Hillary Clinton On Being a Woman and What Happened


In her most recent book, What Happened (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Hillary Clinton recounts her experiences during the 2016 presidential campaign and her eventual loss. Much of the book is devoted to her identity and experiences as a woman. Clinton identifies herself as a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother repeatedly throughout the book and talks about her experiences of womanhood from these many different perspectives: as the wife of the governor of Arkansas and, later, the as First Lady of the United States, as New York state’s first female senator, as a mother and grandmother, as a student of Wellesley College, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected all-women’s colleges. This focus on her womanhood makes sense: after all, Hillary Clinton made history as the first female presidential nominee of either major party and was widely criticized during the election for the timbre of her voice or for pandering too much to women voters. Since the election, she has also been derided for her tepid showing among women voters. Despite the fact that these women shared an integral part of their identity with Clinton, their gender, she was often accused of exemplifying the most privileged, white, and out-of-touch version of womanhood that America has to offer.

Whether or not you believe that Clinton should have written the book, there is much to be gained from considering her experiences as a pioneering woman in politics and government, historically male-dominated domains.  Congress did not see its first woman member until 1916, just over a century ago, when Jeannette Rankin was elected, and women did not even gain the right to vote until 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Although Clinton’s experiences as a woman are not representative of the entire US female population, her insights are at least an introduction to some of the challenges that even the most privileged women face in modern America.

Much of Clinton’s book focuses on the criticisms that she received for being a woman in politics. She talks about the way “her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor” were scrutinized and the constant “diminishment of her stature” (116). She recounts being called, like other women in politics, “divisive, untrustworthy, unlikeable, and inauthentic” (120). As a woman who has been in politics for almost twenty years and in the public eye for nearly fifty, ever since her career-launching commencement speech at Wellesley in 1969, Clinton has certainly had more time for making mistakes and enemies than most politicians running for president. Barack Obama, for example, had his first appearance on the national stage during the 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, just four years before the 2008 presidential run that would make him the first black president of the United States. For Clinton, however, not only were her own qualifications for office routinely questioned, but she was also forced to answer for her husband’s scandals and the role many suspected she had played in them (160).

During the campaign, Clinton emphasized the role she has played in improving women’s rights around the world. As one of few women in American national politics (there were only twenty women in the US Senate in 2016), it cannot be denied that Clinton is uniquely positioned to understand the ways in which the government can address the needs of American women. Throughout her book, Clinton touches upon a wide range of important policy arenas, most of which affect women, including paid maternity leave, workplace discrimination, and reproductive health and rights.

Clinton, whether rightly or wrongly, claims, “It’s not easy for any woman in politics, but I think it’s safe to say that I got a whole other level of vitriol flung my way” (126). Yet, despite Clinton’s focus on women, on the obstacles women in politics face, and on the advantages of having larger numbers of women in politics, one gaping hole remains in her discussion:  acknowledgment of the additional obstacles affecting specifically women of color. Clinton does acknowledge that she was initiated in an older wave of feminism that, implicitly perhaps, does not focus as much on the issues that modern feminists want to see addressed. These issues facing women of color are vital to contemporary, fourth-wave feminism, a type of feminism that focuses on intersectionality. Clinton only mentions intersectionality in passing, defining, “Intersectionality: an academic term for that vital idea that feminism must engage in race and class” (132). That she is too white, too wealthy, and too privileged to be representative of the average woman is one of the few criticisms that Clinton does not directly address in her book. What Clinton does acknowledge is that poverty most directly impacts “people of color and women,” with “roughly two-thirds of all minimum-wage jobs in America [...] held by women” (284). In making these claims, Clinton mistakenly dichotomizes people of color and women without acknowledging the unique challenges faced by women of color.

Clinton’s cursory treatment of intersectionality may stem from the fact that she, like many white women, does not understand or cannot adequately address the particular and important double discrimination, of both gender and race, faced by black and brown women. For much of American history, white women have been at the vanguard of women’s rights movements: Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example. White women have had disproportionate control over the little power which women have been able to access throughout time. Because of this, many white women do not realize just how drastically their experiences can differ from those of women of color.

While women in general are certainly underrepresented in politics, women of color are underrepresented to an even greater degree. As of 2016, only four women of color held seats in the US Senate, and, before the 2016 election, there was just one female Senator of color. While Clinton certainly faced challenges as a result of her extensive political past and her unique position as the only former First Lady to ever run for public office, American women of color face also tremendous burden in being elected. According to the US House of Representatives History, Art & Archives, only 70 women of color have served in either chamber of Congress in all of American history, as compared to 256 white women in the same amount of time. President Obama’s report, “Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity,” found that women of color face unique challenges in many areas, ranging from equal pay, to workplace discrimination, to health, to domestic violence. Women of color often make less money than their white counterparts and are less likely than white women to hold jobs in male-dominated, blue-collar fields such as construction. The report also found that women of color are disproportionately affected by medical conditions, “including diabetes, obesity, certain kinds of cancers and HIV/AIDS.” It found that American Indian, multiracial, and African American women face higher rates of domestic and sexual violence than white women, although the number of women facing domestic violence is high for all races. While the Obama administration took preliminary steps towards addressing this wide range of issues, these steps have not done enough to fully address the problems.

This is not to say that Hillary Clinton’s discussion of women’s issues in What Happened is unimportant or should be ignored. On the contrary, Clinton’s discussion of her experiences as a white woman is a vital first step towards understanding and addressing the underrepresentation of women in government. Recounting years’ worth of experiences in which young men were “thrilled” to be promoted while young women’s reactions to promotion were ones of doubt or insecurity, Clinton comments, “These reactions aren’t innate. Men aren’t naturally more confident than women. We tell them to believe in themselves, and we tell women to doubt themselves. We tell them this in a million ways, starting when they’re young” (145). Though fixing the issue of socialization surely will not make men and women completely equal, it certainly represents a step in the right direction. After all, Clinton attributes much of her success to her parents’ encouragement and the confidence she found at Wellesley College. Still, finding and rectifying these underlying causes will not happen overnight, and women—especially women of color—have a long way to go before reaching full equality.

The good news is that women have been making progress. The number of women in Congress has been steadily increasing ever since Jeannette Rankin’s election in 1916, and the number of female Senators of color quadrupled last year. In What Happened, Clinton further highlights women’s progress by speaking about Charlotte Woodward, a signer of the Declaration of Sentiments, which, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, demanded equal rights for women in 1848. Clinton celebrates that Woodward “lived to see the Nineteenth Amendment [giving women the right to vote] ratified” (258). Clinton also notes the story of her own mother, who was born on the day the Nineteenth Amendment was passed and who “lived long enough to vote for her daughter to be President” (259).

Clinton’s insights in What Happened poignantly reveal the type of backlash that women in politics face, but these are insights that must be taken with a grain of salt. In an America that is on its way to becoming a majority-minority country by 2060, the issues facing women of color become more pressing with each passing year. One can only hope that readers will not take Clinton’s commentary on womanhood as true for all women but rather as a catalyst to learn more about the challenges facing women of all backgrounds in this country.