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In 1979, a month into her tenure as Arkansas’s first lady, Hillary Rodham gave an interview to the state’s local TV station. She was new to the role — and relatively new to the public eye. She had delivered the 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley College, was briefly profiled in Life magazine and worked on the House committee on the judiciary as part of the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Throughout the half-hour interview, given to a public-affairs programme called In Focus and available for posterity on YouTube, Rodham looks nothing like a politician’s wife. Nor does she act like one. It is the pre-peroxide, pre-pearl days and she is a bushy-haired brunette, sporting an amaranth calf-length suit, knee-high boots and large-framed tinted glasses.
The Chicago-born, New England-educated lawyer is pressed by the (male) interviewer about her life and career choices, particularly her decision to maintain a full-time job in the legal profession, rather than cater to her husband or host an endless stream of ladies’ lunches, and to continue using her maiden name, Rodham. It will be two years and one failed re-election bid for her husband, Bill Clinton, before she decides to reverse course.
“You really don’t fit the image that we have created for the governor’s wife in Arkansas,” the interviewer tells her. “You’re not a native,” he continues. “You’ve been educated in liberal eastern universities. You are less than 40. You don’t have any children. You don’t use your husband’s name. You practise law.”
His line of questioning comes off as accusatory, and it is easy to imagine the Hillary Clinton of 2016 bristling at the remarks and giving a pat response. The Hillary Rodham of 1979, however, lets the question roll off her like butter.
“I’m not 40, but that hopefully will be cured by age,” she deadpans. “Eventually I will be. We don’t have any children yet, but we’re hoping to have children, so that I hope will be cured in a number of years also. That doesn’t bother me, and I hope that it doesn’t bother very many people.”
Here she is deliciously acerbic, untainted by the influence of focus groups, targeted polling and political consultants who will try to mould her into a more appealing figure, first in her husband’s political career, and then in her own.
It is those consultants who have arguably turned Clinton into what she became this week: America’s first female presidential nominee from a major party. Yet in spite of all their hard work — or perhaps because of it — the underlying fact remains: Clinton has spent most of her political career being disliked, badly, by a large portion of US voters, including those who theoretically should be in her corner.
As the Democratic Primary drew to a close last month, roughly three-fifths of US voters had a negative opinion of Clinton, according to polling by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News. So did one-third of the voters in her own party. More troublingly for this particular election is the fact that Clinton has struggled to drum up support among many young, liberal women (and some moderate, older women) who should have been among her core base, particularly in an election that has morphed into a new battle of the sexes.
Clinton is a former secretary of state, US senator and first lady, campaigning to be the country’s first female president. She is running against Donald Trump, a man who has never held office, who says a flat-chested woman could never be a “10”, and who has joked about bedding his own daughter.
On paper Clinton should have the support of most liberal or moderate female voters in America. In reality, she is struggling. Early polls suggest that the gender gap actually works in Trump’s favour, with Trump’s support from men outmatching Clinton’s support from women. And Clinton currently has worse numbers among women than Bill Clinton did in his 1992 presidential race against George HW Bush. Bill won the female vote by 17 points; Clinton has just a 13-point lead among women in a matchup against Donald Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.
“What has happened to the sisterhood?” my British male editor asked me recently. Yet to anyone who has been covering Clinton over the Democratic primary campaign, the answer is clear: it’s not the sisterhood — it’s the sister.
For the past six months, I have watched Clinton at campaign rallies across the country, from Colorado to Iowa, New Hampshire to Florida. There have been some clear high points: her April victory speech in New York after a knockout win in the state against Bernie Sanders; her well-earned win in South Carolina, which served as a reminder of her deep support among African-Americans.
Her speech claiming the Democratic nomination on Tuesday was one of the most memorable oratory moments of her career, and nodded to her moving speech in 2008 when she suspended her campaign for the nomination. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she told supporters eight years ago. “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” As has proven to be the case.
