Four months after Election Day and nearly 2 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’s simply failed to “connect with voters.” For those like me who were enthusiastic and unapologetic supporters of Clinton from the beginning, this line comes across as both bewildering and biased. It blatantly discounts Clinton’s significant win of the popular vote while also attributing her loss in the electoral college not to her politics, but to 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 candidates for President of the United States this country has ever seen) are the very same qualities which ultimately prevented her from becoming President.
The first time Hillary ran for president, she was sixteen 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. Hillary 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,” Clinton 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 Clinton’s more reserved demeanor? And, 2) Why do we care?
Hillary Clinton has spent her entire life being bullied and criticized for her intelligence and ambition, learning 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 palatable 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, the way she dressed, the way that she’d kept her maiden name after marrying. And so Hillary changed her hair and her clothes, she lost weight, and she took her husband’s last name. To rise in an arena dominated by men, Hillary Clinton was expected to conform to certain 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 literally could not name a single newspaper when asked by Katie Couric on national television—was embraced and accepted by so many while Hillary Clinton, a life-long public servant with an Ivy League education and wealth of political experience was voted against by people whose only given reason for doing so was, “I just don’t like her.”
The question I wish I could ask every one of those people is, “Why do you need to?” Charisma is great, but is it really at the top of your list when you’re deciding who to let pilot your airplane or perform your heart surgery? Also, would it matter nearly so much to you if she was a man?
Naked ambition in women is harshly judged and cruelly penalized by our society. As evidence of this, one needs only look to 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 hard must Hillary Clinton have worked, how many hours did she practice in order to stand next to Donald Trump during the presidential debates while he insulted and interrupted and bullied her, to keep a smile on her face the whole time, to not appear “reactive” or “emotional” or “angry”?
I think a lot of women have learned during the last few months the price we pay by falling in line and playing a part, by concealing our ambition and our strength and even 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 8th, 2016, we didn’t get to see Hillary Rodham Clinton shatter that glass ceiling. But if the weeks and months since then have shown anything, it’s that women have only just begun to fight. We are coming out. We are headed up. We are going to break straight through that glass ceiling. And we won’t be stopping there.