The Erasure of Hillary Clinton

Susan Bordo
Mar 1 · 14 min read
This cartoon, which has been circulating freely on social media, was removed by artist.

In 2017, when Hillary Clinton emerged after a well-deserved hiatus to resume public service, the calls for her to quietly leave the stage and take up gardening or knitting began to pour forth. After Hillary’s first post-election interview, RealClearPolitics’ A. B. Stoddard advised Democrats to tell Clinton that “she’s done enough damage and it’s time to pack it in” and ask her to “keep her rehabilitation journey as far away from their own as possible.” After a second interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour, Gersh Kuntzman, in the New York Daily News, told Clinton to “shut the f — up and go away already.” Vanity Fair’s T. A. Frank accused Clinton of being “not just a nuisance but a hindrance” to the Democrats achieving coalition; his piece (poisonously alluding to Dylan Thomas’s poem about resisting death) was entitled “Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into the Night?” And when Hillary published What Happened, the journalistic kvetching about the length of her memoir made me wonder if half the population of reviewers was suffering from untreated ADD. The book, by the way, is approximately the same length as Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution, published barely a week after he lost the primary, in which he made it very clear that he was not about to go away. Sanders wasn’t berated for sticking around or burdening us with such a long, narcissistically-timed tome. Hillary, in contrast, was chastised for having the hubris to diagnose her loss (very astutely, as it turned out) and berated for doing so at such length (which apparently didn’t bother the lines of fans who circled the city blocks and clogged mall parking lots, waiting to buy the book.)

The “Go Away, Hillary” trope, at the time, seemed yet another symptom of Hillary Derangement Syndrome, which I expected to gradually dissipate as the facts of the many-faceted campaign against her emerged and the mass media might take some responsibility for all the crap it created during the election, from the tropes of “unpopular Hillary” and “untrustworthy Hillary” to the all-consuming “email scandal.” Perhaps then Hillary’s accomplishments would be acknowledged and she would take a vastly earned place among other public servants who, far from being shoved into the woods, began to glow more brightly after their official service ended, sometimes at the expense of the historical record. The Republicans have elevated Ronald Reagan, who arguably tilled the path leading to Trump, into one of the greatest POTUS’s of all time. Even Democratic pundits, undoubtedly softened up by disgust over Trumpian word-salad, praised Reagan’s skills as a debater and orator, apparently forgetting that “The Great Communicator” had gotten his debate zingers from Roger Ailes, and Peggy Noonan wrote his speeches.

History has also been mangled by post-Trump representations of Hillary, but in quite the opposite way. Instead of long-overdue apologies from her own party and the media for blaming the 2016 loss on her (you’ll find all the receipts in my book), the most she got from liberal pundits were some newly respectful interviews and surprise at what a “different person” she seemed now that she wasn’t running for office. So relaxed! So candid! Well, duh. Haven’t you yet realized that the devious, evasive, stiff caricature you helped create was a fiction? Rachel Maddow did comment, after her interview with Hillary that she had never interviewed anyone who acted and talked more “like a president.” Again, duh. But even that level of media admiration was unusual. No, all during Trump’s reign, even with the bludgeoning our country suffered, HDS persisted. I saw it evidenced every day on the google alert I have set for her name.

