The Guilt and Pain of a Clinton Supporter, Cont’d

Supporters of Hillary Clinton at her election-night rally react to the voting results. (Drew Angerer / Getty)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

We’ve heard from scores of readers who can relate to Megan’s letter about feeling responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss—many of whom offered sympathy and assurances that it’s not her fault, and many of whom (like me) share in Megan’s sense of guilt. One reader, Laura, says she understands where Clinton voters like Megan are coming from—up to a point:

Well, actually I don’t understand, but rather I recognize the behavior. And it angers me, because I thought after all these years of struggles to raise the status of women, all the sacrifice, that women would openly embrace and cheer on Clinton. But indeed, among younger women there was this familiar reticence to openly support Her.

I am 63. As a young woman, I worked with Planned Parenthood to ensure abortion rights, and then for the Equal Rights Amendment, and then organized secretaries’ unions to improve wages and working conditions. Throughout my working life, the right of women to live as equals with men has been a driving force—an inheritance from my immigrant Spanish grandmother, who knew she was equal to men and made sure her daughters knew it as well, even if it only meant she ruled her kitchen.

So when my even slightly younger friends—who are the beneficiaries of all those decades of work—reluctantly, sheepishly, apologetically, expressed their support (or worse, their hatred) for Hillary Clinton, it was all I could do not to slap them with my grandmother’s bony hand—her hard-working hand—and say, “You fool, we’ve worked too hard for this. Be proud, have some pride.”

It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that I doubt I’ll see again and I am heartbroken—not only to have missed the chance to see a woman president of the U.S., but also to know that younger women have not overcome the shame of sex discrimination.

We fight on.

Ann Laughlin, a reader who marched for the women’s movement in the 1960s and ’70s, would agree with Laura: “So many paid so dearly to get women the privileges we take for granted. We took the benefits and lost the focus. We did not finish the job we started.” This next reader, Meghan Edwards, can speak to that sense of complacency:

I did not campaign for Hillary. Before last Tuesday, I didn’t feel connected to her at all. But I did vote in this election, and I voted for Hillary, because to me, there was no other option. The other option wasn’t real. It wasn’t something that I took seriously, nor was it something that the mainstream media—which I consume every day—treated seriously. Memes. Hair jokes. Mouths as eyeballs. It was always, always a joke.

And because of this, I thought this election would be a breeze. I thought we would be sitting back at 9 p.m., celebrating an already called election for Hillary. I thought we would feel the same way we felt in 2008 after President Obama won—elated, as we made history.

Instead, at around 9 p.m., I started to feel sick to my stomach. And I woke up on Wednesday feeling physically crushed. I had no idea how much this election meant to me until Tuesday night.

I guess it feels worse because I truly believed we were waking up on Wednesday with a woman President. I already believed it was a done deal, because to believe otherwise was to believe in a world I didn’t think existed anymore. I didn’t want to believe that we live in a world where racism, sexism, and threats of violence can still prevail. I'm lucky I don’t feel the weight of sexism and racism on a daily basis. I am surrounded by powerful and inspirational women every day at work and in my life. And it’s easy for me to forget that this is not the norm.

I now know in my bones that it’s not yet the norm. This past week I was reminded that I will never know what it’s like to be a confident male walking into any room. I was reminded that as a woman, I am not judged by what I say or what I think, I am immediately judged by what I look like, and how my mannerisms come across. I was reminded that when I cry or act “irrational,” I am perceived as a foolish woman who can’t control my emotions. We still only aspire to a world where “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal.” The world needs to change for women.

That could be a silver lining to Hillary’s loss, as my colleague Caitlin points out: the reminder that a female president isn’t inevitable could inspire many women to speak up in ways they haven’t before. Brooke writes:

Thank you for sharing Megan’s article about the anger and guilt she is feeling. As a white woman who voted for Clinton but has felt equally intimidated to speak up over the last few years, I feel the same way and have been really struggling over the last few days. I feel like the black and Latina women I know have been so much more vocal, and I also feel ashamed I didn’t join them.

