Someone who looks like me and loving Hillary after all
Earlier this summer, at my own daughter’s prompting, I watched the Hulu series on Hillary Clinton. It opens with Hillary waiting for the interview to begin. She is patient and still while a makeup artist performs her final touches and then pats Hillary’s hair just so. Secretary Clinton is not a young woman, but the camera loves her, and she uses it to great effect. Her eyes have a vibrant joyfulness about them which is enviable. But when she spins or positions or squirms, she’ll look into the camera, then widen her gaze, opening her mouth as if to appear as though she’s been caught unawares, which everyone knows is a ruse just to buy time. Watching her do this when she was running for office, I’d think, “Why is she saying this? Why doesn’t she just answer the question?” Then I’d catch myself wondering, “and why did she stay with Bill?”
Fifty years ago, when I was six years old, my parents would say, “You can grow up to be anything you want at all!” Then my dad would add, “You could even be President.” And he meant it. He was an important guy, a magazine editor, so if he said it was so, then you could count on it. We lived in New York City then and our lives were undeniably glamorous. On Tuesdays, after school, I’d climb into a limousine belonging to a pair of twins in my class. Unseen by the streets’ steaming chaos, and with their housekeeper as chaperone, we’d strip off our uniforms and slip on our skating skirts while the limo took us across town to the Sky Rink, where we rode an elevator up to the sixteenth floor. The twins always scrambled into their skates and within minutes were on the ice. Their housekeeper would then smile at me, waiting as I laced up my skates. Invariably, my legs trembled like jelly, left to right. Being spectacularly uncoordinated, I dreaded what came next. Easing myself onto the ice, I’d watch an elderly couple glide past. They were always there, at the same time every Tuesday, their arms laced in a waltz, almost floating as they skated. They were a vision, a couple who were undeniably in love. Suffering through my lesson on the other side of the rink, I’d sneak glances at them, while praying my clumsiness would not betray my frequently bruised tail bone. After all, my parents had admonished me, if I just set my mind to it, I could do anything, anything at all. I could even be President.
In 2016, the Democratic Convention lovingly compiled a glass ceiling intro of the nominee, wherein the ceiling smashed to reveal someone who looks like me. A middle-aged white woman with fair coloring and a great big smile. It came as a shock and sent tears to my eyes. But there was no doubt. Hillary Clinton would most likely become President.
In 2016, I did not love Hillary. Still, I gave her my vote.
By the time I was nine, I could skate well enough to perform an arabesque. My parents had moved us to live at our country house full time, while my dad kept an apartment in the city. In the woods behind our property there was a swampy area, not large, dotted with trees. My mother declared it was a pond and enlisted help to clear the brush growing round it. When temperatures dropped enough to shovel the snow off its frozen surface, Mom brought lawn chairs for us to change into our skates. Scratchy wool blankets, hot cider and ginger snaps were also close at hand. For several years, during the winter months, while others stayed inside to watch TV, we’d tromp through the snow after dark to my mother’s private ice pond where she lit kerosene lamps and hung them on the surrounding tree limbs. Moonlight cast shadows through the naked branches and the stars shone on the frozen surface of the snow. Everything seemed to sparkle there, the lanterns just bright enough to see each other’s smiles.
In those days, my mother’s friends were women who wore hip huggers and turtlenecks with big chunky jewelry. They worked in publishing and fashion and were not to be taken lightly. But at my parents’ house, I never heard them talk about being feminist, nor was I encouraged to classify myself as such. There was an uneasy avoidance of the term. I also had the childish misunderstanding of confusing the word ‘feminism’ with other isms such as sadism and fascism. It all seemed baffling to my nine-year old self. Why would a woman need a classification that was an ism or an ist? Nobody classified my mother as one thing or another. She was and did exactly what she wanted. At least it seemed that way to me.
References to Gloria Steinem were made from time to time, and my mom would then shrug with a small, coy chuckle, but that was a mystery, too. Gloria was someone from my parents’ past who represented a period when they were at odds with one another. Now, Gloria was everywhere, and I didn’t grasp the significance of her. Nor did I know anything about my father’s running a piece on Gloria which was basically a hatchet job, for whatever reason, I had no idea. If she was someone my mother knew, but no longer spoke to, well, then, I had no interest in this person either.
When I was twelve, I was enrolled in a girls’ boarding school in England. Not long thereafter, Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. “You see, you see,” the teachers nodded, “A woman can do anything.”
None of us were permitted to think for one second that there was anything unusual about Mrs. Thatcher’s firm grasp on the reins of power. Likewise, in New York, I never heard disparaging remarks (at least not from my dad) about Shirley Chisholm, or Elizabeth Holtzman or Bella Abzug. These women were tough! And they could play tough, too. But Gloria Steinem and the idea of my mother using the term feminism remained unspoken, an issue we simply didn’t discuss.
My mother was complicated. She often claimed she only did what was permitted, which I found difficult to believe. If she decided such a thing would come to pass, invariably, it did. She grew up in Hollywood, was largely truant at school and left home at seventeen to work as an actress. She married my father at the age of 28. She said that she married him because he insisted that she do so. But no one told my mother what to do. She thought nothing of walking into a theatre during intermission to find herself a seat and catch the second act for free. She made friends almost effortlessly, anywhere in line, on the bus, at Bloomingdale’s, or Lincoln Center. She liked telling people, ticket collectors particularly, long before it was true, that she was actually in her seventies so as to get the senior discount. When she spent several years driving back and forth from New York to L.A., she picked up hitchhikers all the time, but only if they let her give them a haircut first. Out came a lawn chair from the ice pond days, young men subjecting themselves to her scissors somewhere on the side of the interstate. She often received Christmas cards and postcards from them afterwards, each guy writing, “Dear Mrs. Hayes”. I was not aware of any shop lifting but she did have an extraordinary ashtray collection as well as an endless supply of stationary, from the finest hotels in Europe.
