On Friday, January 6th, eight weeks after our disastrous national election, Congress will meet for the official tally of electoral votes, and Vice President Biden will announce Donald Trump as our President-elect. At this moment, unthinkable a year ago, it’s consoling, if in a bleak and bootless way, to reflect that Hillary Clinton, the most qualified and experienced candidate for the Presidency this country has ever seen, actually did win the race. That is; she won the popular vote by some 2.9 million votes, perhaps more.
The week before the election, The New Yorker began its Comment section with the — in hindsight, crushingly over-optimistic — statement: “On November 8th, barring some astonishment, the people of the United States will, after two hundred and forty years, send a woman to the White House.” The astonishment happened.
Donald Trump, a bullying, egomaniacal businessman with no impulse control, beat her, with the help of the opaque calculus of the Electoral College — that tilted, tainted, antiquated abacus, devised when our Union was in its infancy — and with the assistance of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
Let’s think for a moment about the fact of Hillary Clinton’s two-percent majority, and the insult of its impotence. Clinton defeated Donald Trump by nearly three million votes. Yet this superabundance of preference does not count. Instead, Trump — who is hostile to government and has zero experience of it — is aggressively using the mandate he did not win to undo half a century of social, environmental and diplomatic progress. For every voter in the aftermath of this stomach-churning upset who has blamed Clinton and her campaign for alienating the populace by focusing on unicorns instead of horses (identity politics, they call it), here is an urgent plea: Stop it. Remember that Hillary drew voters in remarkable numbers, winning the popular vote by a larger margin than nearly any candidate in American history. Remember that Trump played the identity card by singling out group after group for derision or threat — Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, the media. And repeat to yourself: Hillary was more popular than Trump.
This means a lot to me, on a personal level. Since no campaign has ever been more personal than this one, please indulge the digression that follows.
As an Illinois-born, blonde-bobbed Yalie who grew up in the Midwest and Southwest, and moved to New York in adulthood, I never understood why Hillary shouldn’t be my candidate, even though it was never “in” to endorse her unreservedly. I identified with her, to an extent. When she entered the public eye in the 1990s, as Bill Clinton won the White House, I cringed when she made impolitic gaffes like joking about baking cookies. Since we came from the same background, more or less, I wondered why she hadn’t intuited the folly of offending conventional women.
Blinded by idealism, she put forth a healthcare reform plan and ditched the tacit First Lady program of unobtrusive Kinder–Kirche–Küche duties. My heart sank. Why hadn’t she known that traditionalists would be incensed by such assertion by a president’s wife? But when she became a politician in her own right, first as New York Senator, then as a 2008 presidential candidate, then as Secretary of State, then as a 2016 presidential candidate, I was delighted for her. I didn’t like her Iraq War vote, and never longed to sip a Chardonnay with her, tête-à-tête, but I was relieved to see her thrive in public office — especially as Senator. She seemed pragmatic, conscientious and hard-working, and I figured everyone could count on her to want to do the right thing for the country.
Though I supported her presidential bids in 2008 and 2016, I never really thought she could win. Echoing the private assumption of every Dazed-and-Confused, Freaks-and-Geeks-attuned veteran of America’s secondary-school Breakfast Club; I assumed Hillary just wasn’t popular enough to pull it off. She was a brain, a girl, a teacher’s pet. That profile, I felt sure, could not win the White House.
The reason I felt this way goes back to my Jimmy Carter-era memories of junior high and Saturday Night Live’s golden age, a resonant collision of national mentality and tastes that persuaded me that most Americans — male and female alike — have a deep, internalized resistance to seeing a female in top office, preferring a man, however Bluto-like, as their president.
I remembered that distant era on the weekend after the election, when Kate McKinnon opened Saturday Night Live with a song of mourning, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in tribute to the bard who had died and the woman whose electoral hopes had been dashed, along with those of every man, woman, and child who had thought the country finally would elect a woman president. Watching that performance, wondering how McKinnon made it through without breaking down, I remembered the odd alloy of comedy and electoral dysfunction that forged my political instincts.
It was in junior high, in Indiana — the state of Mike Pence, the current Vice-President elect — that I decided to never, ever run for office. That is: to never, ever run again for office. In the late spring of my eighth grade year, friends encouraged me to put my name in the hat for our student council election — for the president, vice president, secretary and treasurer who would represent our class when we became high school freshmen in the fall. Girls usually ran for secretary, or treasurer, but I, being a Sesame Street generation kid, didn’t see why I shouldn’t aim at the highest office — girls could be anything, right?
