When I watched Hillary Clinton's speech at the DNC, I teared up. I'll admit, not as much as I did for Michelle Obama. But when Clinton said, "Tonight, we've reached a milestone in our nation's march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for President," I found myself remembering 2008.
In 2008, I was a ten-year-old girl who desperately wanted Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee. My family was neatly split down the middle: my mom and I backed Hillary Clinton, while my sister Adrianna and my dad backed Barack Obama, who I derided as "too young and inexperienced" (the irony of this opinion, in contrast to the sentiments of my 2010 TED talk, does not escape me). My dad would listen to Obama and Clinton soundbites on NPR while driving the family van. I asked him on one of those drives why he was supporting Obama. He said with a thoughtful frown that Clinton's seeming hawkishness--her vote for Iraq especially--gave him pause.
Buried under the weight of stereotypes that expect them to be soft, overly emotional, or even "hysterical," women in politics frequently struggle to claw their way out of this trash heap of biases and be seen as Commander-in-Chief material. It's a fine line to walk, though, as evidenced by my dad's hesitations about her in 2008. Back then Clinton also attracted derision when the president of the Sheet Metal Workers' Union introduced her during an Indiana campaign stop as "an individual that has testicular fortitude." Clinton's "testicular fortitude" may lend itself to accolades like Michelle Obama's praise of her toughness and persistence, but this election cycle it has also led many of my friends to criticize her. How could we vote for Hillary? they've said, in Facebook posts and Twitter retweets of thinkpieces on her stances on foreign intervention, failure to support legalizing gay marriage earlier, or support for her husband's welfare reform policies. On Real Time, Bill Maher joked that Clinton should ditch the mother/grandmother image and instead accept becoming the "wolf that has bits of Grandma in its teeth." Accept the "Crooked Hillary" moniker, he said, just make it clear that you're "Crooked for America Hillary."
Jokes aside, it's important to recognize that Clinton is not purely the DNC's saintly grandmother wreathed in white--nor is she anything close to the "super-villain" of Republican fantasies. One thinkpiece I read criticized Clinton's status in popular culture as a role model for young women, saying that her nomination only proved that little white girls could grow up to be president, nothing more. I completely get behind the idea that we need to present more diverse role models to our children, especially women of color. I grew up on a pretty embarrassingly steady diet of books about white women. But I also disagree with the idea that we can only draw inspiration from people whose identities or ideals align completely with our own.
As a kid, reading about people like Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Eleanor of Aquitaine inspired me. Sure, their power was derived from deeply unequal societies that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of unelected monarchs. Did that faze me? Ehhh...not really. Consider that I also read ancient myths like The Iliad and The Odyssey. In these myths, you'll encounter gods and goddesses--glorified in statues and temples--who rape and kill innocents with abandon (remember Zeus turning into a bull to kidnap Europa?) And beloved characters in India's Mahabharata practice brutal caste discrimination (consider the treatment of nisadas, like when the guru Drona demands the thumb of the archer Ekalavya).
If you like art history, you might know that the Impressionist master Paul Gauguin--whose painting of two Tahitian girls recently sold for a record-breaking $300 million--also slept with Tahitian girls as young as 13, infecting them with syphilis.
The Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fire for ignoring the crisis of the Rohingya in Myanmar (a minority ethnic group being mercilessly persecuted) and even muttering "No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim" under her breath during an interview with BBC journalist Mishal Husain.
Mahatma Gandhi's beatific face appears everywhere from Indian rupees to tote bags in Berkeley, but he used derogatory terms for black South Africans and complained about blacks and Indians being classed together in jails. His misogynistic tendencies included responding to sexual harassment by "forcibly cutting girls' hair short to make sure they didn't invite any sexual attention" due to the assumption that women, not men, were responsible for men's impulses. He stigmatized menstruation and contraception, and slept next to women (including underaged girls), using them as "props to coax him into celibacy," Mayukh Sen writes. The article is part of an entire series on Vice's Broadly called "You Know Who Sucked," with clickbaity-but-accurately-headlined takedowns of historical icons. "Einstein Was a Genius At Treating His Wives Like Shit." "John Lennon Beat Women and Children." It goes on. There's a Tumblr, "Your Fave Is Problematic," that takes on pop culture celebrities--all their racist theme parties, sexist comments, anachronistic views.
Everyone we love has done some fucked up shit. Or, as the BBC article about Gandhi stated in a more genteel way: "But even the greatest men are flawed."
Is Hillary Clinton not allowed to be?
Many of my friends who backed Bernie in the primary are claiming they won't vote for Clinton this election because of all the flaws that make her too unpalatable for them. Look: I can appreciate a criticism of neoliberalism, the Clinton Foundation, mass incarceration, American intervention in other countries, and whatever else as much as the next Berkeley student, but there is a time and a place for sticking to your guns. The national electoral battlefield does not exist to be a soapbox for spewing ideological purity. It's our stab at trying to make a better future. If you find it difficult to imagine supporting Hillary Clinton, then choosing not to vote or voting for a third party candidate (this article is one response to that) might soothe your individual conscience. But it does nothing to help our nation.
Once upon a time, I was a ten-year-old who cheered at her rally, peering at the stage from behind burly guys in their union jackets. All I wanted was to get a sight of the woman whose face I'd cut out from a TIME Magazine to tape haphazardly on my pink bedroom wall--and there she was, a fuzzy black-pantsuited dot to my nearsighted eyes.
Eight years later, my appreciation of Hillary Clinton is a little less hero-worship and a little more tempered by reality. I saw a picture one time from her Wellesley days, her long hair and big glasses, and I felt a twinge of recognition. Her campaign slogan, "Stronger Together," is reflective of the humility that we all need to embrace. Eight years ago, I saw Clinton in the same way I saw Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great and Eleanor of Aquitaine, my lineup of powerful women who I looked up to without caveats. Now, I see her the same way I would want someone to see me if I were in her shoes: someone who's profoundly human and trying her best. Someone who's imperfect, too--but then, so is America.