Hillary Clinton tried to take on sexism. Now she’s facing the same critique women always do

What Clinton gets put through on a national stage is a magnified version of the same sexism that women experience every day at work.
What Clinton gets put through on a national stage is a magnified version of the same sexism that women experience every day at work.
Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
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If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few decades, it’s that a lot of people get mad when Hillary Clinton speaks.

The release of What Happened, Clinton’s memoir unpacking her loss in the 2016 US presidential election, has sparked backlash from a vocal contingent of people who see her book as a personal affront—if not an assault on the nation as a whole. Commentators like Piers Morgan derided What Happened as whiny and self-pitying, urging Clinton to “get over it.” A comic that ran in The Nib depicted the tome as an election-themed version of the Necronomicon, published for no purpose other than to bring the ghouls of 2016 back to the forefront of the conversation. Never mind that Trump campaign’s ties to Russia are currently under investigation. Heaven forbid that Clinton share her opinion on one of the most controversial presidential election results since—well, since the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush in 2000.

No matter what your stance on Clinton, this reaction to her book should be setting off major alarm bells to anyone who cares about gender equality. That’s because so much of what Clinton gets put through on a national stage is a magnified version of the same sexism that women experience every day at work.

To be a woman at work is to know that you might share an idea in a meeting and have your boss shoot it down—then watch him laud the exact same idea the minute it comes out of a male colleague’s mouth. It’s knowing that the competent, over-prepared woman who does due diligence and extensive research will frequently watch her idea (or startup or book proposal or pitch) get rejected in favor of an overconfident man pitching sound bites rather than sound policy.

Though the timing is coincidental, it seems fitting that Clinton’s book debuted the same week that several popular senators announced their co-sponsorship of Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care bill. Universal health care is a cause that Clinton fought and paid dearly for in the early 1990s. It’s now become Sanders’s signature issue. And even though he’s passed no legislation, hasn’t figured out a way to fund a single-payer plan, and is far from achieving majority support for his ideas, pundits are already labeling Sanders victorious in the health-care debate. His starry-eyed idealism is rewarded, while Clinton was punished for both her idealism and her later realism.

Women at work also know that that everything we wear will be intensely scrutinized. If you’re not polished and put together, you may be taken less seriously—even as your male colleagues are championed for “efficiently” wearing the same hoodie and jeans every single day.

Clinton’s appearance has been a topic of public discourse for decades; over the course of the election, the details of her every outfit, hairstyle, and makeup choice were scrutinized while male opponents were given a pass. Even now, we’re still discussing what she’s wearing. There’s even an entire section of What Happened devoted to explaining why she wears pantsuits; the kind of thing a male politician would never be expected to address.

Women at work are expected to be strong, independent-minded, and always speak out when someone does them wrong—but warned that if they do blow the whistle on a sexist colleague, the results are likely to be unpleasant, and maybe even dire. Women who allow themselves to be trampled and abused in the service of men’s egos may be derided as pathetic doormats; but those who speak up and take a stand are often disbelieved and discarded, punished for their attempt to seek justice and equality. (Tellingly, Lilly Ledbetter— the woman who inspired the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—never actually received fair pay herself.)

And so it’s easy to see the sexism inherent in the way that Clinton’s loudest critics chide her for continuing to speak up, and for letting her personal pain interfere with the country’s “healing” process. Others argue that Clinton is not shouldering enough of the blame for her failures, despite the fact that she takes the blame for her loss in the election at least 35 times in the book.

To watch Clinton’s career is to watch these same double standards play out, over and over; our daily indignities writ large. Some have argued that as wealthy, privileged woman who is out of touch with the average person, Clinton’s struggles don’t have much bearing on the lives of every day women. But these differences should serve to heighten, not lessen, the impact of Clinton’s very public adversity as a symbol for the challenges that all women continue to face. Because if a woman who’s played the game as well as she has—a woman who literally changed her name and image to appease the expectations of men—is still so hated and judged no matter what she does, then honestly, what hope is there for the rest of us?