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.
What Happened was published in 2017 by Simon and Schuster.
Hillary Clinton's What Happened
Feminist Fury and Journalists’ Venom: The Gendered Recriminations of 2016
It’s difficult for me to write about Hillary Clinton’s What Happened without revisiting my anger over the continuing injustice of her treatment by much of the press. Yes, there have been appreciative reviews of the book, reviews that recognize that Clinton, as Megan Garber puts it, “is doing the thing so many women politicians and citizens have done, recently, in a world that refuses to make space for them: It reclaims.” In doing so, it inaugurates “a newly emotional style of political engagement”—but without sacrificing the factual, as some other politicians have done. Yes, it’s a candid, warm, and sometimes angry account of Clinton’s experience; it’s also an astute, multifaceted analysis of the “perfect storm” that resulted in the disaster of 2016.
The unvarnished malice of the negative reviews, however, makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that many responses to the book are an extension of the same desire to castigate Hillary that pundits brought to their reporting of the campaign. The book is “useless” (Sam Kriss) and “essentially wrong-headed” (Sarah Leonard); it’s like “Hillary cornering you in a coffee shop, replaying the game tape.” And of course, there’s the “blames everyone but herself” theme, with which we’ve been bludgeoned since the night of the election. (It’s especially annoying coming from Jonathan Allen, coauthor of Shattered, a book that basically ignores everything except Clinton’s failings.)
Reviewers’ scorn for Clinton’s emotional and intellectual candor in What Happened is partly a reflection of the current fashion to obscure one’s point of view inside a thicket of cool, seemingly balanced journalese. Disclosing one’s argument—indeed, presenting an argument rather than a series of arch observations and witty takedowns—is viewed as biased. The irony: much of the nastiest journalism is seen as objective, when really, it’s just slicker in disguising its venom.
A lot of the snideness in the reviews of What Happened is gendered, too. I’ve never seen so much kvetching about the length of a memoir (which, by the way, is approximately the same length as Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution). One reviewer even admitted that he only “skimmed” the book (which didn’t stop him from writing a particularly mean-spirited review of its “blind spots”). I guess we are only permitted a properly feminine allotment of space—and we shouldn’t spend too much of it complaining.
And there’s such yawning condescension toward the domestic, female-centered details in the book: the “endless takes of her encounters with wise old biddies in coffee bars” (Craig Brown), the “interminable” passages about friends and aides. Joanna Weiss oozes scorn for the descriptions of “what she eats for breakfast and how much she hydrates,” reserving particular sarcasm for Clinton’s alternative breathing Yoga practice. The book is described by Sarah Leonard as “gossipy” and “mean” (and, in an otherwise positive assessment, Kirkus Reviews says the book needs “supplementing by hard-edged books” like Shattered—a far more gossipy book). But at the same time, Danielle Kurtzleben complains in NPR Now that Clinton leaves out juicy details like “what did [she] say (or scream) when she found out her husband had met with the attorney general on an airport tarmac?”
We’ve all been watching the news; it’s more apparent all the time that Clinton’s account of the external forces that plagued her candidacy is correct. Yet Weiss, while admitting that “nothing [Hillary] complains about” in the book “is untrue,” goes on to berate her for having “no true sense of reflection” concerning her own responsibility.
Weiss is not only contradictory here; she is also disingenuous. The problem for the “blames everything except herself” folks isn’t Hillary’s analysis, it’s Hillary’s attitude: they want her to efface her own knowledge in the service of being properly humble, to have less conviction of her own competence, to beg forgiveness for her sins.
Would we expect the same from a man who lost an election? We certainly didn’t from Sanders’s Our Revolution, published a week after the election, in which Sanders claims that “the Clinton campaign may not have liked it. The Democratic establishment may not have liked it. But it was becoming increasingly clear that I was the strongest candidate if Democrats were to retain the White House” (167). That’s his analysis of the Democratic loss. Has anyone railed against his hubris, his failure to reflect on his responsibility?
Yes: I’m furious. And I probably will be until history does justice to Hillary Clinton. In What Happened she has the temerity to reclaim the narrative of 2016; someday, I have to believe, the rest of us will catch up.
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. The paperback edition of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, with a new afterword, will be published in January 2018.
