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What Happened: Hillary Rodham Clinton comes to the sisterhood party a little too late

Hillary Clinton concedes that her new book titled ‘What Happened’ isn’t a comprehensive account of the elections, admitting that, “I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

columns Updated: Sep 22, 2017 16:58 IST
HIllary Clinton,Hillary Clinton book,What Happened
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attends a signing of her new book 'What Happened' at Barnes & Noble bookstore at Union Square in Manhattan, New York City(REUTERS)

I was on a flight out of Delhi when the results started coming in. But I wasn’t breaking out into a sweat: My column was ready; Hillary Rodham Clinton was taking the White House.

As soon as I landed, I realised I would be rewriting that column. It had taken 240 years for a major American party to nominate a woman to run, but the victor was Donald Trump, a man who had boasted of sexual assault and who by all accounts remains unrepentant if you go by his recent retweet of a GIF showing a golf ball hit by him knocking Hillary down – an example of exactly how violence against women continues to be mainstreamed in society.

How did Hillary lose, and to such a man? It’s this question that Hillary addresses in What Happened that has, since its launch on September 12, sold over three lakh copies, the highest opening for any non-fiction release in the past five years.

Conceding that the book isn’t a comprehensive account of the elections, Hillary admits, “I couldn’t get the job done, and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

And yet, there is a lack of both candour and insight. Hillary says she didn’t want to be seen as a ‘woman candidate’ but “rather as the best candidate whose experience as a woman in a male-dominated culture made her sharper, tougher, and more competent.” Fair enough.

And so, like so many women politicians – including Angela Merkel, expected to win a fourth term as chancellor in the upcoming German elections – Hillary plunged into a campaign that was highly sexist and misogynist, making light of her gender or not mentioning it at all.

There’s her fatal error in the second presidential debate where, just days earlier, the world had heard Trump bragging about groping women. Yet, far from being apologetic, Trump follows Hillary menacingly on the small stage. Instead of calling him out, what does Hillary do? Nothing (her explanation: ‘a lot of people recoil from an angry woman’).

If a woman vying for the world’s most powerful job cannot tell a man to back off, what do we teach our daughters about claiming safe public spaces? It’s a defeat that is strategic as well as moral.

Hillary comes to the sisterhood too late. Partly this is because, she writes, the American electorate is not receptive to the idea of the women’s liberation movement. And so, it might be perfectly understandable for a feminist candidate intent on winning to downplay her gender simply as political strategy.

But, the reluctance to claim a feminist mantle even now, when there are no more battles to be lost or won, seems perplexing. Hillary’s section on sisterhood begins with a quote not from any of the great American feminist icons but from Nora Ephron.

To now claim common cause with female engineers battling harassment in Silicon Valley and women entrepreneurs pitching for funds seems a bit opportunistic. The fact that sexism is alive should have been a rallying cry, not a belated woe-is-me realisation. And how do you now talk of women’s reproductive rights after having chosen Tim Kaine, an anti-abortion Catholic, as your running mate?

If Hillary is serious about being a feminist leader, she needs to be less concerned about public opinion and more about her own legacy.

The book has its moments. Hillary is incandescent when talking about her daughter Chelsea (when the doctor declared, “It’s a girl”, she felt “like a sunburst beaming out of my chest”). About her marriage, “we’ve certainly had our dark days” where there were times where she’d ask if the marriage “could or should survive”.

But to be a woman in politics can be “excruciating”. The moment she steps forward, “it begins: the analysis of her face, her body, her voice, her demeanor; the diminishment of her stature, her ideas, her accomplishments, her integrity. It can be unbelievably cruel.”

There is no right way to do things. Too tough? You’re unlikeable. Too soft? You’re not cut out for the big leagues. Work too hard? You’re neglecting family. Put family first? You’re not serious about work. Is there any way to win the public opinion sweepstakes? Apparently not if you’re a woman in public life.

In 1980 when her husband Bill lost the governor’s race it was partly because Hillary still went by her maiden name, Rodham. By the time he was running for president, she had added his name, sought hair, make-up and clothing advice and yet she stumbled again, in that famous gaffe when asked about her job at a law firm she retorted, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” It was an incredibly insensitive statement to make about stay-at home mothers and women who might not have been working for any number of reasons.

That Hillary still fails to see this – the way she says it was that she was caught in the ”middle of a full-blown political firestorm, with self-righteous moralists saying I had insulted American mothers” — is a serious shortcoming in looking at her mistakes squarely, and learning from them.

Writing What Happened, Hillary says, was “cathartic”. Unfortunately, there is little to learn from it for future generations of women leaders that will inevitably follow, and win.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 22, 2017 16:53 IST