The rise of Hillary Clinton on the world stage—sequentially, as the US first lady, advocate of women’s rights, wronged wife, globe-trotting secretary of state dubbed a warmonger, presidential nomination rival to the world’s favourite man Barack Obama (in hindsight, that showed guts), and now as the Democratic presidential candidate—has been marked by a degree of determination that is truly impressive to an outsider.
Whether she makes it on 8 November or not, Hillary Clinton’s story is one of feminist grit as well as compromise—both in her personal and public life. In this respect, her experience is not entirely unlike that of Obama. The two-term US president has suffered racist taunts and continues to face questions over his religion and citizenship.
Clinton has actually come face-to-face with misogynist abuse: “Such a nasty woman.” When Republican hopeful Donald Trump made the comment—an eye-popping insult watched around the world—he essentially taunted every woman, every ‘housewife’ out there. It’s hard to see him using the same words to describe any man, let alone a distinguished male political rival.
Perversely fitting, the comment closes the narrative in a rancorous and divisive debate—if you can call it a debate for its lack of policy content (except from Bernie Sanders)—that began with barbs on women, not just against Clinton but a number of others.
And if you thought “nasty” was a spur-of-the-moment insult that just came tumbling out of the mouth of a pugnacious Republican candidate with his back against the wall, this is what he said back in May: “Bill Clinton was the worst in history and I have to listen to her talking about it? Just remember this: She was an unbelievably nasty, mean enabler.”
On most occasions after causing a public outcry, Trump either backtracked or apologized or denied he ever meant to hurt anyone. Is it possible that Trump misjudged just how resilient (feisty is a fitting word many use for women) Clinton is? Could it be that his strategy—perhaps even at the sub-conscious level—may have been to hit out at all women and ‘schlonge’ Clinton in the process?
Either scenario is unlikely, for anyone half familiar with Clinton’s life knows she gets up every time she’s down, as admitted by Trump towards the fag end of his campaign.
Any decision Clinton has taken that had to do with her identity as a woman was thought through, beginning with the decision to change her second name. Although she retained her parental surname Rodham after marriage—without troubling Bill Clinton in the least—she was persuaded by a friend to take on her husband’s second name when he decided to stand for governor of Arkansas for the second time in 1982.
“I decided it was more important for Bill to be governor again than for me to keep my maiden name. So, when Bill announced his run another term on (daughter) Chelsea’s second birthday, I began calling myself Hillary Rodham Clinton,” she explained.
An attempt at further truncation in her name came during the 1991 presidential campaign, with Bill Clinton in the running for the top job. Already, Rodham Clinton had been labelled a “radical feminist”, a “militant feminist lawyer” and even “the ideological leader of a Clinton-Clinton administration that would push a radical-feminist agenda”. And she hadn’t endeared herself to conservative America by seeming to disparage women who had chosen to be home workers (she hadn’t meant to).
Asked if she was guilty of conflict of interest (governor Bill was accused of helping lawyer Hillary’s career), she told a reporter, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.”
It was on the campaign trail—having resigned from two high-profile jobs in order to avoid accusations of conflict of interest and to put her energies behind her husband’s presidential bid—that Rodham Clinton realized that “now, I was solely ‘the wife of’, an odd experience for me”.
Her new name arrived one day by mail, and it was something mundane. In order to answer campaign mail she had been receiving, she had ordered personalized letterheads, cream in colour with the name Hillary Rodham Clinton printed in navy. When she opened the box, she found her name printed as Hillary Clinton. “Evidently, someone on Bill’s staff decided that it was more politically expedient to drop ‘Rodham’, as if it was no longer part of my identity. I returned the stationary and ordered another batch,” she says in her autobiography Living History.
At some point though, that attempt did succeed, and the shortened name has stuck. But these are compromises people (women more than men) often have to make in public life. What is far more important is the women’s rights agenda that Hillary Clinton has pushed around the world with passion and energy.
Should 8 November give us the first female president of the US, expect her to pursue this agenda with even greater vigour.
In damning her with faint praise, even Donald Trump, her Republican Party rival, has spoken of Clinton’s spirit—that “she does fight hard and she doesn’t quit and she doesn’t give up”. I don’t think Hillary Clinton needs that particular endorsement.
But Americans ought to take note. Being too close to the action perhaps, many commentators are failing to spot a dangerous political fault line that runs through America—that the society which twice elected a black man as its president and now offers the strong possibility of the first woman occupying the same high office, this so-called land of opportunities, also remains a land riven with deep divisions of race, class and gender, which too require the POTUS’s undivided attention.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1