There’s a complicated history to Hillary Clinton that young people can’t reconcile

Get with it, youngs.
Get with it, youngs.
Image: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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The question as to why many millennials—and millennial feminists in particular—seem to have turned their backs on Hillary Clinton has been explored at length this primary season. The Daily BeastHuffington Post, and Los Angeles Times have all come to varying conclusions: Hillary is “not feminist enough,” Hillary is “part of the establishment,” and Bernie’s youthful idealism is more appealing than Hillary’s less sexy pragmatism.

All of these factors undoubtedly play a large role in the overall negative perception some millennials have of Hillary Clinton, but the more obvious answer is simply this: we millennials are coming to know Hillary Clinton after 20 years of relentless personal and political attacks.

Whatever you may think of her, you cannot deny, no other public figure has been subjected to the kind of merciless scrutiny that Hillary Clinton has endured throughout her career. It has become nearly impossible to distinguish fact from fiction with respect to the many accusations that have been leveled at Hillary Clinton. To put it blatantly, we millennials aren’t familiar with the Hillary Clinton that our parents know.

Those of us born after 1980 don’t remember first lady Hillary Clinton. The first lady who campaigned alongside her husband in the 1992 election, with “two for the price of one” capturing the essence of America’s first presidential power couple. The first lady who was mercilessly attacked for not conforming to the Stepford wife persona expected of her as a political spouse. The first lady who took on healthcare reform rather than stick to a so-called “women’s issue.” The first lady who, despite being advised against it, famously declared “Women’s rights are human rights” at the 1995 UN Conference in Beijing. The first lady who was forced to sacrifice so much of her identity for the advancement of her husband’s political career—captured poetically with the final surrender of her maiden name.

This is the first lady our parents watched every day in the 1990s news cycle. And this is the Hillary Clinton with whom we are largely unfamiliar.

Following Bill Clinton’s re-election in November 1996, The Nation published a beautiful piece by Erica Jong entitled “Hillary’s Husband Re-Elected: The Clinton Marriage of Politics and Power” which explores the complicated and tragic journey of then first lady Hillary Clinton.

“There is no way for a smart woman to be public without being seen as a treacherous Lady Macbeth figure or bitch goddess.” 

While the piece begins as a somewhat objective exploration of the Clinton administration and the uniqueness of the Clinton marriage, it ultimately hones in on Hillary and the price she has paid for being a brilliant and driven female in the public eye.

Jong describes the endless barrage of attacks that were leveled at the first lady—from her hairdo to accusations of murder—and how they have contributed to the perplexing persona that we now associate with Hillary Clinton. If her persona seems inauthentic, Jong argues, that’s because it is.

“Hillary is a brainy girl trying to look like an Arkansas beauty queen, a corporate lawyer trying to look like a happy housewife, a fierce feminist who has submerged her identity in her husband’s ambitions.

It doesn’t add up—too many contradictions—which is why we don’t believe it.” 

When millennials look at Hillary Clinton, we don’t see her years of being beaten down senselessly by unfair press serving a misogynistic public, but rather we see a polished politician without the people-pleasing charisma of Bill Clinton or the energizing fervor of Bernie Sanders. Hillary knows she is held to a different standard than her male counterparts and she has the scars to prove it.

Attempting to cut through the polarizing narratives that surround Hillary Clinton is incredibly difficult, especially if you’re a millennial who is arriving to the scene 20 years late. It is made even more difficult by the fact that Hillary Clinton has nearly as many critics on the far left as she does on the far right—a unique position for any politician.

But putting aside all the criticisms we can level at Hillary from a progressive stand-point, I find it genuinely disappointing that many of my fellow millennial feminists seem unable or unwilling to understand Hillary’s image through the gendered lens that is so desperately necessary.

The accusation that Hillary isn’t a “true feminist” is particularly egregious. While we fourth-wavers are obsessing over intersectionality and privilege, we seem to have forgotten the contributions made by the pioneering feminists before us. Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem were crucified in the press for their comments about women supporting women, but perhaps those feminists, who fought tooth and nail for progress in a social climate far more hostile than the one we live in today, have an understanding of sexism that is lost among us millennial feminists.

“History has burdened Hillary Clinton with changing the way powerful women are perceived in our culture. But if she can see herself as part of a historical continuum, as a pathfinder opening the way for her daughter’s generation, she may be able to rise above the pain of daily crucifixions in the media.”

I am certainly not suggesting you support Hillary Clinton simply because she is a woman. That is the kind of flawed and idiotic logic the GOP used when choosing Sarah Palin in 2008. But as a feminist with some perspective and understanding of a person who was in many ways a trailblazer for women in American politics, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that we millennial feminists acknowledge the sacrifices she has made for women everywhere.

To hold Hillary Clinton to yet another ridiculous standard of “true feminism” is both unhelpful and unfair. We should instead be mindful of the insidious role societal sexism plays in our own perception of Hillary as a powerful woman, and not let this cloud our judgment when deciding who we ultimately plan to support.

“In many ways her mainstreaming of feminism has prepared us to accept a woman President in the twenty-first century. By acting as a lightning rod she has gotten us comfortable with women who talk back in public, don’t hide their brains, don’t hide their passionate mothering. H.R.C. is the latest incarnation of Miss Liberty.”

At the end of the day, no matter how aggressively her opponents have tried to destroy her, Hillary Clinton is still standing and that means something.

Rediscovering first lady Hillary Clinton has given me a deeper understanding of the woman I see today, and Erica Jong’s beautiful piece stands as a reminder to all women of the hurdles Hillary has had to jump simply for being a successful and ambitious female. To quote Erica Jong, “I’m glad she’s a survivor. Her survival means I can survive.”

To Hillary Clinton from this ambitious millennial feminist: Thank you.

This post originally appeared at THE VOIDIST, hosted by Medium. Savannah Barker can be followed at @savannah_lb.