Election 2016

My Gen X Hillary Problem: I Know Why We Don’t 'Like' Clinton

As a young woman, I idealized Bill but scorned Hillary's supporters; at 43, I see this preference for what it was.

Hillary Clinton waves as she leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 8, 2014, after meeting French President Francois Hollande

As many a news outlet has told us, women over 45 are supporting Hillary, and those under 45 are feeling the Bern. On the dividing line lies Generation X. (Remember us? People used to care about us.) At 43, I fall more or less right into the statistical middle and I’ve acted accordingly. Up until a few weeks ago, I supported Bernie for president, but I felt slightly guilty doing so. The man is passionate, his vision for the future is exciting, and he seems like a super-smart, slightly off-kilter uncle who would liven up Thanksgiving. He’s Bernie! We love Bernie. Also, we’re beyond needing to support a woman simply because she’s a woman. I should vote for the candidate who feels right to me. And that candidate happens to be a man.

Also, I’d never been much of a Hillary fan. She seemed fine: When she first came onto the national stage in 1992, she came across as the type of wife you’d hope someone like Bill Clinton would have. She had her own successful career. She was raising a daughter who was going through the same awkward stage I’d gone through only a few years earlier. She was the type of person I expected to grow up to be – a working mother who wore suits, supported herself financially, and had an equal say in her marriage – why would I expect anything else?  My understanding was that the bad old days were behind us (Fleetwood Mac was being played on a continuous loop that year, after all. And at college we were insisting on being called women, not girls! We were marching to take back the night! ) and that I, as a woman, would get to have whatever life I chose for myself.

But even though I had no objections to Hillary, I’d found her fans extremely off-putting. In 1992, as a summer intern with the Clinton campaign’s polling firm, I traveled to New York City for the Democratic convention. I didn’t have a badge to get inside Madison Square Garden, so I spent many hours walking around the perimeter and watching people. And I quickly identified a certain kind of woman at the convention who I actively disliked: the rabid Hillary supporter. These women were covered in buttons that read “Hillary’s husband for President” and “A woman’s place is in the House and the Senate.”  (Notably absent from that button: the Oval Office.) They would talk your ear off about how they were voting for Bill because they loved Hillary. But I didn’t get it. They felt like a throwback to another era, as though Hillary was the woman they’d dreamed of during their consciousness-raising sessions, before the vagina mirrors came out.

We were beyond those battles now. People let us wear pants. We could get mortgages without needing our father or husband to sign for them. Help wanted ads in the paper were no longer divided by gender. No one was rejecting us from law school because they already had enough women. I knew that if someone in a meeting asked me to get coffee I’d tell them to get their own damn coffee and feel pretty good doing it. As a college student I hadn’t yet participated in a meeting, but I felt fairly certain that this would be how things would go. I was living in a coed dorm, after all. I’d seen the guy three doors down walk through the hall in his purple underwear. I was a citizen of a brave new post-sexist nation, which was nothing like the eras my mother or grandmother had inhabited. 

But while I wanted to dismiss the rabid Hillary ladies (I can still see them now with their broad grins and short bobs and fond memories of 1968), one incident kept nagging at me, making me wonder if perhaps the fight wasn’t totally over. It had to do with chocolate chip cookies.

“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” Hillary had said on the campaign trail. “But what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.”

This remark, spoken off the cuff and taken somewhat out of context, caused hellfire to rain down from the sky. Stay-at-home mothers pointed out that raising children was hard work too. People speculated on national news that Hillary might be Bill’s co-president. At Clinton’s next press conference the vast majority of questions he took were about his wife. Perhaps, my college self thought, the battle wasn’t entirely over. Here was a woman who had a demanding, powerful job, who was raising a daughter, and people still expected her to have a cookie recipe. Who has a cookie recipe, anyway? Don’t most people just use the recipe on the chocolate chip package? Doesn’t having one’s own recipe imply that one has spent hours in the kitchen tinkering with existing recipes to produce a variety that, when people bite into it, will cause them to ask if your secret ingredient is nutmeg? Hillary Clinton was not a woman who had time for that shit, people. 

And then, a few months later, Hillary published her recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in Family Circle magazine. Was it really hers? Did she just rip it off the back of the Quaker Oats container, scrawl “add chocolate chips” at the bottom and fling it at her press assistant? And also: Did this mean that whatever I did in life I, too would need my own cookie recipe?

To make matters worse, the next year gave us Nannygate. Zoe Baird, Clinton’s nominee for attorney general, and the first woman to be nominated for the position, was forced to remove her name from consideration after it was revealed that she had hired a nanny off the books. The woman named to replace Baird, Kimba Wood, never made it to the confirmation hearings because she, too, had hired an undocumented immigrant as her baby sitter. The woman who eventually got confirmed was Janet Reno, who had no children. The message was clear: They’d let you in the room, but they would hold you to a different standard. I filed it away for future knowledge. Maybe I wouldn’t hire a nanny.  Maybe I wouldn’t even have kids. Maybe it wouldn’t matter because I had no plans to become attorney general.

