The Iconic Hillary Clinton

In defeat, the politician may find a status that had eluded her in victory—as a symbol for other women who see themselves in her struggles.

Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

This article was updated on Monday, November 14 at 6:52 p.m.

Hillary Clinton hasn’t made any public appearances since her concession speech midday Wednesday, but she can be spotted in the wild. That’s what happened to Margo Gerster, a dispirited Hillary supporter when she was hiking with her daughter to cheer herself up near Chappaqua, New York. Gerster heard a rustling and out of the woods came Hillary and Bill Clinton and their dogs.

You may have to count on a chance encounter like this one to see Clinton. She’s unlikely to be much in the public eye over the next months. And she may need the rest after an exhausting and savage campaign that resulted in a verdict her supporters didn’t predict. Although Clinton carried the popular vote on Election Day, the Electoral College delivered a decisive victory to Donald Trump. The so-called Blue Wall states that went for Trump (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) exposed embarrassing cracks in the Democrats’ campaign strategy. Add to that the humiliation of having to concede a campaign for the presidency for a second time in 8 years. Hillary Clinton is done.

And yet. There’s a possibility for Clinton to achieve a status that eluded her during the campaign, and over her last 30 years in public life. If elected president, Clinton would have moved into the White House and had to unpack years of baggage—emails, her husband’s scandals, “super predators,” Benghazi—and then deal with the grueling and unpredictable politics of the next four years. That’s a lot to fit in the Resolute desk. But in defeat, that matters less. Her place in American culture is suddenly very different. Hillary Clinton’s transgressions may be largely forgiven by her supporters and largely forgotten by the public.

As a presidential candidate, Clinton was vanquished. But as a feminist symbol, she’s certain to live on. Her supporters have already begun to use her as a convenient shorthand to represent the challenges of their own lives, seeing their struggles in hers. To them, she’s the women who withstand the painful misogyny of American society. She’s telling your daughter to raise her hand in class, even if the boys make fun of her. She’s pantsuits and she’s the more than 3 million members of the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. She’s every qualified woman who had an unqualified man beat her out for a job. She’s the “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave. She’s the cracks in the glass ceiling that didn’t break. She’s what could’ve been. She’s the promise of what someday will be.

And, in the nature of such symbols, she’s likely to be remembered in falsely idealized form, her flaws and foibles fading away. Susan B. Anthony was herself a polarizing figure, and left behind a complicated legacy—but she’s thrived as a symbol of suffrage.

This will come at a time when the American women who supported her most need such a symbol. In Donald Trump, Americans will have as their president a man who has repeatedly attacked women—verbally, and allegedly physically--raising fears among many women of what could become socially acceptable behavior in a Trump era. At a policy level, Trump has pledged to appoint a Supreme Court justice who could tip the court into reversing Roe v. Wade, limit access to contraception, and gut welfare programs that disproportionately provide aid to women and their dependent children.

Of course, many American women voted for Trump. But those who invested their hopes for a transformation of the role of women in American political life in the prospect of a President Hillary Clinton are still struggling with its outcome and what it means for them. It’s a question that will take years to answer. But there’s a date for all of them to bear in mind meanwhile:

On August 18, 2020, American women will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the right to vote.  That will be just 77 days before the next presidential election.