Liar. Bitter wife. Manipulator. Shrew. Ambitious. Nasty Woman.
Over the course of her 30 years in the public eye, often directly in public service roles, Hillary Rodham Clinton has worn many labels.
Despite her roles as Secretary of State, New York Senator and successful lawyer, these labels have often acted as weights, dragging her down to where her detractors think she belongs.
And when Clinton lost the 2016 US election – the unloseable election – it was a genuinely shocking, humiliating moment that seemingly confirmed the worst that people thought of her. But while losing the election was a devastating moment for Clinton and her millions of supporters, there has been a silver lining in the midst of the rubble.
Losing that election was the best thing to happen to Clinton. With the shackles of public expectation and opinion gone, Clinton has been liberated to actually be herself.
“Certainly misogyny played a role,” Clinton said about her loss, in one of her first post-election interviews. “That just has to be admitted.”
It did have to be admitted, but not before then, otherwise Clinton would have risked accusations of playing the ‘gender card’.
In her quest for the top job, Clinton’s carefully curated words and image gave her a formidable polish but also left her exposed to claims that she was ‘cold’, ‘calculating’, ‘inauthentic’ and ‘soulless’.
But if Clinton had done exactly what her critics wanted — showed emotion or spoke more freely — than she would undoubtedly have been hit with the additional labels of ‘weak’, ‘emotional’ and ‘unprofessional’.
It was an impossible task, and whichever direction she took, Clinton would have fallen short of expectations.
On the publicity circuit her new book, What Happened, Clinton’s interviews have been rich in detail about how it felt when Donald Trump stalked her on stage during their second debate, the role that sexism played in the campaign and her working relationship with one-time rival Bernie Sanders.
“Why am I seen as such a divisive figure and, say, Joe Biden and John Kerry aren’t? What makes me such a lightning rod for fury? I’m really asking. I’m at a loss,” she writes in her book.
For the first time in 30 years, we’ve heard about what Clinton feels about things, not just the perfectly polished sound bites she recited. It’s wonderfully refreshing to hear the sarcasm and biting commentary, unrestricted by the court of public approval.
“I thought I was going to win, and I had a really good transition operation going, she told a summit in New York, in April. “The aftermath of the election was so devastating, and everything that has come to light in the days and weeks since have been also troubling.”
What Happened isn’t just the name of Clinton’s latest book, but the question that will haunt her forever. In her telling of exactly that – of how a reality TV star, twice-bankrupt with a slew of sexual harassment and bullying claims and who had zero political or public service experience beat her – Clinton is shedding the carefully manicured image and showing the world a woman who is funny, stubborn, smart, ambitious, flawed, aloof, conscientious and poised.
Throughout her career, Clinton had to juggles the feminine expectations of her sex, with her natural and fierce ambition and tenacity. It was an impossible juggle that was always to excite and frighten people in equal measures.
It also wasn’t a unique challenge; almost all women politicians across the world face the same problems. But Clinton’s profile, not to mention her role as First Lady to a philandering president, made her a target for those who support strict and outdated gender traditions.
The fact that Clinton (as well as the rest of us) had to wait until she had exhausted all her cards says so much.
There is a striking comparison to Australia’s first (and so far only) woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the ‘Real Julia’ debate that erupted in 2010; the radical act of a woman also being human is something that can sink her career.
Being a woman politician, especially an ambitious one, is a thankless task.
Clinton, who was often described as the most eminently qualified person to ever run for the Office of President, may have lost the electoral college, but she has won her freedom. And we’re all going to benefit from that.