But for all her madcap spontaneity, I could see, as early as I can remember, how unhappy she was, which usually, was most of the time. She was a woman of powerful intellect, but for whatever reason, the only thing she could put to use was her charm. She barely got through her GED and one wonders what might have been had she been nurtured in school or tutored or coached or even been a boy. Still, Mom’s playfulness was irrepressible. She kept her private anguish tucked away from the world, until it escaped, usually on Sundays, as she watched my father prepare to return to the city, to have dinner with whichever woman he was seeing on the side at the time.
What does this have to do with Hillary? What was Hillary’s tragic flaw? As the Hulu Hillary story unfolds, Bill Clinton frequently appears, commenting about this or that. That she stayed with Bill and chose not to tell us why is not directly addressed. The Monica Lewinski debacle certainly is though, and as Bill Clinton speaks, his gaze becomes haunted, with the silent acknowledgement that it was Hillary’s steadfast loyalty to him which was her undoing. It cost her the election, and it cost us, the electorate, so many things, that from the perspective of the corona virus, one might argue the cost has become immeasurable.
Whenever asked about my father’s infidelity, my mother serenely answered that if it was good enough for President Kennedy, it was good enough for my father. As I grew up, I watched, with a great deal of skepticism, other females bravely fighting for their principles. I now wonder if that skepticism was from watching my mother exist in a marriage wherein ‘principles’ did not apply. In my naivete, I thought women who wanted to be priests were misguided. Why would they want to be priests? Why would they want to be anything that they were forbidden from becoming? What I failed to grasp, what I did not understand at all, was that it was the very act of forbidding them which was in fact the transgression. I had no understanding that the landscape of the world was made for men by men. I had no clue that women would be treated equally by the law only if the men in power agreed it should be so. Watching the documentary Hillary, this finally began to dawn on me. Finally, finally, finally I got it. I got it at the age of 56.
My mother would probably have stayed with my father forever. But he fell in love with someone else, so he ended the marriage instead. When she flew back to the States from one of her European jaunts, my father met her at the airport. It was wintertime. If the snow were cleared off the pond, one might ice skate by moonlight and enjoy the flickering light of the lanterns hanging from the branches. Instead, he met her at the airport and said, “Don’t come up to the house. Here is a ticket for LA. It’s time we did this now.” Then he walked her to the gate for the plane to California.
Was my mother just a captive sprite, who never dared to stray too far away from her gilded servitude? Or was her being female at that time an aspect which precluded her from realizing her extraordinary creativity, that had she been male or educated, she might have cultivated or been trained to realize? By the time she became unmarried, she was in her fifties. The only remaining skill she had perfected was the ability just to get by. After the divorce, she returned from California. Now that she was no longer linked to an influential guy, only a few of her pals with the chunky jewelry stuck around. The trope about sisterhood and female solidarity had proved, largely, to be bullshit.
But my mother did manage to hang onto the country house. To do so, she worked like a fiend, cleaning apartments and chandeliers, often next door to former friends from the days when she was married. She worked twelve-hour shifts at the Javits Center, and she ushered at the theater. She did supernumerary work at the Metropolitan Opera, too. She was such an original, that I never thought systemic misogyny had anything to do with my mother. Now years, later, I feel so differently. The contradictions and travesties of being female in our culture have been built upon very slippery slopes, indeed. “You can be anything you want. You could even be President.”
That a woman with Hillary’s power and authority should have been grilled with such relentless gusto whenever called to testify, in a way that no man would ever be, was outrageous. Was it because she was the first to go past them, on her way to the big time? Those committees in their suits would gloat, relishing their determination to reduce her to the sum of her parts. Watching her endure being scapegoated, with her dignified reserve, she might just as well have been my mom. And when I wanted to know, as a woman, why she stayed with him, just like my mother, the only answer was silence.
In the Hillary documentary, someone observes that the gifted politician appears to be open and spontaneous. But transparent spontaneity was an illusion Hillary could not conjure. Instead we watch, scene by scene and year after year, as she corrects every well intentioned yet ill -conceived misstep. She conforms to appear more palatable, more feminine, glossier, and eminently docile. It is as though, she is advised not to seem, dare I say it, too feminist. I watch this woman who is someone that looks like me. She strove to honor her Methodist upbringing, to do good and to love God. She has always shown up, and has counselled, even in the face of bitter defeat, genuine forgiveness.
Was Hillary the one for the job? Perhaps not, but because of systemic misogyny, we will never know. One catches glimpses of her, in her Covid mask, enjoying life and her family. Had she been at the helm when the pandemic first arrived, undoubtedly, she would have nurtured us through it with more genuine concern than the current guy. Thinking about her, thinking about Hillary, love breaks through my anger and bitterness. We are still here, even in the face of this catastrophic plague, still fretting over how we should position our thoughts on this, that or the other. As females, when will we know how to separate the good parts which are soft and forgiving, from the necessary, tough unyielding ones? Forgiveness, compassion, privacy. These are the fundamentals of marriage which can only happen between two people. At the end of the day, I realize, all Hillary wanted was to maintain some level of privacy.
For myself, I still struggle with rage. Contempt flies out of me, at those who despised her because she wasn’t like them. I feel the same rage on behalf of women who stay when they should be fighting to break free. For Hillary, perhaps, it was love that won in the end. For my mother, it was her freedom. The house with the ice pond was originally purchased for $8,000. My mother sold it for half a million. The last seven years of her life were spent travelling and collecting friends. But she kept the supernumerary gig at the Met. She was a huge opera fan and besides, she still liked to go in at intermission, to find a seat and catch the second act for free.