It was 1980, 20 years before the emergence of the ruthless, power-hungry student council candidate Tracy Flick — the universally loathed anti-heroine of Election, the movie based on the Tom Perrotta novel. Back then, little stigma adhered to female political ambition. No American woman had won anything big enough to lampoon yet. So I ran for president. Teeming with plans for uniting our class, I worked up a thrilling (I hoped) speech to spread my rosy vision of our freshman future.
1980 also was a national election year. Jimmy Carter was President, Ronald Reagan was running against him, and the country was several months into the Iran hostage crisis. It felt weird, as a contented kid in the Midwest, in the thick of the triumphal American Century, to understand that 50 American grownups had been captured, and our president couldn’t do anything about it. Even at 12 and 13, we kids knew things looked pretty grim for President Carter if he couldn’t get the hostages back. Earlier that spring, our social studies teacher had led our class through an exercise on leadership and consensus-building that ought to have made me aware of the perils of campaigning, but I didn’t absorb its lesson, seeing it as a game. As in Survivor, we were assigned to talk among ourselves and, through conversation, on the basis of gut feeling, choose one of us to “lead” all of us.
Somehow my following grew until I had two thirds of the class behind me. A cute, sporty, good-natured boy — I’ll call him Luke — had the rest. Looking over at me, he smiled. Instinctively, I smiled back. “See!” he said, turning to his adherents! “I told you she was going to trick you!”
Luke must have told them I had some devious scheme up my sleeve, though what harm I could have wrought, given that my reign was to last one class hour, which was almost over, I can’t imagine. But my smile seemed to confirm his warning. The tide turned, and he became leader. Whenever, over the last quarter century, anyone has made ineffable accusations about Hillary Clinton, mocking her tone, her voice, her laugh, or her intentions, I have remembered that watershed moment in my junior high class.
It was then that it first dawned on me that, when a female candidate places herself in the spotlight, she relinquishes control of her self-image and her reputation. This is true for male candidates, too; but because convention rewards female modesty and punishes female forwardness, a woman who runs for office lays herself open to especially subjective, gendered, vehement criticism. As the heartland maxim goes: “Whistling girls and crowing hens will always come to some bad end.” Crowing, naturally, is to be left to the roosters.
That schoolroom exercise should have made me hesitate to run for class president. But I didn’t think student council was that big a deal. I just thought it would be fun, and that I would enjoy figuring out what my class would like to do if I won. Luke wasn’t running, so I thought I had a decent chance. Overflowing with school spirit, I teemed with positive purpose. Whatever extracurricular activity did not require gymnastic agility, I joined — pep squad, soccer, the school paper, band, choir. In retrospect, I wonder if I seemed more Flick-like to my classmates than I knew. This was before Twitter and Facebook, so I was blithely unaware of my classmates’ mindset. Still, my dad, an idealistic professor, and my mom, a graphic designer, thought the campaign was a terrific idea. My mom printed up posters that said “Liesl for Prez” in an eye-catching font. My friends and I taped them neatly to corridor walls, beside the rows of lockers.
My opponent was a zany, self-destructive John-Belushi type rebel. He looked like a 12-year-old version of Jake Blues, Belushi’s half of the Blues Brothers. I’ll call him Dave.
He was kind of adorable, and very funny. Animal House had come out the previous year, and though Belushi was not a regular on Saturday Night Live anymore, Dave, like all of us eighth graders, watched SNL faithfully. On Monday mornings in home room, we would talk about the best skits we’d seen on Saturday night. Dave liked “Mr. Bill” — a Play-Doh man who got tortured. Once, possibly inspired by Mr. Bill’s ordeals, Dave caught a fly, and tore off its wings. He asked me to pluck a strand of my hair, long and blond, and give it to him. When I obliged, he turned it into a leash, making a noose on one end and attaching it to the fly’s head. He walked the fly across my desk as if it were a small dog.
Dave hadn’t prepared a campaign speech, but his Bluto-like improvisation got rousing applause in the auditorium, and he scored points just for being his feisty, devil-may-care, incoherent self. He didn’t print posters, but as the election neared, he and his friends scrawled signs in Bic pen on crumpled sheets of loose-leaf paper, and stuck them any-which-where on the corridor walls. When election day came and votes were tallied, there were more votes than students, and Dave won by a wide margin. Our principal, in a stern and doleful announcement over the P.A., deplored the stuffing of the ballot box, and said our class would hold a make-up election. Dave won that one too. This time, although there were still murmurs of tampering, the results of the vote were accepted.