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism
Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton
Different Sorts of Scars: Commiseration and Finding Common Cause
Ana Marie Cox
Those who pick up What Happened looking for answers about why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election will not find them. It is, in reality, less “what happened” than “what should have happened.” Clinton rehearses her qualifications and her proposals, she outlines the superiority of her philosophies and her temperament. She points out the flaws of her opponents. She builds her case with the craftsmanship of the seasoned lawyer and experienced politician that she is. Her argument about why she should have won is so strong, the reader is amazed and confused right alongside her as she throws up her hands at the anger of the electorate, the catastrophic timing of James Comey, the misguided false equivalency of the media. Her tone is that of sustained dismay. At one point she wonders, “What makes me such a lightning rod for fury?” and notes this is not a rhetorical question: “I’m really asking. I’m at a loss” (120).
It’s an oddly un-self-aware admission in a book that purports to be an inside story, but that’s because the appeal of this only intermittently intimate memoir isn’t what Clinton reveals about herself, it’s the emotional catharsis she offers supporters: You were right to support me. This fight was rigged. In a just world, we would have prevailed. Her narrative rings true with any woman who has been passed over in favor of a less qualified man … which is to say, almost all of us.
Reading the book, I was reminded of what often happens in real life when that promotion or that job opening goes to the idiot dude and not to your whip-smart girlfriend: You don’t spend the immediate aftermath helping to rewrite her resume or busting into HR to demand an explanation. You don’t offer gentle suggestions about what to do next time. You go out for drinks and reiterate to each other how fucking unfair it all is. You roast his ass and celebrate her. This mutual commiseration is as important a part of the process of dismantling patriarchy as any lawsuit or direct action—let traditionalists dismiss it as “bitching” at their own peril.
It also happens to be where a lot of us still are regarding the 2016 election.
I’m not one of them. I wanted more from this book; in truth, I wanted more from Clinton. But losing the presidency isn’t losing just any job, and losing it to Donald Trump isn’t losing it to just any idiot. His presidency is an existential challenge to our democracy, and though both Clinton skeptics and Clinton fans have common cause in defeating Trump’s agenda, we come to it veterans of different levels of engagement, with different sorts of scars. Perhaps I have been too impatient for her supporters to heal. The walking wounded sometimes fight harder than those who aren’t in pain.
A few weeks ago, I spent a chilly Chicago evening interviewing women standing in line waiting to see Clinton on her book tour. They clutched copies of What Happened and wore pussy hats; they spoke with rage and sorrow as fresh as the latest CNN push notification. If anyone still wonders why we are still litigating the 2016 election, it’s not because Clinton won’t go away—it’s because they can’t forget her. They need to hold onto what might have been.
Ana Marie Cox is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. She is the host of Crooked Media’s With Friends Like These.
Listen to Ana Marie Cox and Rebecca Traister discuss What Happened and Hillary Clinton's career on With Friends Like These. And read the Short Takes on Rebecca Traister's All the Single Ladies.
A Feminist Policy Wonk’s Memoir
I listened to the audiobook version of Hillary’s What Happened while driving back and forth from campus past Trump signs (yes, they’re still up in Ohio). Immediately, I realized I would have to start this piece with an admission we’d all be wise to make: no one comes to a book by Hillary with anything resembling purity.
We have opinions about her. We have arguments. We have history. We call her “Hillary.” It doesn’t matter if we have ever met her (I haven’t) or if we have canvassed neighborhoods for her presidential campaign (I have). We all have ideas about Hillary. And feelings. Maybe this would be true with any woman leader who had managed to serve so many political roles in our country, but we can’t say because it has only ever been Hillary.
I won’t detail the extent of my feelings about Hillary here. Suffice it to say that I swallowed my pain about her past support for the mass incarceration of black people and fought like hell for her to be president.
So, what happened? Comey. Yes, there’s a long list of other reasons in her book, but the benefit of Hillary being a feminist policy wonk is that she’s done her homework. She went back for data. She went back to the polls. She looked at everything with the scrutinizing eyes that wonks have as a birthright. The key states she lost shouldn’t have been that close right before the election. It happened after Comey’s declaration that he was looking at her emails again.
Here’s what also happened: I was at a woman’s college in early 2016. I was giving a talk that day and having a pizza party with a group of about ten young women of color. It was still a choice between Bernie and Hillary. I turned to a college girl who had said she wasn’t into politics. “Who are you going to vote for?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Bernie, I guess.”
Her answer pointed to a painful reality for feminists: we had the chance for the first time to vote a woman onto a major party ticket, and a good number of us were more excited about an old socialist Jew.
Hillary’s book finally clarified for me why that was the case. In one passage, she described how her husband and Barack Obama had connected with voters by shaping personal narratives of overcoming barriers around class and race, respectively. She didn’t have that kind of story, she writes. In another passage, she points out how other candidates were making promises that they couldn’t keep. She refused to do that.
