Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
The Destruction of Hillary Clinton was published in 2017 by Melville House.
Susan Bordo's The Destruction of Hillary Clinton
The My Mother / My Self Presidential Election of 2016
So what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016? For Susan Bordo, in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, many factors created a caricature of an untrustworthy Hillary: James Comey more than once, Russian hacks and email leaks, fake news, right-wing hate-Hillary books, sexism, and the way Bernie Sanders ran against her. I found Bordo’s discussion of Democrats’ generational divide particularly noteworthy.
Bordo devotes three and a half early pages to Clinton’s appeal to women her age, and Bordo’s age, and mine—we old women who still evoke wicked stepmothers, witches, shrill voices, and physical ugliness (18-22). In 2016, Democratic women divided by generation, with older women pro-Hillary and younger women lukewarm to antagonistic. Hillary Clinton reminded them of their mothers.
What is it with American feminists’ hatred of their mothers? This is not a new thing.
Back in the full flourish of second-wave feminism, Nancy Friday published a book that became a feminist classic, My Mother / My Self: The Daughter’s Search for Identity (1977). A key word in that book, written from the daughter’s point of view, is anger. Not having been angry at my mother, I never felt drawn to that side of feminist literature, and when I encountered it directly in a women’s studies seminar at Stanford in the late 1980s, its intensity astonished me. Growing up black in America, I had considered my parents a sort of haven in a heartless world. They protected me from my society, shielding me, I knew well, from an outside world that did not value me. My mother was on my side against America.
The 1970s and 1980s are a generation ago now, but evidently American feminists haven’t stopped loathing their mothers and, for some, loathing Hillary Clinton in their mothers’ stead. Bordo mentions Amy Wilentz (born 1959), Katie Roiphe (born 1968), and Ariel Levy (born 1968), who have hard words for Hillary Clinton (88-89). For the purposes of my discussion, I will add two forty-year-old, Washington-based journalists whose recently published portrait of Clinton vaulted to the New York Times best-seller list upon publication, whether they consider themselves feminists or not.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign minces no words. The “core problem” of the Clinton campaign was “the candidate herself,” according to the book’s flap copy. In nearly four hundred detailed pages, they portray Clinton’s campaign as a mess: Clinton lacked a vision; she had conflicts of interest; she didn’t know why people don’t like her; she was stern and self-righteous. Whereas Bordo begins with social context and the stereotypes that trip up powerful women, Allen and Parnes allude to misogyny only toward the very end of their book.
Here are two books published after the election, Bordo’s situating Clinton socially, Allen and Parnes’s blaming her for her loss. Which view is reaching more readers? Melville House, “an independent publisher” in Brooklyn founded in 2001 by a sculptor, fiction writer, and journalist, published Bordo. Crown, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, published Allen and Parnes. Their book was prominently reviewed by the New York Times; a subsequent piece said Shattered is likely to inspire a television series; an op-ed column called it “compulsively readable.” My Proquest search returned sixteen hits for Destruction of Hillary Clinton (four of them about Katy Perry reading the book in a bikini on a Mexican beach) and 134 for Shattered (most under “best-sellers” and including excerpts and the authors’ comments on current politics).
Allen and Parnes will reach many more readers than Bordo. If the social context of the 2016 election is not to disappear, feminists of all ages are going to have to circulate Bordo’s book by themselves. American culture’s preference for individual explanation and the economics of publishing work against feminist understanding.
Taking the Bait: Our Furious and Frustrating Existence
What’s remarkable about The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is how many times I’ve said it to myself in my head. Every line. In a media landscape saturated with pieces contemplating who, what, when, where, and why Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election, only Susan Bordo appears to have taken a minute to contemplate that perhaps the same sexist witch hunt that’s been waged against Clinton for four decades could be the witch hunt that finally burned her.
