Feminism, abortion, lesbians, witchcraft, destroying capitalism — a more alluring vision of politics could not have been offered to fourteen-year-old me back during the 1992 presidential election. These watchwords were meant not as an incantation of freedom, however, but signs of the end-times: fiery warnings from the religious right, delivered to a viewing public by the Big Three networks, about what this country was in for if their man didn’t stay in the White House. Because the other man who might get there would be bringing his wife, their ur–feminist enemy, their pop dominatrix: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Today, the path to the White House has never been clearer for a woman, although it took long enough: Proto-sex-positive feminist Victoria Woodhull ran in 1870, fifty years before she could have even voted for herself. Back at the start of Hillary’s ascendance to Queen-in-Chief — this decades-long coronation to be sealed next week in Philadelphia, this time with Bill bringing up the rear — I was compiling my own baby feminist vita: running my finger over the word “postfeminism” in magazine stories (probably about Madonna or Camille Paglia or possibly both), building a politics out of what I could beckon from the world beyond TV, whatever could be scrounged up and cut up, Xeroxed or swapped by mixtape. Those were my years of staying out for protests and sneaking in from the city and taking my clothes off and getting in trouble. Though Hillary was never so radical as Republicans warned, their fantasies of female domination were how I was made to understand she represented something dangerous. It was a danger I dreamed of.
Still, as I recall them, HRC herself was not a neat fit for the girl/grrrl power standards of her first-lady days. In the Clinton years, feminism was still what the kids called “alternative,” while Hillary was anything but: Maybe she looked all cords and groovy long hair in her Wellesley days, but by the Nineties she was trading on a cool centrist consensus. The alternative nation was for the most part hostile to overt pandering, and the political classes rarely touted their feminist bona fides. Kurt Cobain, Rocking for Choice of his own volition, was one thing. Politicians flattering such sensibilities? Once, boomers hated sellouts in their own ranks as much as we did.
Now in 2016, alt is dead, all culture became pop, and feminism went along with it. HRC’s use of a campaign-cum-fandom was predicted by writer Sydette Harry in the New Inquiry last June, and since then Hillary has collected each aspiring Lena Dunham, every would-be tenant of Broad City. Someone’s out there right now paying down her Gender and Sexuality degree by selling ads off metrics gleaned from all the hashtag-inspiring women who’ve lent their Yasss to HRC. “If you are #WithHer, you might also…” be living your best life, a Pinterest feminism as purposefully realized as a backyard bouquet caught in a Ball jar. Though Hillary’s pop feminist rise was perhaps foretold when the riot and spice varieties of girl power began to cross — like when Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls told Kathy Acker she admired Margaret Thatcher but distrusted the “political industry” in a cover story for Vogue — did anyone foresee a Katy Perry-HRC Instagram takeover? It is, at heart, a marketing strategy, aggressive relevance-seeking that achieved its awkward climax this month when Hillary contributed a post to the women-run, much-beloved website The Toast, hoping to reach, it would seem, women who enjoy leaving supportive comments for one another. As reader lilsebastian01 typed under the post, “I HAVE NEVER BEEN PANDERED TO SO EFFECTIVELY BEFORE.”
Women who have been fighting for only slightly less long than women have sought the highest office told me I was born into a world where a woman could be anything. But that world continues to punish women for wanting something more, or at least something other than what they’d been given, and especially women who fall outside the still-corset-tight boundaries of the acceptable, selfless, pure-white-perfected female mode of power. Yes, you can run the world — as long as you pass and play along. This is #squadgoals with nuke codes, as invoked by the BBC reporter who imagined a G7 attended by a President Hillary Clinton, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and new British Prime Minister Theresa May. Elsewhere journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge joked just this side of too-real, “If we have a woman prime minister it will be very good because then our deportations and detentions of pregnant women will be Feminist.”
My beat is sexual politics, but to date I have not published anything, yay or nay, on Hillary Rodham Clinton, not outside my inbox. I don’t feel shamed or bullied or silenced for not standing by so many women’s fave, not even after Gloria Steinem told us, then claimed she didn’t really tell us, that women only drifted from their girl to be where the boys are. Feminism does not live or die based on the take of any one New York woman in media. That’s as true for Gloria as it is for me. And I feel empowered by a woman president the same way I feel empowered by a woman police officer: In both cases, what matters to me is how that power is checked. The stories that deserve our attention are about all those who that awesome power is most likely to target.
If nothing else, the campaign to elect HRC has given us the chance to revisit her greatest hits — like “bring them to heel,” her words to appease an America freaked out by black teenagers existing in public. That threat-or-command resurfaced a few months back, when drawn on a pillowcase and held in her face by Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams at one of Hillary’s own fundraisers. The confrontation played on repeat for at least part of the day on cable news, forcing the rest of us to confront the utter cruelty of the 1994 Crime Bill, its legacy still with us: thousands more cops, billions for new prisons to pack with more bodies.
Williams made Hillary, along with all of us watching, face the fact that this is another awful season, of bloodied bodies caught on video, of images on loop of the living taking to the streets. We’ve been here before. Most of us live in this America, one that HRC helped to make. Here, Hillary was never as inevitable as conservatives feared.
Now, six presidential elections later, it’s Hillary again, this time with her own fresh and tidy brand. And it’s the Clinton White House we’re being told is the only alternative to the end days. “Slay”?