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What the 2016 election taught us about women, power and “authenticity”

Yet another opinion column about the 2016 election

One of the most frequent criticisms of Hillary Rodham Clinton is the suggestion that she's inauthentic.  Questions about “authenticity” have dogged her thirty years in public life, from First Lady and Senator to Secretary of State and presidential candidate. But, HRC has been “authentic” all along. We just weren’t listening. 

Hillary was 69 when her name appeared on the ballot in 2016. She lived through many waves of feminism and society’s changing expectations of women. Throughout it all, her personal narrative has remained consistent.  She’s a policy nerd with a penchant for gritty detail, a well prepared debater who can be a little stiff, a person who's been talking about love and kindness since she was a college graduate. She's talked about her family, her background, her faith, her struggles. She's laughed, she's cried, she's featured in viral memes, and we still don’t think we know her. In fact, little has changed since she gave her valedictorian speech at Wesley university in 1969 at the age of 22.

There’s a significant cohort of people who just don’t like her. That dislike is often based on the belief that “you can’t trust her”. But it goes deeper than a simple ‘not for me’ dislike. HRC provokes an almost mythological hatred buoyed by a few persistent haters (Dick Morris etc) and a testy relationship with the press. Many media commentators made up their minds about the Clintons during the scandal-heavy 90s and haven’t revisited their views since. That narrative, it has to be said, was shaped by several commentators who've since been disgraced for inappropriate behaviour towards women.  

The core criticism Clinton faced - that she is inauthentic, wooden, stiff - is built on a deeply gendered set of assumptions which men simply don’t have to navigate. The simplistic instruction to “be more authentic” hides the maddening dance of obligations women must meet. Be tough, but nice. Be compassionate, but not overly emotional. Be likeable, but show that you can lead. Hillary’s attempts to perform this delicate choreography were what, at least in part, led to charges of falseness. What some dismiss as an authenticity gap are manifestations of the high wire act women in public life walk. 

Let’s take likability as an example. Likability isn’t essential to the job of president. Male candidates don’t need to be likeable. Some are: the electorate were smitten by JFK, and motivated by Obama’s charisma. But, America also voted for Nixon, hardly a likeable chap, and Bush 2, dull as dishwater. To some, HRC just doesn’t make sense. They’re looking for something to explain her ambition. They can’t understand how after 3 decades in public life, having survived more scandals than most people have had hot dinners, she’d want to be president. There’s just something unnatural about a woman who wants to lead, something that requires explaining. 

Without question, Clinton ran a flawed campaign. She takes full responsibility for that in her book. Her carelessness with her emails (though let’s be clear, many male Secretaries of State also used personal email servers), the short sighted decision to accept paid speaking engagements and disastrous strategic decisions in Michigan and Wisconsin were costly mistakes. Just as costly though was the persistent narrative of distrust and inauthenticity.  

There remains a deep, existential fear of female leadership. Remember the talking heads in 2008 who warned about the risks of having a president with PMS? Seems idyllic now that we have an over-grown toddler knocking around the White House in a bathrobe! In 2016, men brought ‘iron my shirt’ signs to Hillary rallies.  We can (& should) laugh at these men’s unbridled idiocy, but we shouldn’t dismiss the deep vein of misogyny they represent.

Clinton won, as she writes in her book, more votes than any white man in history. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the first time a competent woman was passed over for a job, because there was a less qualified, less dignified candidate with a penis available. I don’t think we fully appreciate just how psychologically wounding her defeat was, especially for women who’ve experienced sexual trauma. And let’s not forget the long list of other offences voters were willing to ignore before ticking the box next to Trump’s name. It’s not just women who were wounded by the 2016 election. Contrary to the dominant narrative that the 2016 election was about economic anxiety and class, the polling makes clear that race and gender played a significant role too. Clinton's entire public life has been mediated by the press which consistently analyses politics through the narrow lens of economic prosperity for white men, while failing to grapple with the impact of race and gender. That’s changing, though not nearly fast enough.

HRC has many flaws but “inauthenticity” isn’t among them. She stood before the electorate as the most qualified candidate in history and they choose someone else. Why they did says more about the electorate’s views on women, power and authenticity than it says about HRC.