Eight months into Donald Trump’s presidency, I still find myself angered by one of the most prominent and potent narratives explaining the upset of Trump over Hillary Clinton: that Clinton “failed to connect with voters.” For those, like me, who were enthusiastic and unapologetic supporters of Clinton from the beginning, this explanation comes across as both bewildering and biased. It blatantly discounts Clinton’s significant win of the popular vote, while attributing her loss in the electoral college not to her politics, but her personality. The explanation essentially suggests that the very qualities with which Clinton was able to achieve all that she has (overcoming countless obstacles and persevering through endless adversities to become one of the most qualified presidential candidates this country has ever seen) are the same qualities that ultimately prevented her from becoming president.
The first time Hillary ran for president, she was 16 years old. At the time, her high school had never had a female class president. She was told by a male classmate that she was “really stupid” if she thought a girl could win. She lost that election. But it goes without saying that whatever disappointment or discouragement she might have felt at the time was not enough to make her repress her ambitions or cast them aside. In college, she was selected by her peers to be the first-ever student commencement speaker. That same year, while taking the admissions test for law school, Hillary was berated by a group of male students telling her she shouldn’t be there. “It was intense,” she said. “It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test.”
It’s true that Hillary Clinton does not possess the charisma of her husband or of Barack Obama. But in admitting that, I think it’s important to ask ourselves two questions: 1) What social and cultural factors might have impacted and influenced Hillary Clinton’s reserved demeanor? And, 2) Why do we care?
All her life, Clinton has been bullied and criticized for her intelligence and ambition, so she learned at a young age to block out negativity and keep her eye on the prize. Early in her husband’s career, it was clear that for him to succeed, she would have to rebrand herself into a more traditional version of a politician’s wife. The people in Arkansas didn’t like that she was a liberal with an East Coast education, and they disapproved of the way she looked, how she dressed, and the fact that she’d kept her maiden name. And so Hillary changed her hair and clothes, lost weight, and took her husband’s last name. To rise in an arena dominated by men, Clinton has had to conform to stereotypes of how a woman should look and behave.
We can explain some of Clinton’s early struggles and criticism as rooted in the gender biases of a different era. But it’s difficult today to understand how a candidate like Sarah Palin – who, with her chirpy voice and twinkling smile had enough charisma to power a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but who could not name a single newspaper when asked to by Katie Couric on national television – was embraced and accepted by so many while Clinton, a life-long public servant with an Ivy League education and a wealth of political experience was rejected by voters whose only given reason was, “I just don’t like her.”
The question I wish I could ask each of those voters is, “Why do you need to ‘like her’?” Charisma is great, but is it really at the top of your list when you’re deciding who you want to pilot your airplane or perform your heart surgery? No, you want the most experienced and qualified person for the job. Also, would charisma matter nearly so much to you if Hillary Clinton was a man?
Naked ambition in women is harshly judged and cruelly penalized by our society. As evidence of this, one needs only look at how adept most women are at deflecting compliments, how far out of their way many will go to avoid conflict, and how hard they will work to not seem shrill or strident or bossy. How many hours must Hillary Clinton have practiced in order to stand next to Donald Trump during the presidential debates – while he insulted, interrupted, and bullied her – and keep a smile on her face, never once appearing “reactive,” “emotional,” or “angry”?
I think a lot of women have learned in the last year the price we pay by falling in line and playing a part, by concealing our ambition, our strength, and our intelligence. My hope is that this is the dawn of a new era for women, one in which we’re not content to let a few brave soldiers do our fighting in the public arena, but are ourselves ready to suit up and march in. On the night of November 8, 2016, we didn’t get to see Hillary Rodham Clinton shatter that glass ceiling. But if the months since then have shown us anything, it’s that women have only just begun to fight. We are coming out. We are headed up. We are going to break right through that glass ceiling. And we won’t stop there.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.