What would Hillary Rodham’s life have been like, had she not married Bill Clinton? Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel, Rodham, imagines the scenario, and it would not be a spoiler to reveal that she would have been far more successful, professionally, if not personally. (A book of this kind could never be published in India, where political figures are sacrosanct!)
Hillary Rodham met Bill Clinton at Yale, where both were studying law—she was every bit as brilliant as him, but when she married him, she had to perforce live in his shadow as First Lady of the US. Even after the many gains of the women’s movement, female politicians are still fewer in number, and as the last presidential race proved, Americans are not ready to accept a woman as president.
The First Lady looks after the social image of the president, while he performs political duties. He hobnobs with heads of state and makes policy decisions; acts as hostess at the White House, and sees to it that she is always impeccably dressed, coiffed and made-up. When she accompanies him on state visits, he has high-level meetings, she lunches with the ladies and chucks endless infants under the chin.
In real life, Hillary Clinton looked like she did not enjoy playing second fiddle. When she made the unfortunate comment in 1992, “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies, and had teas. But what I decided to do was fulfill my profession. The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed to assure that women can make the choices whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood, or some combination,” she faced a huge backlash. Without paying attention to the full quote, conservative Americans, women in particular, were offended that she had looked down on stay-at-home moms.
People were already uncomfortable with the fact that she did not give up her own legal career when Bill Clinton took office. Then, she was not demure or glamorous enough in her severe pant suits; when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out, she was also accused of putting ambition over self-respect and standing up for her cheating husband, because his power would eventually enable her own presidential aspiration.
Hillary wrote In her memoir, Living History, “I became a lightning rod for political and ideological battles waged over America’s future and a magnet for feelings, good and bad, about women’s choices and roles.” And, she is right, more people revile her than admire her, because she gives off vibes of being tough. Apart from the nasty memes, at one point, in a show of ghastly American sexism, a nutcracker was manufactured with her likeness–the implication is clear.
In Rodham, when she is a child of nine, and expresses an opinion contrary to that of her friend’s father, he snaps, “You are awfully opinionated for a girl.” From the perspective of a man in a predominantly misogynistic culture, girls were expected to be docile and keep their ideas to themselves.
Even today, ambition is not seen as a desirable trait in a woman. If she chooses a career over marriage and motherhood, she is a cold, heartless monster. Back in 1992, when just four women were elected to the US Senate (there were 96 males), the media called it the “Year of the Woman!” Today, there are 25 women serving in the US Senate, the highest even in history, but still not enough.
In the book, Hillary Rodham has a problem finding suitable men—they just do not value her intelligence. So, she has to always settle for unworthy men who pick her, rather than be able select the kind of men she would like to date. When she meets the very tall, handsome, bright and charming Bill Clinton, she cannot believe her luck.
They get into a serious relationship, and against the advice of her friends, she shelves her own professional dreams and follows him to his home town in Arkansas, from where he wants to launch his political career. Soon, she notices his infidelities and, to her horror, is told by a woman that Bill “forced himself” on her. In those days, the term sex addiction had not yet come into use, and Bill tells Hillary that he cannot help his high libido; much as he loves her and wants to marry her, she will have to put up with his affairs.
Hillary actually considers this, she is so dazzled by Bill’s charisma, but he breaks up with her, because he would not be able to stay faithful to her and he does not want that to be an impediment in their future together.
Heartbroken, she returns to a solitary life in Chicago, teaching law and participating in advocacy initiatives for women and children. Slowly, she rises up the political ladder and wins a senate seat. She genuinely cares for her constituents, and backs legislation that would help the weak and underprivileged.
The media, however, plucks at her flaws—whether it is her supposedly strident voice, or her single status. It is worse when social media comes into play—she is called the vilest names possible, even by female journalists. When she appears on a radio show, hosted be a comedian, he has the cheek to ask her if she ever borrowed a tampon from Nancy Pelosi (fellow politician). Would such a condescending question ever be asked of a male politician?
Meanwhile, Bill goes on to become a Silicon Valley billionaire, has two marriages and countless affairs; he hushes up a sexual harassment case with a hefty out-of-court settlement. But the media love him—a female columnist actually writes, “Sexually harass me, Bill!” In his rallies, men chant, “Shut her up!” and nobody takes up for Hillary. She has always been perceived, not as a women, but as an “honorary man” the fictional Hillary says. She is, however, female enough to have to get her hair and make-up done for every public appearance, shave her legs and get botox shots to smoothen her skin, because women are always judged for their appearance, more often than not, harshly; Hillary is criticized for being dull, dowdy and uncool. When death threats force her to wear a bullet-proof vest, she is damned for weight gain.
Hillary simply takes her loneliness and sexual abstinence as a price to pay for a political career. She rues her “pale and lumpy” thighs and keeps pining for Bill. When she does fall for a married colleague, they restrict themselves to holding hands and hugging. Bill, a serial sexual predator, suffers no repercussions over his alleged participation in drug-fuelled orgies.
Interestingly, Donald Trump makes an appearance in the book, as an unlikely ally of Hillary Rodham and comes across as a pompous, ridiculous, ego maniac.
The book is prurient and invasive—even if it is fiction—but makes some significant points. Hillary understands that for men chasing a goal for personal achievement is acceptable, but every woman who hopes to gain entry to the highest office of power does so on behalf of her entire gender. “Yes, I was me, Hillary, but I also was a vessel and a proxy,” she says.
If she does not fit the groove society has set for her, she is demonized, like the real Hillary was, and continues to be. In spite of all the progress that women have made, they still have to constantly atone for ambition and be punished for real or imaginary transgressions. However, it is somewhat tragic that even in an alternate reality fantasy, the author does not allow the woman to have it all.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated June 16, 2020)