I also voted for Romney instead of Obama in 2012 and I never told anyone, and I worry that shame I felt for being a Republican—although socially very liberal—is what contributed in part to Trump’s rise. And the remarkable thing is, I still feel scared to be vocal! But I’m forcing myself to be vocal now.

Speaking of white women, they’ve received an outsize share of blame from liberal critics for voting for Trump—though as my colleague Michele writes, white women as a group tend to vote Republican for many different reasons. If you’re a Republican woman who broke party lines to vote for Clinton, or a woman who voted for Trump in spite of mixed feelings, we’d like to hear from you:

This next reader can also relate to Megan:

I felt the guilt creeping in the morning after the election even during early conversations at work about what went wrong nationally. Then I heard it in Hillary Clinton’s concession speech: She acknowledged the secret, private group Pantsuit Nation, but then said, “I want everybody coming out from behind that—and make sure your voices are heard going forward,” with frustration peeking through. In that sentence, I felt like Hillary looked every one of us who was an active participant in that group square in the eye and asked us why we couldn’t have been more brave.

In an election that came down to 150,000 votes, why did we—educated, opinionated women (and men)—shy away from trying to have reasonable conversations with our friends, families, and neighbors? Why did we take so much comfort and joy in our Facebook wall turning into a safe space of Hillary cheerleaders? Why weren’t we forcing ourselves to have challenging conversations?

My colleague Chris is leading a challenging conversation right now among some readers who voted for Trump and others who are trying to understand why so many people did. Those confrontations and connections will be even more important as we move on from the election, and I encourage you to read that discussion here, and join in. Meanwhile, that same line from Clinton’s concession speech stood out to Joy, a reader from Los Angeles:

I was added to the Pantsuit Nation early on when there were a few thousand members. I watched that number grow to three million in a matter of weeks. I read the stories that poured in and understood the relief people felt at having a shared private space to express ourselves. It was a secret space, hidden from the trolls and family members who leapt at any mention of HRC on our social media pages. It felt good to belong to a group who wasn’t afraid to say she’s not the lesser of two evils; she is THE BEST CHOICE.

In Hillary’s concession speech she referenced the Pantsuit Nation and how she hoped those voices would come out and be heard. And that’s when it hit me: I’d been hiding. My hiding cost her the election, just as much as the Trump voters.

I hesitated before wearing my Hillary T-shirt out in public. I never could commit to putting the bumper sticker on the outside of my car, so I taped it inside the tinted rear window and told myself my children were probably safer this way. I felt exposed when my in-laws, Trump supporters, came to visit and saw my Hillary votive candle on my mantle. I worried that my kids would repeat something I’d said about Trump and their grandparents would get offended. Why did I worry about offending them when everything out of Trump’s mouth offended me?

Now we’re days past the election and I’ve been added to many more secret Facebook groups. People are wearing safety pins as a secret signal to others they pass on the street. We’re all afraid and communicating in code. No one wants to be exposed, identified and vilified as a “crybaby” who won’t accept things and move on. What is it that keeps us in the shadows? I still can’t answer that for myself.

That’s been the most painful question for many of our readers, who wrestle with guilt and shame over failing to publicly support Hillary Clinton even as they explain the fears and pressures that kept them quiet. Meghan G., another member of Pantsuit Nation, writes that she’d stopped mentioning her support for Hillary because she was always accused of voting for her “just because she’s a woman.” Amy, a Democrat in Texas, kept quiet about politics at work, because she has a government job—but she also didn’t wear her Hillary shirt outside in her neighborhood, because her husband was afraid she’d be harassed or attacked by Trump supporters. James B. Youngblood, who lives in a mostly white, mostly Republican town in northern California, says that “as a gay man I have often let things slide and hid my own feelings, often to keep the peace and avoid confrontation but also to avoid physical violence.” He calls his reasons for keeping quiet “shameful,” and maybe they are. But those threats and fears are also real.

