At another point, she says of the media’s treatment of her, “I couldn’t figure out, you know, what is it they wanted from me?” The line has echoes of the indignation that pulsed through Clinton’s bluntly titled 2017 memoir, What Happened. “What more do you need?” she asks in it.
Other women in politics might ask similar questions—particularly at this moment. Hillary Clinton is a very different candidate from, for example, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, or Kamala Harris. Her treatment, though, foreshadowed what the other women would face as they made bids for the presidency in 2020. “She is especially poor at the podium,” the columnist Peggy Noonan argued in 2016, “where, when she wants to emphasize an applause line, her voice becomes loud, flat, and harassing to the ear.” Andrea Tantaros, then a host at Fox, likened Clinton to a “thoroughbred horse” who is “on her way to the glue factory.”
These were echoes of assessments that had been lobbed at Clinton when she was first lady. Just after the 1992 election, a cover of Spy magazine superimposed Clinton’s head onto the body of a dominatrix, the composite figure posing in the Oval Office. The New York Post ran a cartoon featuring Bill Clinton as a marionette—with Hillary pulling his strings. The American Spectator called Hillary the “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.” Barbara Amiel, of Maclean’s, declared that “the first lady has emasculated America” and compared Hillary to Lorena Bobbitt.
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The philosopher Kate Manne argues that sexism is best understood not as an individual trait, but rather as an ideology—one that is intent on limiting women’s advancement and power. This theory is particularly relevant in Clinton’s case. “Why won’t Hillary go away?” is, after all, a milder version of that Trumpian standby: “Lock her up!” The question might suggest political strategy or psychological ennui. What it also suggests, though, is that Hillary Clinton intruding into a space where she does not belong. It suggests a frame of mind in which Joe Biden runs for president three times because that is his right—but in which Hillary Clinton runs for president twice because she doesn’t know when enough is enough.
Almost independently of Clinton’s particular politics, her time in the public eye has often doubled as a warning to other women: This is what might happen to you. This is how you will be treated. It anticipated the mistreatment of Michelle Obama. It anticipated the mistreatment of Katie Hill. It anticipated the mistreatment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It anticipated the mistreatment of Elizabeth Warren. “The past is never dead,” the line goes. “It’s not even past.”
No wonder so many people—even people who once counted themselves as her fans—would prefer that Clinton simply disappear. No wonder the reaction to her continued presence is so visceral and angry. The matter is not merely that Americans have a habit of treating older women as inconvenient and invisible and expendable. It is also that Clinton herself—the very persistence of her presence—is a reminder of all the progress that wasn’t. She is a reminder of how possible it is, in the America of the present moment, to win and lose at the same time. And she is a reminder of how easy it is, in a culture that celebrates “elder statesmen” but prefers to ignore their counterparts, to overstay one’s welcome.