Yet overall the crowds at her rallies have tended to be tepid and her speeches generic, a reality that becomes even more apparent when viewed in parallel with the events of the classic political showman, Trump, or Sanders, who despite a well-hewn stump speech still electrifies supporters.
At times, Clinton seems to struggle to escape the milquetoast cage of her own making. She can rattle off talking points and highlights of her CV but rarely shares stories of her own personal challenges and struggles — narratives that might make her more relatable or accessible. Her slogans — among them “I’m With Her” and “Breaking Down Barriers” — appear bland and safe, an unfortunate metaphor for her primary campaign.
If the Clinton of 1979 still exists, she seems to have been buried under a gauze of consultant-testing and focus-polling that is meant to make her more appealing to the average voter but has alienated her from many young women who feel like they don’t know her. The Democratic pollster Peter Hart argues that her biggest problem with voters is not a glass ceiling but a “glass curtain”.
“Many [voters] feel they can see and hear her, but they do not think they can relate to or touch her. In their words, she is remote and distant,” Hart concluded after conducting a focus group of Ohio voters last year. “Whether it is her voice, manner, attitude or language — there is a gulf.”
Among my own millennial, liberal peers, the support for Clinton more often than not resembles something I like to call the coalition of the reluctant. Ambitious, intelligent female friends say they dream of seeing a female president and are horrified at the sexist attacks on Clinton’s campaign. Yet for most of the Democratic primary, they could elicit little more than a “meh” about her candidacy.
One friend told me recently that voting for Clinton in November will require her to “hold [her] nose”, so disgusted is she by Clinton’s aura of prizing being in power over ideology. Others point to queasiness over her cosiness to corporate interests, her use of a private email server, and her apparent complicity in the public shaming of Bill Clinton’s mistresses — a stance that riles even more in the post-Cosby era.
Among the women of my mother’s generation, the attitude towards Clinton can be even sharper, including criticism that would hardly be levelled if Clinton were a man. One woman — a lauded academic and Clinton contemporary — says, only half-jokingly, that she could never vote for anyone who wears champagne-coloured suits.
Another young woman, a lawyer, confesses that she worries her dislike of Clinton has been somehow shaped by Clinton’s mannerisms and appearance, or by ingrained sexism in society. “Do I only dislike her as much as I do because I have internalised society’s dislike of powerful women to such a degree,” she asked, “that I, a relatively powerful woman, find her demeanour off-putting?”
While it would seem inevitable that the first viable female presidential candidate has had to handle criticism of her looks, presentation and mannerisms — a syndrome familiar to female politicians across the world — she has had a particularly acute challenge born of her long years in the public eye in the shadow of her husband.
If Barack Obama, a relative newcomer to the national stage at the time of the 2008 election, was a blank canvas for painting the aspirations associated with electing the country’s first black president, Clinton has a significantly more complicated relationship with her own “first” mantle.
Like most of the first female US congresswomen who assumed their positions following the death of their congressman husbands, Clinton’s political career, for better or worse, has been inextricably tied to her spouse’s.
That her own time in public office took off following her decision to remain with her husband despite his infidelities and impeachment, has contributed to some young women’s impression that she stuck by his side largely for her own personal advancement. For female millennials, who now go to college in greater numbers than their male peers, outperform them in school and see only a slim wage gap for the first decade in the workplace, the compromises that Clinton made are harder to comprehend than they are for women who actually lived through that period, says Danielle Allen, a professor and political theorist at Harvard University. “There were social, political necessities [that played a role] in the 1980s and 1990s that make Clinton sympathetic to women [who are her contemporaries]”, Allen says. To younger women, she adds, Clinton’s reasons for staying with her husband appear “opaque”.
There is also a growing consensus among female voters — three quarters of them in fact, according to the Pew Research Centre — that they will see a female president in their lifetime. With such certainty, why settle for the wrong one?
“For many women, I think Clinton does not represent the only or even the best chance to elect a female president,” says Dan Cox, research director at the Public Religion Research Institute, who has studied the issue. “I think for many young women Bernie Sanders has made a much more effective case that the system is rigged . . . This idea that you go to college and, if you work hard, you’re going to get a job, that hasn’t panned out for young women.”
