As an American living in London, I have had many British people ask me about the American presidential election. One of their most frequent questions is why people seem to hate Hillary Clinton so much. It’s a question without a single clear answer and one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.
One of the answers, and one that I personally find saddest, is that she is seen as being too ambitious. To understand this, one has to look back at the 25 years that Clinton has been in the public eye, first as First Lady and later as US Senator from New York and then Secretary of State.
As a teenage girl in 1992, I found Hillary Clinton an exciting breath of fresh air as our potential first lady. Unlike her predecessor (and “opponent” in the 1992 election), Barbara Bush, she wasn’t trying to be America’s favourite grandmother or the nation’s chocolate chip cookie baker-in-chief.
She was a career woman, of the sort I aspired to be.
I will also note the positive influence of women’s colleges in nurturing ambitious women. Both Hillary Clinton and I graduated from all-women’s undergraduate institutions. These colleges train women to be leaders in their fields and an impressive range of women
have graduated from them who are leaders in industry and academia as well as politics.
Subsequently, Hillary Clinton’s two successors as first lady have reverted more to the wife, mother and homemaker stereotype. Even though Michelle Obama has recently been reported making more political speeches than during her husband’s election campaign, she always casts herself as a mother first. I found myself annoyed with Michelle Obama’s speech
at this summer’s Democratic Convention. I watched the speech at the urging of my mother, who found it powerful. I found it frustrating, because I felt it cast child raising as the only important task a woman can undertake. Even though Hillary is a mother, I have never heard that message come from her.
When Bill Clinton first took office as President, Hillary did not just find a socially acceptable cause and champion it (Nancy Reagan: drug abuse, Lady Bird Johnson: litter etc.). She took on one of the most pressing policy issues of the day: America’s broken health care system. It was a difficult task and it proved insurmountable for her at the time. But no one else had a fix for almost 20 more years and even Obamacare is much less ambitious than what she had attempted in 1993. Of course you have to be ambitious to try and solve a seemingly intractable policy problem.
But some Americans did not like their First Lady demonstrating ambition. The right-wing elements of the media attacked her for her work on health care and all sorts of other alleged misdeeds. Once there is a media narrative about a person, the public are more inclined to believe stories about that individual that fit the narrative, no matter how otherwise implausible they might be.
People have argued that Hillary Clinton has ridden her husband’s coat tails. There is no doubt some truth to this and it is part of a broader pattern. Many of the early women elected to the US Senate and House of Representatives were filling seats vacated by their husbands (or in some cases fathers). Why should it surprise us that the first serious female candidate for president would have served a stint as first lady before? But her accomplishments since then – the work she did as US Senator and Secretary of State – have been hers. No doubt her husband has provided advice and guidance, as any spouse would, but the work has been hers.
So yes, Hillary Clinton is an ambitious woman. But would anyone disparage a man running for US President by calling him ambitious?