After a few years in politics I changed careers and followed the lure of the newly commercialized World Wide Web; for the past 15 years I’ve run a small technology consultancy. And for many years in my career, the ideas I had in college about what being a woman in the workplace would look like were realized. No one asked me to make the coffee. Actually someone did once, as a joke. He never did it again. And sure, there was the odd inappropriate glance or comment, but throughout my 20s and early 30s I seemed to be moving up at a pace with my male colleagues. So: no need to vote for a woman just because she’s a woman.

Then a few weeks ago I heard a clip on the radio of a young man questioning Clinton at a town hall meeting in Iowa. “I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think you’re dishonest,” he said. “But I’d like to hear from you on why you think the enthusiasm isn’t there.”

It was subtle, but there was something in his tone I recognized. It was not a tone you would use to speak to someone who was a former secretary of state and senator. It was the tone you reserve for that dumb chick in your meeting who probably doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It was a tone I’d heard countless times over the course of my career, and in that moment I suddenly saw Hillary Clinton in an entirely different light.

I played his comment back in my head, trying to pinpoint exactly what I found so irksome, and realized it was the phrasing “I’d like to hear from you.” The phrase has tiny flecks of condescension in it. It’s not the way you’d phrase a question to someone you believe deserves a place at the table. And then I thought back over the course of my career, and made a mental list of all the times someone had phrased something in a way that had just a soupçon of implied incompetence to it. 

There was an initial phone call with a prospective client who, after I ran through a description of my company’s offerings asked me, “And you run the company all by yourself?” When I responded that I did, he cheered, “Good for you!” I didn’t get the business. At the time I’d shaken it off as a strange call, but then it happened again. Was it me, I wondered? Was there something about the way that I was presenting myself that made me seem insecure? When I was younger I might have chalked it up to age. I was young – I would grow into a mature way of conducting sales calls and pitch meetings. But at 43 I understand that what people mean when they ask if I run the business all by myself is “I’ve noticed you’re a woman and I’m confused by that because you don’t look or sound the way a technology business owner is supposed to, so I will discreetly take my business elsewhere.”

Worth noting: I have never, ever, had a woman ask me if I run my business all by myself.

Looking over my career I recognized other slights. Back in the first dot-com boom I’d had a series of bosses who were just a few years older than me, who were always good-looking, charismatic guys. I rarely encountered a 28-year-old female department head, but there were plenty of 28-year-old men who had been entrusted with running a section of a large agency’s interactive arm. The Internet hadn’t existed long enough for there to be a gender gap yet, but there it was.

And then in my late 30s, the women began to disappear. I was at a client’s innovation lab one day when there was a fire drill. (For those not in the tech world, “innovation lab” is code for “a bunch of T-shirt-clad developers in a room with free food and a napping area.”) On a whim, I counted the number of women as they exited the building. In an office of over a hundred people, 12 were female. Where had the women gone? Did they leave because they were sick of being told, in a million little ways, that their opinions weren’t important or that they weren’t qualified to do something for which they were clearly, abundantly qualified? Were they at home, caring for children because their employers didn’t offer flexible schedules and they didn’t want to work for a place with hours so demanding that one might need to use the nap room at the office? Were they burnt out and exhausted by doing their best and then finding out even that wasn’t good enough?

And in that moment, as the young Iowan’s voice rattled around in my head, I knew I would support Hillary. Not just because we both have a uterus (thank you, Killer Mike). Not because I’m afraid of going to a special place in hell (thank you, Madeleine Albright). I’m supporting her because as a member of Generation X, I’ve lived through enough to understand that if Hillary were a man she’d be the front-runner hands-down. I haven’t suffered the overt sexism of earlier generations, but in its place has come a more oblique, more insidious variant. It’s the kind that makes you question whether the fault might lie with you and your abilities. It gives rise to questions about why people aren’t enthusiastic about you, why they didn’t like it when you took a strident tone with them and then, when you adjusted course, complained that you weren’t aggressive enough, or why there’s something about you that just feels wrong. In politics people call this likability. And the female politicians we “like” are few and far between, because they remind us of our mothers or wives or that girl you hated in gymnastics class. We don’t have a frame of reference for what it looks like for women to be running the show, so if she’s not a man, she comes across as all wrong. In the tech world people don’t talk about “likability.” Instead they say, “Mike is going to present to the client because he’s got a great style. But don’t worry, you’ll still have a few slides that you can really own.”

I suspect that the millennial women who are supporting Bernie may simply not have gotten to a place in life where they’ve experienced this kind of chronic, internalized, institutional sexism. In order for someone to ignore you at a senior level, you need be old enough to have reached that level, and most millenials aren’t quite there yet. They’re still where I was in my early 30s, hopeful that we’ve come through the other side to a post-sexist world. Because nothing says “sexism is dead” like a woman voting for Bernie.

As much as we may want the battle to be over, the truth is that there is still much more to fight for. I understand that Hillary may not feel to voters like the perfect candidate in the same way that I don’t feel to clients like the perfect technology consultant. I understand what it’s like to be the most qualified person in the room and still be overlooked in favor of the charismatic guy just because, well, you’d rather have a beer with him. And I know that until the world sees what it looks like for this country to have a female president, we’re going to forever be finding reasons not to vote for one.  I’m done finding those reasons. I’m voting for Hillary.

 

 

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