Our Changing Perception of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton

Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally during the 2008 Democratic primary.
Courtesy of Angela Radulescu/Flickr.

It’s Presidents’ Day. And I find myself thinking about her, the woman who came closest to presiding over our nation, taking up temporary residence (for the third time) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I am fascinated by our nation’s changing perceptions—and altered reception—of Hillary Clinton.

Do you remember Hillary Rodham Clinton? Do you remember Hillary with the headbands? National healthcare Hillary, who tried to bring us affordable healthcare long before Obama? Do you remember Hillary, the faithful wife, betrayed? The stoic Hillary who stood by her man? Remember the campaigner Hillary —sharp, powerful, at times charming—who as Secretary of State helped restore personal and national reputations?

I remember those many incarnations, and I remember the media (not just the conservative media and not just men) making light (to be kind) of everything—including her wonderful guffaw laugh, even her headbands, and when she traded in the headbands for a more sophisticated style, ridiculing her for that. Has there ever been a first lady, I wonder, who received such vitriolic scrutiny? But then again has there ever been a first lady as confident and powerful, one who has had such far-reaching impact (and consequently inspired such hostility) as Ms. Clinton? And now our retired, dare I say borderline-beloved, Secretary of State has changed… again. Or perhaps it is we who have changed.

I could argue that it is simply her time. All those life experiences have seasoned her and made her more “mellow” and “likeable,” have shaved off her “shrill” and “unappealing” edges. But really, who are we kidding? I think it is simply our time. Hillary has been Hillary has been Hillary throughout her entire life and career. It is only now that we are able to recognize and value all that she is, has done, and represents. And I wonder why? Why this change of heart now?

Because at 65, Hillary has entered her “Grandma years.” Look at the pictures: most are of her seated, relaxed, wearing glasses, sporting a quiet, Buddha-like smile. She no longer poses a threat. We were first introduced to Hillary as “mother”—literally because Chelsea was 13 during the time of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, and archetypally since Hillary, then middle aged, was at the height of her physical, psychological, and sexual power.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we like our Grandmas; we don’t like our mothers. Of course, that’s not literally true. What I mean is our love-hate relationships with the women who bore us is… well, complicated. But our relationship with Grandma is easy, simple, with very little baggage. We tend to project our personal unconscious fears, fantasies, and desires on public and political figures. Why would we want our mother to govern us all over again? But Grandma? We love Grandma! She gives us butterscotch candy, let’s us drink from her black coffee during brunch and dry martinis during dinner, encourages us, beaming, to polish off the last bite of dessert from the Early Bird Special. (Maybe this was just my Grandma, but I doubt it.) Who wouldn’t want a cogent, articulate, internationally experienced Grandma in the White House?

Hillary for 2016!

I recognize that I’m greatly simplifying things, but you must recognize the nugget of truth: Many of us don’t know how to process strong, decisive, smart, unapologetic, women leaders, especially if age does not soften their sharper edges and dampen our own adolescent fears.

This is not just about Hillary getting older. This is about a systemic, national problem: we as a nation have had so few opportunities to grow with real women leaders. To embrace women leaders in their prime, we need more examples of and access to brilliant, powerful titans. Yet in order for those kinds of leaders to succeed, we need to make room for them, invite them to take a seat at the table, recognize that a powerful woman isn’t necessarily our mother, or our grandmother, but her own person, and hope that when she rules, she will do so justly.

People, we must remember: the political isn’t always personal.

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How to cite this page

Orcha, Gabrielle. "Our Changing Perception of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton." 18 February 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/our-changing-perception-of-hillary-rodham-clinton>.

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