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The My Mother / My Self: Presidential Election of 2016

Susan Bordo's The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

So what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016? For Susan Bordo, in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, many factors created a caricature of an untrustworthy Hillary: James Comey more than once, Russian hacks and email leaks, fake news, right-wing hate-Hillary books, sexism, and the way Bernie Sanders ran against her. I found Bordo’s discussion of Democrats’ generational divide particularly noteworthy.

Bordo devotes three and a half early pages to Clinton’s appeal to women her age, and Bordo’s age, and mine — we old women who still evoke wicked stepmothers, witches, shrill voices, and physical ugliness (18-22). In 2016, Democratic women divided by generation, with older women pro-Hillary and younger women lukewarm to antagonistic. Hillary Clinton reminded them of their mothers.

What is it with American feminists’ hatred of their mothers? This is not a new thing.

Back in the full flourish of second-wave feminism, Nancy Friday published a book that became a feminist classic, My Mother / My Self: The Daughter’s Search for Identity (1977). A key word in that book, written from the daughter’s point of view, is anger. Not having been angry at my mother, I never felt drawn to that side of feminist literature, and when I encountered it directly in a women’s studies seminar at Stanford in the late 1980s, its intensity astonished me. Growing up black in America, I had considered my parents a sort of haven in a heartless world. They protected me from my society, shielding me, I knew well, from an outside world that did not value me. My mother was on my side against America.

The 1970s and 1980s are a generation ago now, but evidently American feminists haven’t stopped loathing their mothers and, for some, loathing Hillary Clinton in their mothers’ stead. Bordo mentions Amy Wilentz (born 1959), Katie Roiphe (born 1968), and Ariel Levy (born 1968), who have hard words for Hillary Clinton (88-89). For the purposes of my discussion, I will add two forty-year-old, Washington-based journalists whose recently published portrait of Clinton vaulted to the New York Times best-seller list upon publication, whether they consider themselves feminists or not.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign minces no words. The “core problem” of the Clinton campaign was “the candidate herself,” according to the book’s flap copy. In nearly four hundred detailed pages, they portray Clinton’s campaign as a mess: Clinton lacked a vision; she had conflicts of interest; she didn’t know why people don’t like her; she was stern and self-righteous. Whereas Bordo begins with social context and the stereotypes that trip up powerful women, Allen and Parnes allude to misogyny only toward the very end of their book.

Here are two books published after the election, Bordo’s situating Clinton socially, Allen and Parnes’s blaming her for her loss. Which view is reaching more readers? Melville House, “an independent publisher” in Brooklyn founded in 2001 by a sculptor, fiction writer, and journalist, published Bordo. Crown, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, published Allen and Parnes. Their book was prominently reviewed by the New York Times; a subsequent piece said Shattered is likely to inspire a television series; an op-ed column called it “compulsively readable.” My Proquest search returned sixteen hits for Destruction of Hillary Clinton (four of them about Katy Perry reading the book in a bikini on a Mexican beach) and 134 for Shattered (most under “best-sellers” and including excerpts and the authors’ comments on current politics).

Allen and Parnes will reach many more readers than Bordo. If the social context of the 2016 election is not to disappear, feminists of all ages are going to have to circulate Bordo’s book by themselves. American culture’s preference for individual explanation and the economics of publishing work against feminist understanding.

Nell Painter is the author of The History of White People and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.

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