Hillary Clinton has made an extraordinary journey to arrive at the place where she stands today. Along the way, she helped me understand what kind of woman she is—and what kind of woman I want to be.
One of my best and oldest friends lives in Park Ridge, Illinois, so I’ve spent a lot of time there. It is the place where Hillary Clinton grew up. Perhaps because my friend and I talk politics a lot, or perhaps because we reminisce a lot, the way two friends who forged a lifelong friendship in the fire of becoming adults together tend to do, I’ve found myself thinking about the young Hillary, who came from that place.
I think about who Hillary might have been, as a girl striving to be a good student and make her parents proud; as a girl learning about the world, and the people in it, outside the borders of her safe Chicago suburb; as a girl encountering sexism for the first time, and the second, and the third, and being overcome by the dawning realization that the rules were different for her.
That even though there were people who may have told her that women have achieved equality to men, that we can be anything we want to be, it wasn’t true.
I think about when it was that she started figuring out that there were different rules for girls and women, what her formative experiences might have been. I wonder if, like me, she ever overheard men asking her father if he was disappointed that she wasn’t a son, or was scolded by a minister for inquiring why women couldn’t be ordained.
I wonder what her earliest barriers were, before she’d even heard the word “feminism,” and when it was that she realized that they were just the first in what would be a lifetime of encountering them.
To be in a girl in a world that believes girls to be less-than is to be discouraged, over and over again. To become a woman who has achieved what Hillary has achieved, and who continues to fight for access to the most exclusive men’s club on the planet, is to be indomitable in the face of that discouragement, to confront it over and over again.
Long before I was a Hillary supporter, I was a Hillary admirer. And long before I liked Hillary, I respected her. Her years as First Lady coincided precisely with my formal introduction to feminism at university, and she was one of the first public figures who challenged me to interrogate my own beliefs about how fair the world really was to women, and what kind of woman I wanted to be.
Did I want to be the kind of woman who viewed herself as exceptional, not like those other women? Who imagined she could bootstrap her way to achieving what she wanted, magically catapulting past ancient misogyny and entrenched narratives about women? Who distanced herself from female trailblazers if they failed to live up to some arbitrary definition of perfection or talked about how being a woman matters?
It was tempting to sit in that comfortable (if decidedly futile) space. There are rewards for women who separate themselves from other women, especially feminist women. And there was the alluring comfort of not having to be honest with myself about what faced me.
It is a grim day for any marginalized person when they reckon with the reality that life is just going to be a series of barriers to overcome, and no amount of pretending you’re immune to them can change that.
At a moment when I was figuring out exactly what it was going to cost me just to live my life, First Lady Hillary Clinton was there, for me to reject her in a vain bid as self-protection, or stand by her in an opening salvo of what would be a lifelong fight to matter, most of all to myself.
I stood by her. Tentatively, at first and for a long while, and then tenaciously. Over the last 12 years, I have learned much more about Hillary, both through studying her career and also via the prism of my own experience as a woman doing public advocacy. It’s continually fascinating to me that many of the misrepresentations of Hillary are the same misrepresentations I see of myself, and other feminist writers and activists: Inauthentic, cynical, cold, narcissistic, corrupt, bought, monstrous.
The things I routinely experience as the cost of my work—the harassment, the lies, the mischaracterizations, the threats of violence—are a small sliver of what Hillary experiences on an unbearably grand scale.
I know how navigating this relentless onslaught makes me feel. And I am certain that Hillary feels the same way, sometimes. Not just because she is human, and no human is impervious to being such personal assaults—but because she has told us.
When she was famously asked at a New Hampshire campaign stop in 2008 how she manages to keep going under such enormous pressure, she said, getting choked up: “It’s not easy, and I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do. You know, I have so many opportunities from this country; I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. This is very personal for me. It’s not just political, it’s not just public. …Some of us put ourselves out there and do this against some pretty difficult odds, and we do it, each one of us, because we care about our country.”
She faces the exhausting pressure any presidential candidate faces, and the hurtful pressure that any visible woman faces, because she cares about her country. And she does it despite the fact that, in her own words, she’s not a natural politician, and despite the fact that she is the kind of candidate who isn’t made for a fast-moving media culture and a world of sound bites.
At her debate with Bernie Sanders in New York, she stood at her podium and held her ground, refusing to make promises she could not keep, hammering away at the details and sticking to her nuanced positions—even though she is keenly aware of narratives that voters aren’t enthusiastic for her, that if she’d just relent, if she’d just match Bernie’s sweeping promises and abandon her insistence on being practical, she would get more applause.
I thought again in that moment of the girl growing up in Park Ridge, the A student who just wants to earn her place by getting things right. She was standing at that podium. And I thought of the woman, the presidential candidate who has to swim a river of muck upstream every day. She was standing at that podium, too.
And I was standing in solidarity with her, contemplating the journey she has taken and what she has been obliged to navigate along the way. This incredible person who has been told so many times that she isn’t good enough, but just keeps showing up anyway. Who continues to petition for an opportunity to serve a country that is filled with people who hate her.
There are people who say that Hillary is courageous to keep going, despite the enormity of what she faces. But courage is doing something tough you don’t have to do, and doing it anyway. Hillary does not have the luxury of that choice. To get the job where she can have unique influence to effect the change she wants to see, she has to run this gauntlet of petty debasements, character attacks, mischaracterizations, dog whistles, and unfiltered sexism. There is no choice. There is only facing it, every day.
That is not to say she lacks courage. It is only to say that what she’s doing requires more than courage. It requires a fearsome tenacity to keep going, because there is no choice to avoid the horrors that await women who reach for more, except for quitting.
I frankly wouldn’t begrudge her if she did. But she doesn’t. Cynical explanations attribute her resolve to a galactic ego, but that is not what I see when I look at Hillary. (If you want to see what pursuing the presidency because of ego looks like, take a gander at Donald Trump.)
What I see is an unfathomable fortitude, germinated in the spaces between what little girls are told their lives should be, and what little girls want their lives to be.
That is the gender gap. It can feel like an abyss. I stand in awe of a woman who exists on its precipice, in the hope that, someday, no other woman will ever risk falling in, as the cost of thriving.