It was not much of a surprise to me, having chronicled decades of Hillary-hate. I’m used to distortions of Hillary. What I never expected, though, was erasure. Hillary, of course, didn’t go away as ordered, but continued to employ her voice, her experience, her skills and her time in the service of the public good. But apparently, those who had wished and pleaded for her departure got what they wanted anyway — at least, from the bizarre collective amnesia that surfaced during celebrations of the 2020 election and inauguration. Most Hillary-supporters were over the moon with the prospect of Kamala Harris as VP; many of us (myself included) had wanted her to get the nomination for POTUS, and after Biden was nominated, we fretted and fussed until that good man did the right and smart thing and announced her as his VP choice. After the election, we were so ready to celebrate. And we did — until media commentators kindly decided to present some feminist history for us. Brian Williams — just one example — ended his post-inauguration broadcast with a tribute to women’s power, with song and protests from 4 years ago leading up to the glass-ceiling-shattering moment when Kamala was inaugurated. Elizabeth Warren, Stacey Abrams, Jill Biden — all rightly honored. But where — as the mass media used to feverishly ask whenever she sought a little privacy! — was Hillary? An anomaly? Nope. On another night, Laurence O’Donnell did the same, acknowledging those who had challenged the glass ceiling before Kamala, including Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin. And the woman who made 66 million cracks in that ceiling? I guess while other women were making all that progress, she was off knitting…in the woods….quietly.

OK, that was infuriating — but we’re used to being roused to fury by the mass media’s HDS. What was more surprising were the cartoons and photo-collages that came dancing across Twitter and the pages of Facebook:

This cartoon, which has been circulating freely on social media, was removed by artist

Did Hillary not wear the right outfit, or what? No, she looked right at home when irritated fans re-inserted her into the “rainbow” of the inaugural celebration.

But even stranger — and far more shocking — than the cartoons and photo-collages was this documentary, created under the auspices of the National Women’s History Museum:

After I asked friends of my Facebook page what they thought of all this, I was sent still more examples, including a set of “she-hero” cards (or perhaps they are stamps), evidence that the erasure of Hillary from feminist history was not just a temporary by-product of inaugural excitement.

This collage, which has been circulating freely on social media, was removed by artist.

Both Karen Hallion and Glen Hanson have objected to my use of their artwork and had the images removed by Medium. That is their right, although they have chosen not to exercise it when the images have appeared elsewhere as they circulated freely on social media. I’d like to make it clear at this point that my use of these illustrations was not to indict any individual artist, but to display evidence of what began to seem a trend — one that many people on social media were upset by before this article was published. I’m a cultural critic, and it’s my job to notice such developments, and to give voice to them. I do want to make it clear that I’m not accusing Karen Hallion or Glen Hanson of Hillary-hate. I don’t have knowledge of either’s personal politics, and investigating and discussing that is not my job. What I am responsible to point out, and what many others have noted and been angered by, is something that goes beyond the consciousness of any individual artist, something that is “in the ether” of our times, affecting us unconsciously more often than not.

Hillary Derangement Syndrome, of course, has been poisoning collective consciousness for decades, and in my book (which also was disappeared by the mass media, who preferred the nasty tunnel-vision of Shattered) I explore how it developed and the brew of sexist discomfort, right-wing strategizing, and media malpractice that generated it. But this erasure is something different, and something new. Somewhere along the line, the generation that now controls the cultural means of production (as Marx would call it) had come to see Hillary as irrelevant to the victories of progressive causes, including — astoundingly! — feminism.

When I showed my husband the cartoons and documentaries, he suggested that Hillary’s absence might be the result of liberal guilt over the terrible treatment she has received, even by the Democratic Party, who were so quick to blame 2016 on her. Rather than face complicity in all that Hillary-abuse (which, after all, delivered Trump to us), just pretend the person who suffered it doesn’t exist. Edward is a literature professor, and read her erasure from the inaugural celebrations as an enigmatic text to be deciphered. I found that an intriguing and elegant explanation, but on the other hand….guilty conscience? I wish! I sure hadn’t seen any evidence of that when Hillary wasn’t invited to speak at the 2017 Women’s March protesting Trump’s inauguration. Hillary’s exclusion from that march was not only a prefiguring of the 2020 inauguration erasure but a sign that feminism had been collared and held captive by Sanders supporters, who had learned everything they believed about Hillary and her generation of feminists from the very man who had opposed her in the primary, declaring whenever he got the chance that she wasn’t “a real progressive.”