I’ve said before that Hillary Clinton is the reason that I do what I do. What that is, by and large, is feminist activism. I’ve spent nearly ten years now engaged in “professional feminism”—a path I carved for myself for myriad reasons, but which I committed myself to without hesitation after the 2008 primary. I was young, and that election was my first experience really witnessing sexism. It was a consciousness-raising. It was my “problem that has no name.” I felt alone in seeing the misogyny being hurled at Clinton by pundits and friends. Now, eight years later, I’m once again living that furious and frustrating existence: I saw the sexism in the 2016 election and the ways in which it was woven into every other obstacle placed in Hillary Clinton’s path. I watched it destroy her. And yet, it appears the pundits once more don’t want to talk about it. After arguably the most qualified candidate in history for the presidency lost to a man accused of being a serial rapist and sexual assailant and who has said, verbatim, that he treats women “like shit,” nobody seems to think we should talk about gender.
Bordo thinks differently. Her book is the perfect response to a media narrative in which people seem more eager to force Clinton herself to accept blame for their misdoings than to look deep inside and correct their own. Destruction explores the multiple ways in which Clinton was transformed into a familiar but fictionalized caricature of herself during the 2016 election. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump alike benefitted from reminding voters of the mythical Clinton on the campaign trail: a crook, a liar, a bitch, a sellout, a power-hungry she-devil. The media benefited, too, both by validating the idea of that myth and by reporting disproportionately on her flaws and perceived wrongdoings. James Comey even fed into that narrative with his egregious mishandling of her email “investigation” and by speaking out of turn to pass judgement on her in a way that was inappropriate. Russia, in their attempt to interfere with our democratic process, and the Right, in their desperate attempt to turn her into an enemy, seized on the sexist caricature and expanded it. Hillary Clinton was so power-hungry that she was criminal, so deceptive she was hiding a major illness in her quest for authority.
And thousands, nay, millions of Americans fell for the bait.
It is incredible to wonder what the 2016 election would have been like if the media and other candidates had had the integrity to deny that the cottage industry built on hatred of Hillary Clinton was based in rational thought. A forty-year campaign to destroy her by the right wing—one might even call it a “vast right-wing conspiracy”—was instead vindicated by the people who we rely on to be truth tellers and guiding lights in our republic.
Perhaps the most telling truth about the 2016 election is that it was an epic act of self-sabotage by an entire nation. A man-child now holds the reigns on our future, and the more time that passes the more clear it becomes that he holds his throne because we allowed him to steal it from us. The destruction of Hillary Clinton was our own downfall, as Bordo clearly illuminates as she rehashes Clinton’s record and redefines her character. The missed opportunity is so great I often have to hold myself back from imagining it. At one point, when Bordo literally lists Clinton’s accomplishments in order to illustrate the gaping contrast between the truth and the “alternative facts” dished out about her by the Sanders crowd, I found myself nearly screaming out loud. Bordo’s book is a vindication to those who saw the gendered ways in which Hillary Clinton was made to suffer and scrape her way out of this campaign.
In Trump’s America, I find myself often wondering how we got here. I know why, though it seems unfathomable. All this because when confronted with an honest and accomplished woman, too many of us still react with scorn and disbelief. All this because when men reduce women to stereotypes, we hardly blink.
We all knew the first woman president would have to walk through hell to get there. More unimaginable is that if we refuse to see the factors that turned Clinton from a beloved public servant into a fictional monster, countless others won’t safely make it through.
Carmen Rios is the digital editor at Ms., managing editor of Argot Magazine, and a contributing writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s also the cohost of THE BOSSY SHOW. Previously, she was the community director and feminism editor for Autostraddle, a contributor at Mic, and a SPARK blogger. Her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, and Feministing. She stays very zen in L.A. traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
Setting the Record Straight: A Baby-Boomer Woman's Account of How Hillary Was Brought Low
Marjorie J. Spruill
In March 2015, in what turned out to be my last conversation with my mother, she exclaimed, “Marjorie, they’re just not going to let her have it, are they?” The New York Times had just printed the breaking news about a Hillary Clinton email “scandal,” and though it seemed like a trivial matter to me at the time, my ninety-three-year-old feminist mother was worried. Her fears were realized a year and a half later after a brutal campaign in which the first woman to have a real shot at the presidency—widely considered to be the most qualified candidate ever—lost to the least qualified candidate ever. Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, the work of a woman just as “ready for Hillary” as my mother, identifies who “they” were and how “they” intentionally or unintentionally produced a false narrative about Clinton and her character that made it possible for Donald Trump to win.
