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A Feminist Policy Wonk’s Memoir

A short take on Hillary Clinton's book, What Happened

I listened to the audiobook version of Hillary’s What Happened while driving back and forth from campus past Trump signs (yes, they’re still up in Ohio). Immediately, I realized I would have to start this piece with an admission we’d all be wise to make: no one comes to a book by Hillary with anything resembling purity.

We have opinions about her. We have arguments. We have history. We call her “Hillary.” It doesn’t matter if we have ever met her (I haven’t) or if we have canvassed neighborhoods for her presidential campaign (I have). We all have ideas about Hillary. And feelings. Maybe this would be true with any woman leader who had managed to serve so many political roles in our country, but we can’t say because it has only ever been Hillary.

I won’t detail the extent of my feelings about Hillary here. Suffice it to say that I swallowed my pain about her past support for the mass incarceration of black people and fought like hell for her to be president.

So, what happened? Comey. Yes, there’s a long list of other reasons in her book, but the benefit of Hillary being a feminist policy wonk is that she’s done her homework. She went back for data. She went back to the polls. She looked at everything with the scrutinizing eyes that wonks have as a birthright. The key states she lost shouldn’t have been that close right before the election. It happened after Comey’s declaration that he was looking at her emails again.

Here’s what also happened: I was at a woman’s college in early 2016. I was giving a talk that day and having a pizza party with a group of about ten young women of color. It was still a choice between Bernie and Hillary. I turned to a college girl who had said she wasn’t into politics. “Who are you going to vote for?” I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Bernie, I guess.”

Her answer pointed to a painful reality for feminists: we had the chance for the first time to vote a woman onto a major party ticket, and a good number of us were more excited about an old socialist Jew.

Hillary’s book finally clarified for me why that was the case. In one passage, she described how her husband and Barack Obama had connected with voters by shaping personal narratives of overcoming barriers around class and race, respectively. She didn’t have that kind of story, she writes. In another passage, she points out how other candidates were making promises that they couldn’t keep. She refused to do that.

The bitter truth, though, is that politicians are not policy makers during election campaigns. They’re storytellers. Trump told a story. It was (and is) repulsive, racist, and misogynist, but it’s a story that moved white America — and made media corporations a lot of money with high ratings. Candidates also don’t need to have overcome racism to shape a story about why they’re running for office. That was Hillary’s shortcoming, and to her credit, she knows it.

Here’s what also happened: After listening to Hillary’s book (about seventeen hours), I wound up in a thorny work situation and was able to stand up for myself with a clarity I’ve never felt before. I joked to friends, “I’m channeling Hillary.” I was half-joking. Hillary’s book is about how she faced the most public failure (and a barrage of attacks from right and left) and is still making a point of valuing the ideas and work she can contribute to the country. Maybe that’s easier for a white woman to pull off than a queer Latina, but I believe in taking guidance wherever we find it.

Daisy Hernández is the coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism and author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir.

This article was originally published by Signs.

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