To grow up a girl in the 1990s was to stew in a particularly rich pot of misogyny and, for some of us, to have one’s sense of the world shaped by the treatment of an uneasy trinity of women: Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky.
Sure, my experience was exaggerated by living in the Deep South—Georgia went for Bill Clinton in 1992, then promptly gave the country Newt Gingrich—and it’s not like I would have sidestepped sexism if the backlash hadn’t had the women of the Clinton years to concentrate its venom upon. The point is that an entire generation of young women grew up to a steady stream of horribly sexist invective aimed at a series of women who dared to be high-profile, whether they sought their notoriety out or it was thrust upon them.
From the very earliest days of her father’s administration, 12-year-old Chelsea was made a punchline for being, supposedly, woefully unattractive. (For instance, Rush Limbaugh’s TV show “accidentally” confused photos of Chelsea and the Clintons’ dog.) And a public roasting of Monica for her perceived chunkiness closed out the Clinton years, helpfully assisting many of us in developing a lifetime’s worth of body issues. In between there was the mistreatment of women who somehow drifted into the orbit of the White House, like Janet Reno—too mannish. And all that’s in addition to the constant, incessant, deeply racial right-wing obsession with “single mothers,” ensuring that African American women were under siege on multiple fronts.
And then, of course, there was Hillary. Unfeminine radical feminist Hillary Clinton. Ugly uppity bitch Hillary Clinton who dared to get involved in actual legislative efforts, who wanted to keep her maiden name in the mix, who didn’t want to stay at home and bake cookies but was boxed into baking cookies anyway, who was criticized for saying she wouldn’t simply be a stand-by-your-man kind of woman and then criticized for standing by her man.
I can still hear it, pronounced as a punchline: MMMMMMIIIIIZZZZZZZZZ Rodham Clinton.
This toxicity flourished most in conservative circles, of course, and in forerunners to Fox News and Breitbart like Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio outposts. But late-night hosts did their part and the “mainstream media” abetted, too. And some of us—especially those of us from places like the Deep South—have spent years unfucking our heads, purging the last of Rush’s voice from our internal monologues.
Hence I took a quiet, private delight in the notion that not only was it looking likely that we’d be inaugurating our first female president come January, but it would be somebody who—while far from perfect—had faced the sexist modern media equivalent of the stocks. And if everything went right, she’d triumph over a relic who embodied the misogynistic crudity to which she’d so often been subjected. Donald Trump has spent years building himself a brand as the man most likely to call a woman he doesn’t like a fat pig. A month before the election, we all heard him say it for himself: “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
It would be a pretty piece of historical symmetry, the 1990s coming full circle.
Electing Hillary Clinton president wouldn’t have been some unqualified feminist victory, a magic panacea for women’s issues. The pressure on abortion rights wasn’t going to disappear; the state-by-state struggle to protect those rights was going to be every bit as bitter. Despite her 1990s reputation as a frightful radical feminist, she tends to compromise, to guard her rightward flank. And after all the years of racialized rancor from conservatives about “single mothers,” it was Bill’s administration that set out to “end welfare as we know it.” For all that her campaign offered an ambitious childcare plan, her election would have meant years of holding her feet to the fire.
But as I looked around at the little girls I see popping up on my Facebook and toddling around my neighborhood—as I think of my own future children—I wanted this for them. I want a lot of things for them, of course: longer protected parental leave and paid at that; federally subsidized daycare; public schools that are well-funded and actually integrated; access to health care. But in the meantime, I wanted the symbolic victory of the election of America’s first female president with the added dimension that it could be seen as a renunciation of the way the country talked about Hillary Clinton and indeed all women for so many years. There’s so much work to do, but surely we could start by bagging this.
Instead, America opted for Donald J. Trump.
And the worst part? White women voted for him. Just weeks after he was caught on tape bragging about he could just take what he wanted from a woman’s body. After a lifetime of highly public disgusting talk. White women voted for him.
And now, instead, we are left with a symbol of just how fucked we truly are.