It’s a strange mixture of factors, I think, that silences Hillary supporters—especially women, especially in this era of so much and so little progress. There are the habits of silence we learn over years of being dismissed or talked over, of being called bitchy, of having our pleasant smiles prized over anything that we might say. The habits of fear that we learn over years of silently ducking our heads past catcalls, of clutching our keys in our pockets in case a strong man on a dark street turns out to be dangerous.

But then there are the other aspects of being a woman in America: the fact that nearly every possibility does seem open to us, and that the sexism we do encounter is rarely so overt as Donald Trump’s. The remarkable fact that for many women my age, the nomination of a woman by a major party feels normal; that the shattering of America’s highest glass ceiling feels so inevitable that it’s somehow embarrassing to admit putting votes behind a desire to see it break. It can almost feel, strangely, like a betrayal: Generations of women have fought to ensure that when it comes to opportunity, gender doesn’t matter. Today their success is defined, ironically, by the invisibility of what they’ve achieved.

And that combination—the subtlety and the complexity and the normalcy of it all—can hold us back from publicly supporting the champions we have. Take it from Carol, whose surprise about Clinton’s loss is mixed:

Hillary’s brutal beating by Trump has shockingly revealed to many of us that the U.S. is far more misogynistic than we realized. Many of us women truly thought we’d come a long way, baby, but now we know the awful truth.

In 2008, I talked my mother, a glass-breaker herself, out of voting for Hillary in the primary by convincing her that too many people seemed to hate Hillary, and that she couldn’t win the national election. I had long heard shockingly snide remarks about her from both women and men.

In honesty, I think Hillary, who is my age, is yesterday’s version of a woman leader, defined in the corporate world of the ’90s when we strove to fit in with the men, from the pantsuit to the tightly controlled emotions. Some day, I believe a different woman will come along who is strong in a different way, more comfortable in her femininity, using her femininity in a way that is powerful but somehow not threatening. And only because Hillary lost so painfully will people rejoice to finally see a woman take the White House. Hillary was simply not the right woman for this time.

At this time, the president-elect of the United States is a man who’s been openly hateful toward women. In this time, what it means to be an American woman is more complicated than ever. So what does it mean, as Carol puts it, to use femininity in a way that is powerful? What is it, as Joy asks, that keeps us in the shadows even as we succeed? I’ll welcome your thoughts and reflections, as I’ll be reflecting myself.

For my part, I’ve quietly, passively, half-guiltily supported Hillary Clinton since the 2008 primaries, when a boy in my high-school Spanish class said the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard in person, before or since. His name was Tré. He was a class clown, usually, but that day he was being serious, wearing a “Hope” T-shirt with Obama’s face, and wristbands in red, white, and blue. He wasn’t old enough to vote, but he was supporting Barack Obama. He was hopeful and proud; it was long past time for a black man to sit in the White House. And then he turned to Hillary Clinton, or rather to Bill Clinton’s infidelities: “If her pussy wasn’t good enough, how’s she going to be president?”

In the classroom, there was a minor uproar. A girl shrieked with laughter: “You’re so bad!” The boy next to me, Noah, pronounced Tré’s language inappropriate and threatened to call the principal, and Tré turned angry: Noah wouldn’t dare. The two of them faced off over a desk, and all I could think was that I couldn’t let them fight. All that I said was, “Tré, please stop.” And he thanked me for asking nicely.

I was 15. I could recite the names of suffragettes; I’d grown up on historical-fiction novels with heroines who weren’t allowed to do things just because they were girls. But this was the first time I’d seen a peer, someone I liked and trusted, so crudely and casually dismiss the strength and skills of someone like me. It was the first time I recognized how much a female president would mean: the example that she’d set, the respect and the progress to which she would testify. It was the first time I realized, fully, that I needed Hillary Clinton. It was also the first time I failed her.