Hillary Clinton, Sean Spicer, And Who Gets To Speak
Earlier this month United States Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked 11 people gathered around a White House dinner table a question about Donald Trump’s latest DACA deal with the Democrat party. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi began to answer, the 10 men around her began to pontificate over her, drowning her out. “Do the women get to talk around here?” she challenged her fellow diners before each and every one fell silent. Her mettle paid off. Headlines were made. She wasn’t interrupted again.
I was reminded of this anecdote scrolling through pictures of a grimacing Sean Spicer yesterday morning, as he waggled his fingers on stage at the Emmy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday night. Melissa McCarthy — the woman who satirised him on Saturday Night Live — watched on silently and uncomfortably with a smile that masked her contempt. The audience laughed, much like everyone chortled when Jimmy Fallon ruffled Donald Trump’s bouffant on late-night television in 2016. We’ve got used to platforming the men who hurt us. Perhaps it’s easier to laugh alongside these over-privileged fraudsters in their ill-fitting suits — it normalises the unprecedented threats they pose. So we let them in on the joke and engage with their lies; we give them a podium and we plug in the mic. Here’s the issue, though — the joke is on us. Our engagement with Spicer and Trump speaks volumes about who we’re prepared to listen to, in spite of the very real dangers they pose, and who we are not.
It’s funny how we give men like Sean Spicer a prime-time spotlight and we tell women like Hillary Rodham Clinton to go away — as Vanity Fair elegantly put it — “quietly into the night”. At the same time that Spicer was making light of his lies in front of an A-list crowd, I was about 140 pages into a minor political memoir entitled ‘What Happened.’ You’d have to have had your head stuck in cement-mixer not to be aware of of Clinton’s rundown of the biggest election upset in US history. Despite imminent nuclear war in east Asia and a devastating humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, the internet has been ablaze with condemnation at Clinton’s brazen audacity to publicly speak about her experience of becoming the first-ever woman nominated by a major party for the United States presidency.
‘What’s to be done with Hillary Clinton, the woman who won’t go away?’ asked the New York Times as one valiantly anonymous Clinton fundraiser went one step further: “Honestly, I wish she’d just shut the f — — up and go away.” As a female journalist who’s been told to “calm down” and “shut up” more than once during my career, this attempt to muzzle is nothing new. In fact, the jeering aggression over a woman speaking her mind only qualifies why a book like ‘What Happened’ is needed. We all have stories to tell. Over the centuries too many women have been conditioned to accept that theirs are bound by restrictions and stipulations that don’t apply to the men who surround them; that a woman’s right to speak depends upon some kind of social permission.
Regardless of your personal views about Clinton — and I’m aware that, before the trolls come out to play, many people question her record and reputation — her latest attempt to speak unedited should be given the platform it deserves. She’s earned the opportunity to recount her defeat just like Bernie Sanders did 10 months ago. Debate and ignore her if you feel like it — but nobody has the right to deny a woman her rightful place at the table. Much like Nancy Pelosi at that White House banquet, Twitter too often feels like a cacophony of loud, angry male voices drowning out a female narrative they don’t want to hear. It’s easier to yell, and to overwrite, than to listen.
The public response to Clinton’s book echoes many of the stories she retells in it. Take the anecdote in a chapter called ‘On Being a Woman in Politics’ where a 29-year-old Hillary Clinton has dinner with a group of older men from the Democratic party. She had been ‘pestering them’, she tells us, for information and they were annoyed with her. ‘I started explaining once again what I needed to know from them and why,’ she writes. ‘Suddenly one of the men reached across the table, grabbed me by my turtleneck, and yanked me toward him. He hissed in my face, “Just shut up.”’ Although the whole incident lasted thirty seconds, Clinton never forgot it. 40 years later, it’s still happening.
It’s hard to erase memories, especially when they’re continually played out in workplaces and homes across the globe. Hillary Clinton is (depressingly) used to being told to sit down and shut up; and I doubt she needs me to defend her. But, what about the women who are trying — and often failing — to speak up and be listened to elsewhere?
Clinton’s struggle to be heard is ours too.