Earlier this year Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, declared that there was “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” while campaigning for the Democratic presidential candidate. But for young women such as Julia Sharpe-Levine, a 24-year-old Sanders supporter and feminist from New York, such second-wave arguments seem outdated. She tells me that she, and many of her friends, have been influenced by the rise of intersectionality, a new strain of feminism that takes into account the overlapping role that class, race and sexuality have on society’s treatment of women.
Clinton has advocated intersectionality publicly, but in doing so she has faced charges of opportunism. As Sharpe-Levine tells me: “Will things [under Clinton] get better for the women who are multiply disadvantaged by racism, xenophobia and classism? I don’t think so . . . Maybe things will get better for the privileged white. I think a lot of issues that we consider the bedrock issues of feminism do disproportionately benefit white women.”
While there is an argument that Clinton’s perceived glass curtain is itself rooted in sexism, the counterargument is that it is Clinton herself who erected it — as a defence mechanism after years of scandals, accusations and press scrutiny, but also as a way to make her more palatable to the broader electorate.
When the Today show introduced viewers to Clinton in 1992, during her husband’s first presidential run, it featured a medley of soundbites of voters describing her as too aggressive and ambitious. “Her assertiveness makes some voters uncomfortable,” a voiceover said.
A month earlier she had famously offended the stay-at-home wives and mothers of the US while trying to defend her decision to maintain her legal career during her husband’s tenure as Arkansas governor. “I suppose I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies and had teas but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession,” Clinton, all sass, declared at the time. She spent the subsequent months of the campaign — and most of her husband’s two presidential terms — backing away from the comments and later agreed to a “cookie bake-off” with then First Lady Barbara Bush.
Recently, the US comedian Jon Stewart noted that Clinton appears to pause slightly before giving a perfectly politically calibrated answer — a seven-second delay that seems to hint that there is a different Clinton lurking underneath, perhaps one more like the tongue-in-cheek Clinton of the 1979 interview; or one like the Wellesley College student who sarcastically penned in the acknowledgments of her senior thesis: “Although I have no ‘loving wife’ to thank for keeping the children away while I wrote, I do have many friends and teachers who have contributed to the process of thesis-writing.”
Voters may have recoiled from this mischievous, unguarded version of Clinton, the one derided for years as a feminazi. Yet the great irony is that in this election, more than any other, that candid, sharp-tongued Clinton may be exactly the kind of candidate young voters want — and perhaps the one who has the best chance of skewering Trump in the upcoming debates.
A few weeks ago, I emailed a friend, a 25-year-old fierce Clinton sceptic and Sanders supporter, the clip of Clinton’s nearly four-decades-old interview with Arkansas public TV. She loved it.
“I like that she is repeatedly, politely and seemingly genuinely saying, let the haters hate — I still work at my badass job and I kept my last name even if it is 1979,” she wrote back immediately.
At some points in the campaign, Clinton and her staff have seemed slightly unsure about how to handle the symbolism of her unique historical position. When Trump a few weeks ago accused Clinton of playing the “woman card”, her campaign responded by producing thousands of MetroCard-esque “woman cards” for her supporters, and adding a line about the woman card in her stump speech. In other moments, they appear wary of overplaying Clinton’s gender for fear of alienating the other half of the US population.
“At the end of the day, being the first woman president can only take you so far,” Clinton explained recently in an interview with New York Magazine. “What have I done that can actually produce positive results in somebody’s life?” she claimed would be the most important question.
Her campaign would be wise, however, to look at her gender as a potential weapon, just like the verve and snap that seems to be lurking somewhere underneath, and that came to the fore after she claimed the Democratic presidential nomination.
As the 1979 Hillary Rodham declared: “One cannot live one’s life based on what somebody else’s image of you might be.”
Hear, hear, sister.
Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US political correspondent; @Courtney_FT