Like a Natural Woman

Illustration by HellovonPhoto: Landov

Judged against history, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been, by any measure, a success. There have only been a handful of women to try for the presidency—most famously Victoria Woodhull (1872), Belva Lockwood (1884, 1888), and Shirley Chisholm (1972)—and no one, including them, thought they had a chance. But the woman who conceded defeat last Saturday before a crowd still wild with enthusiasm for her wasn’t just the worthy in a story of female progress. Hers is a story of remarkable transformation. By the end of her run she was a larger-than-life figure, vilified by her enemies but also admired, extolled, and beloved by millions in a way she never had been before.

Like ambitious women all over America—business executives, university presidents, brain surgeons, trial attorneys—Hillary knew well the pernicious double bind that snares women who refuse to be easily categorized. But when she got to the White House, the cultural noose tightened further. When she toed the line of female virtue (hawking her recipe for chocolate-chip cookies), she was called a fool and a fraud. But when she struck out on her own, trying to reinvent the office of First Lady, she was labeled a dour, unscrupulous feminazi. When her marital troubles hit the news, a tsunami of gender fantasies washed over her: She was either a humiliated victim, a love-besotted fool, or a calculating bitch (why else would she have stayed in the marriage?).

In the aftermath, she regained her balance by tamping down her personality and femininity into a gender-neutral persona, muting the fact of her womanhood and all the baggage it entailed. She defied the script of the deceived wife by turning herself into a powerhouse politico, armed with the kind of super-competence that protects brilliant women from being ridiculed for aiming too high and wanting too much. Those drab pantsuits and sensible pumps seemed to define her psyche to the very core.

It’s a ubiquitous female strategy for success in any line of work that is a boys’ game. Keep your head down and your skirts mid-length; act nice even when your actions belie your words; avoid shows of strong feeling and cleavage; stress your good intentions; be good-natured about sexist slights and don’t truck too much with women’s issues. You’ll still get labeled “just a woman” (or, in Hillary’s case, “just a wife”) or, alternatively, not enough of one—but you’ll survive. And Hillary did more than survive; she flourished as a senator.

But in the presidential primary, the approach proved lackluster. She had difficulty holding center stage when her charming husband hovered nearby. She was a little tense, her speeches earnest but flat. Obama’s supporters touted his “charisma,” while Hillary’s were left with “competence.” The press ginned up the stupid “likability” issue—though you’d think reporters would have learned a lesson with the “likable” Bush—and Hillary found herself in yet another gender trap: the tough-minded (but not likable) woman.

The paradox, though, was that as the sexist rancor built, Hillary’s public personality took on charm and vitality. Rather than hunker down into her good-girl role, she stepped out. Belittled and mocked, she got bigger, not littler. “How does she look so good?” women marveled to each other. In Puerto Rico for the primary, she was radiant and shining; coming off fifteen-hour days on the campaign trail and facing inevitable loss, she looked like she’d just walked out of a spa. The woman who was fighting back tears in New Hampshire was, by May, belting back shots in Indiana and making sly jokes to young male reporters. She wasn’t likable, she was lovely and amazing, a superheroine.

The alchemy was heavily, although not exclusively, female. That identification, which she had always kept in check, turned into a political elixir. Women flocked to the campaign; no one knew that they would pack such a punch. They’ve only been showing up as a distinct constituency since the Reagan years, when they stuck with the Democrats more than men did, and in 1992, they were the margin that helped elect Bill Clinton. But women had never before coalesced into such a powerful bloc of voters. Politics no longer seemed such a boys’ game—and the surprise was, plenty of men wanted to support her, too: Hispanics, gay men, middle-class white liberals, and the very group everyone predicted would reject her, white working-class men. To take a phrase from Virginia Woolf, it was a constituency of one’s own—the first for a woman in the country’s history.

The coalition wasn’t powerful enough. But as the party Establishment failed her, superdelegates deserted, black voters turned against her, Maureen Dowd’s hysterical jeers grew louder, and the “Clinton machine” let her down, the real Hillary emerged. For her detractors, she was always a monster of ambition and self-regard. But to supporters, she became an emblem of grit, resilience, and the ability to withstand the worst—qualities magnified and lit up in neon, inscribed on a female body.

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Like a Natural Woman