The bitter truth, though, is that politicians are not policy makers during election campaigns. They’re storytellers. Trump told a story. It was (and is) repulsive, racist, and misogynist, but it’s a story that moved white America—and made media corporations a lot of money with high ratings. Candidates also don’t need to have overcome racism to shape a story about why they’re running for office. That was Hillary’s shortcoming, and to her credit, she knows it.
Here’s what also happened: After listening to Hillary’s book (about seventeen hours), I wound up in a thorny work situation and was able to stand up for myself with a clarity I’ve never felt before. I joked to friends, “I’m channeling Hillary.” I was half-joking. Hillary’s book is about how she faced the most public failure (and a barrage of attacks from right and left) and is still making a point of valuing the ideas and work she can contribute to the country. Maybe that’s easier for a white woman to pull off than a queer Latina, but I believe in taking guidance wherever we find it.
Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism and author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir. The former editor of ColorLines, a newsmagazine on race and politics, she has written for The Atlantic, the New York Times, and NPR's All Things Considered. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Miami University in Ohio.
Polarization’s Death Spiral: Abandoning the Common Good
Early in What Happened, Hillary Clinton describes encounters in the days after November 8 with apologetic twentysomething women who had either not voted or felt they had not campaigned hard enough for her presidential candidacy and wanted to apologize. Declining to offer solace, Clinton observes: “These people were looking for absolution I could not give. We all have to live with the consequences of our decisions” (15).
As far as it goes, that’s true: we live with the consequences of our decisions and actions and those of others, thinking and unthinking alike. But rather than engaging the blame game the book invites, I am asking us to think through the consequences of that election, of Clinton’s loss, from a different angle. Here I want to direct attention toward the consequences, for feminism and US democracy alike, of what journalist Bill Bishop describes as “the big sort”: our preference to live, work, worship, consult, consort, and commingle only with those who share our lifestyle and political preferences. It’s not news that we increasingly live in echo chambers, which innumerable studies document only polarize and radicalize our political attitudes, and narrow our willingness to take in facts and opinions that challenge those beliefs. This most recent campaign shows that polarization entering its death spiral. I’m sad when I see feminists embracing it.
What I mean is this: Donald Trump’s divisiveness has been widely noted. Here I want to highlight how unthinkingly progressives—feminists included— also take comfort and seek refuge in the politics of division. Think about the infamous “basket of deplorables” moment—less Clinton’s pronouncement than the warm ripple of laughter that went through the crowd. Her demonization of Trump supporters gave audible pleasure to her audience, a pleasure in intolerance that even now Clinton and her supporters refuse to relinquish (“When I said, ‘you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables,’ I was talking about well-documented reality,” she writes ). To my mind, neither the ethical problems nor the strategic consequences of that moment can be excused by claiming that the intolerance comes in the service of tolerance. Voters understood what was being telegraphed, on both sides: it had nothing to do with the politics of inclusion.
The presidency today simply exemplifies this bipartisan civic abandonment of the common good. Presidential candidates no longer run or stand in office as unifying figures. And people no longer accept presidents outside their parties as legitimate. We have all lost sight of the commonwealth, the vision of a truly inclusive polity that has long mobilized people to make radical claims about democratic equality, including feminists. Instead of sticking with that harder battle of persuasion and compromise with differently minded people, we are adopting a self-righteous politics of exclusion and balkanization: when feminists refer to conservatives as “repugs,” or vilify women who oppose late-term abortion as being “against women,” our participation in this exclusion could not be more clear. We no longer try to convince people who disagree with us, not even from the safe distance of print. To the extent that opinion columnists preach to the choir and campaigns only seek to get out the vote of party-affiliated voters, we no longer actually practice democratic politics. We’ve convinced ourselves, and we aim simply to disqualify those who disagree.
I hope we’ll consider where that road leads before we go all the way down it. We will all be living with the consequences of that collective decision.
Dana D. Nelson is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt University and the Chair of the English Department. She just finished a five-year term as founding coeditor of J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. She is author of four books (most recently Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States) and dozens of articles and reviews. Nelson’s intellectual interests move from the history and literature of the British colonies all the way through our contemporary moment. She has written widely on literature, history, politics, and culture and has appeared as a guest or expert on Against the Grain, a Radio Pacifica show; American Experience, WGBH Public Television’s history series on Reconstruction; What’s the Word?, an MLA Radio Series Program; and American Passages: A Literary Survey, sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Annenberg Foundation.