Clearly resenting claims that Clinton was a “sore loser” (184) for suggesting that the extraordinary interventions of the Russians and James Comey may have affected the election, Bordo—media critic, cultural analyst, and professor of women’s studies—insists it is crucial not to blame Clinton alone but those who helped create the Hillary Clinton that was defeated. The book is an effort to set the record straight and correct a false narrative.
“Comey was a massive blow at a pivotal moment,” Bordo insists, but Hillary’s loss wasn’t “just” the result of the FBI director’s interference, or “just” the result of Vladimir Putin’s hacks (185). Or of GOP witch hunts, fake news, or “right-wing Hillary hate books” (185). Neither was it just the result of sexism, the fault of the media more interested in reporting on perceptions (“optics”) than facts, or the “Sanders effect,” which, Bordo argues, was vastly influential as it “splintered Democratic unity by generation” (185). Her argument: “The destruction of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy … was the result of all of these. One on top of the other, overlapping, mutually reinforcing, a massive pile-on of open assaults, secret strategies, unconscious biases, and blundering media business as usual simply proved too much” (185–86).
The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is the work of a scholar who carefully buttresses her argument with dates and facts—such as that the damaging comments made by Democratic National Committee members and publicized by WikiLeaks that so infuriated Bernie Sanders supporters were made after it was clear Sanders would not be the nominee yet would not bow out of the race. But the book is refreshing for the personal passion it exudes. Bordo conveys the intense disappointment of Hillary fans generally but especially the “progressive baby-boomer women” (18), white and black, who watched with horror as the woman they had admired for years—a prominent feminist who had with a thick skin absorbed slings and arrows aimed at them all and kept on going—was brought low.
“Ours was a community bound by shared support for Hillary Clinton,” writes Bordo, “but even more so by our amazement and distress over the disparity between the Hillary we were campaigning for and the Hillary we continually heard described as ‘deceptive,’ ‘untrustworthy,’ ‘unlikeable,’ and even ‘evil’” (14). To such women, Sanders’s success in convincing young women that he represented their interests far better than Clinton was frustrating in the extreme, and their Sanders-inspired attacks on Hillary as an unprogressive defender of the establishment—at best, “the lesser of two evils” (29)—were painful to endure. Worse still, some of them couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her “because they had been schooled in and accepted a false picture of who she is” (186).
Bordo concludes that after the election, it is but “small consolation” that, “with Trump in the White House, the absurdity of anyone finding Hillary the bigger liar, the more dangerous politician, or the greater friend to Goldman Sachs has become painfully and frighteningly apparent” (31). Whether or not Trump’s offenses will be sufficient to unite feminists across generational lines remains to be seen. Despite the fact that millions of them march together in pink pussy hats, a bitterness between those who believed Sanders could have won and those who believe he cost Hillary the election threatens to prevent those who oppose Trump and his policies from uniting to defeat him.
Marjorie J. Spruill, a historian, is the author of the highly acclaimed Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017). She is well known for her work on women and politics, from the woman suffrage movement to the present, as well as her work on the history of the American South. Recently retired from teaching, she is a University of South Carolina professor emerita, living near Charleston in Folly Beach, South Carolina.
