shouldn’t be put off their loftiest ambitions by fears of what men might say to them. Somewhere, the girl who will become the first female President of the United States is out there, and she is making plans. “What Happened” matters to her.