I was relieved when I lost — no, really! — because I had so many classes lined up for fall, plus debate club, swim team, and a paper route, that I’d been afraid student council would sink me. I would have taken my responsibilities too seriously, and my grades might have suffered. As Hillary ghosted post-election, save for an occasional apparition in the woods outside of Chappaqua, I thought I detected similar relief in her. But though I didn’t mope, I was surprised. From social studies, and from the school ballot box, I sensed that masculinity had greater electoral currency than my progressive upbringing had led me to believe. I didn’t take it personally; I didn’t think I lost because of who I was, I thought I lost because of what I was. Being a girl, I sensed, was more of a liability than I had believed. Not wanting that to be true, I walled off the thought, and moved on. But the thought lingered all the same, behind the bricks I’d stacked around it, for decades; it’s what had always made me quail at Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes.
After the student council election, as eighth grade came to an end, Dave went on a drunken spree in the school parking lot — I believe cars were damaged — and did not return to school in the fall. I don’t know if he was expelled, or if he left town. And so, our freshman year, the vice-president elect became our de-facto class president.
I never again ran for office; I did not want to gamble on public opinion. I thought that the bias that operated among the kids I grew up with would only get stronger as they got older. Besides, I already knew that I preferred to express myself through writing, and now that I understood that the need to win supporters limited what you could and couldn’t say, I wasn’t interested.
I don’t think, in the intervening years, that all that much has changed in the electoral fable that American voters enact en masse every four years. I think my adolescent parable holds true for grownups. There’s still a mental block in this country against a woman president, and brains and girls have worse odds than jocks and regular guys on the ballot. The campaigns of the last decade have convinced me that great numbers of American voters, male and female, whatever their political affiliation, have an unbending and always personal notion of what a woman should be and what a woman should want; and that this inherent bias shapes their voting choices. The notion of what a man should be and should want is flexible; but I suspect that voters will only tolerate a female candidate who exactly mirrors their own code of proper female conduct and aspiration. It would be hard for any one woman — even Elizabeth Warren — to achieve such a protean feat.
This year, as Republican men and women at the terrifying GOP convention in July shouted and jeered “Liar!” and “Lock her up!” whenever Donald Trump mentioned Hillary Clinton’s name, I saw that in their eyes she was an arch-villain, supernatural in evilness, like, say, Freddie Krueger. I can’t process irrational fury so was unable to justify their bile. But when I quizzed my Democratic friends who opposed Hillary, hoping they would justify their disenchantment in a way that did not strike me as misogynist or supernatural, I again was met with irrational fury.
Some Democratic women told me they hated Hillary because she had not divorced her husband, or because they found the idea of a woman president unnatural. “I just can’t see a woman in that job,” one said. Others refused to vote for anyone at all after Bernie Sanders failed to win the nomination. An old friend blasted Clinton’s ethics, comparing her to Henry Kissinger, and voted for Jill Stein in protest.
On November 8th, 53 percent of white women — my demographic — voted for Donald Trump. Of the remainder who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton, some threw away their votes on Gary Johnson. Others, like my old friend, voted for the eccentric Jill Stein, whose chances of winning were nil, shielding her from the concerted attacks that hobble female candidates who have a fighting chance.
When Hillary first ran for president in 2008, I wondered if the bias against female ambition I had observed in my early teens might have faded. I supported her in the primaries (at the time, this was not politically correct in New York media circles; it was considered retrograde to support her over Barack Obama) but when she lost, I transferred my allegiance to Obama. That November, I voted for him with pride. He has been a wonderful president. In 2016, I hoped again that Obama’s excellent record and Clinton’s obvious superiority to her rival in temperament and experience might mean she would win, this time around.
As late as June, I thought, maybe, just maybe, the country was willing to give a girl a fair shot. But as the campaign grew nastier and nastier, and, particularly, after the FBI’s James Comey undermined Clinton with gratuitous, phony insinuations (reminding me of the teacher in the movie Election who sabotages Tracy Flick’s campaign) I remembered junior high.
I remembered the girl could smile wrong, and lose.
I remembered the macho joker could win, even if it was unfair.
I remembered there didn’t have to be a reason for the girl to lose.
But this week, two months after the queasy morning when the world woke to the Electoral College’s shocking result, I’m feeling a little better, despite the foregone conclusion of Trump’s congressional affirmation on Friday.
Why? Because, well — you know what? Even if Hillary Clinton won’t be in the Oval Office, come January, she did end up being more popular than the guy who ran against her. That’s progress, albeit thwarted progress. Even if the country has four years or more of Animal House mayhem to endure; the numbers show that a woman can win the presidency, even if it’s not this woman, and not this time around. I feel new conviction that before long—four years, eight years, 12— a female Presidential candidate will at last be judged ready to be a prime-time player. I await that astonishment.