My older sister is eight and a half years my senior, and once she turned sixteen was granted the privilege of her own tiny bedroom. As I was going through adolescence in the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, her room was an exotic, sexy space to me, largely because of the bookshelf, which held titles like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Marjorie Morningstar, Peyton Place, Lolita, Bonjour Tristesse, and—perhaps most enticing of all—The Second Sex, which I of course presumed was about sex. This was pretty much what the original publisher, Alfred Knopf, had wanted, hoping to capture the same readers who were devouring Havelock Ellis, not Jean-Paul Sartre. But when it was published, it was its feminism, not its explicitness about body parts, that most offended critics. William Barrett, in Irrational Man, described it as a “book of feminine protest…which is in reality the protest against being feminine” (260). Dwight MacDonald called it a “deformed work” which “carries the feminist grievance too far.” Time described the book as if it were Beauvoir’s biological offspring. (The headline was a birth announcement: “Weight: 2 ¾ lbs.”)[i]
The supreme irony of all this is that the othering of The Second Sex as female is a jaw-dropping example of precisely the phenomenon that Simone de Beauvoir had exposed—and brilliantly theorized—in the book. In the introduction, which is undoubtedly well known to readers of Signs, Beauvoir argues that within the social world, there are those who occupy the unmarked position of the “essential” and those who are defined by their (sexual, racial, religious) difference from that norm. So, there’s history proper—which aims at universality and objectivity—and then there’s women’s history, which is seen as being of more limited interest and often accused of housing a special bias.
I’ve often thought of Beauvoir’s all-too-enduring insight over the past five months, as I’ve watched my book on the 2016 election be ignored by the mainstream media while Shattered, described so well by Nell Painter in her commentary here, has become the official narrative of why Hillary Clinton lost. My book, as Marjorie Spruill points out, offers a layered, multifaceted explanation of that loss, including—but not exclusively—the sexist caricatures, double binds, and double standards that Clinton endured. Shattered blames Clinton herself—and her metaphorical child, the messy, mishandled campaign. Shattered leaks animus against Clinton, some of it strongly suggestive of the mother hating that Painter refers to (“Hillary’s severe, controlled voice … carried the sound of a disappointed teacher or mother delivering a lecture before a whipping” [61–62]). Yet it has been Shattered that has been applauded as a rigorous, objective piece of journalism, while with the exception of those reviews that have appeared in feminist publications, my book has been described as “a polemic,” a “deification” of Clinton, a “howl of rage” by the work of a “true believer” who “lays the blame on sexism” and—as is implied in some reviews and overtly stated in others—only on sexism.
My publicity director at the press hasn’t wanted me to write about such things, believing—undoubtedly correctly—that it would be seen as defensive and pouty. But the affirmation of Nell Painter, Carmen Rios, and Marjorie Spruill has encouraged me in my belief that raising this issue is more than a personal gripe: it’s yet another reminder of how far we are from being postfeminist. So far that, as Rios puts it bluntly and so well, we don’t even “want to talk about it.” And indeed we don’t. I keep waiting, but I have yet to see an MSNBC panel discussion of the many faces of sexism that were revealed during the election. When Clinton, in her interviews during the past months, mentioned misogyny as one factor among others, she was mocked and accused of avoiding responsibility. Shattered doesn’t spend a paragraph on the vicious misogyny of those Bernie Sanders supporters (or members of the Right) who painted Clinton as the “whore” of Wall Street, and openly promotes the (incorrect) view that, untrustworthy, scheming woman that she is, she deliberately deceived us about her emails. And my book, which refuses to ignore the social and historical context of those caricatures, or the media’s complicity in disseminating them, becomes the biased feminist other contrasted with their neutral, (or, in Beauvoir’s terms “essential”) account of what happened. Merged with Clinton herself, better that The Destruction of Hillary Clinton go quietly “into the woods” than force the media—and not only the media—to confront its own responsibility for the disaster of 2016.
Thank you, Nell, Carmen, Marjorie, and Signs. It’s wonderful to feel understood, and I hope that at least some reviewers of Clinton’s book, due out next month, will do the same for her.
[i] See Anna Antonopoulos, "Simone de Beauvoir and the Differance of Translation," Instititut Simone de Beauvoir Bulletin 14 (1994): 99.
Susan Bordo, although trained in philosophy, considers herself a cultural historian. This has given her the freedom to write about subjects that range from femininity, masculinity, and the body (Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body and The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private) to Anne Boleyn (The Creation of Anne Boleyn) and, most recently, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, a play-by-play account of the gendered double standards and stereotypes, political forces, and media culture that contributed to Clinton's loss in the 2016 election.
Watch Susan Bordo and Katha Pollitt discuss the book on BookTV.