The term “progressive,” as I wrote in my book, has a long and twisty history. In the nineteenth century, it was associated with those who argued for the moral “cleansing” of the nation. A century ago, both racist Southern Democrats and the founders of the NAACP claimed it for their purposes. The Communist Party has described itself as “progressive.” The “progressive caucus” of the House of Representatives includes many that others would identify as “liberal.” For Bernie Sanders supporters, however, “progressive” wasn’t an ill-defined, historically malleable label, but rather a badge of honor, a magical talisman for those who considered themselves “anti-establishment.” And when Sanders denied that badge of honor to Clinton, he wasn’t distinguishing his agenda from hers (their positions on most issues were, in reality, pretty similar), he was excluding her from the company of the good and pure.

In today’s lingo, he was “cancelling” her.

And not just in the eyes of the disgustingly sexist “Bernie Bros.” In February 2016, at the Iowa caucus, when Clinton described herself as “a progressive that likes to get things done” she was loudly booed by a robust Sanders contingent in the audience. In my very first published piece about the primary, I wrote about how shocking and misinformed that response was, and immediately was reprimanded by a chorus of….feminists! They were outraged that I dared to suggest some feminist history was being overlooked, and were especially keen to distinguish their brand of feminism from the “establishment” feminism that, to their minds (and as they were instructed by Sanders) supported Hillary “just because she is a woman.” Some of the responses to my piece:

I am a woman and a feminist and I will not be taken in by the identity politics that Hillary and her supporters are using to install her in the White House. Her decisions are her own and she should be judged by them. It’s not sexism to hold her to the high standards we should require from someone to put into the highest office of our country. She chose to enrich herself from the very corporations and people who have captured the government and she is not immune because of her gender.

Hillary Clinton is the worst enemy to women. She bullies victims of a serial predator, and her policies are toxic to the most vulnerable women.

Sorry that younger folks don’t embrace your “woman-at-all-costs” brand of feminism.

Hillary doesn’t just have ties to the establishment, Hillary is the establishment.

A real feminist doesn’t need to sell her soul and her entire country along with it just to get ahead. Hillary will do whatever it takes to get the power she thinks she deserves. It has all to do with her last name and nothing to do with feminism.

I’m not interested in the woman who won’t take a stand on something until it is politically correct/safe to do so. I’m not interested in the woman who is a career politician clearly out of a desire for power and wealth and ego. I’m interested in the candidate who has been quietly doing the right thing before Hillary even decided she was going to run someday for president.

From what I know, second wave feminism has mostly been the purview of privileged white ladies like Hilary. Has it occurred to you that you’re frozen in history, trying to score that one big victory by getting one of your own in office? Meanwhile, us third-wavers are concerned with class gaps, race issues, and LGBT issues, too.

The argument that [Hillary] was ever a leading feminist is just silly, she never was. She was a “one note Nancy” who began her own political career while serving as first lady. She used Health Care to launch her political career, it was safe to do as the wife of a very popular President.

If [she] wins in November, I feel like she will do whatever she can to squash the progressive movement. That movement dies.

Besides turning young feminists against her, Sanders also branded Clinton as having suspect racial politics, a grotesque disservice that had a profound effect on young African Americans. Their parents — particularly their mothers — were solid in their support for Clinton, and it wasn’t the result of her racial “pandering” (as Trump later suggested) but rather Hillary’s quiet, steady work, over decades, on issues of importance to Black families and the relationships she had built with Black leaders. That history, however, was either unknown to or ignored by most Sanders supporters; Clinton “has to be willing to get out of what’s comfortable and get on the streets,” said one, obviously ignorant of the fact that at the age of twenty-four, Hillary had been a civil rights activist who went undercover to investigate discrimination in public schools. Sanders also made sure that “1994 Crime Bill” defined Clinton on racial issues, especially for those active in the Black Lives Matter movement, who were influential in shaping the perceptions of other young Black Americans In fact, Sanders himself, along with many Black leaders, had voted for the crime bill (Hillary, of course, did not have a vote, as she was First Lady at the time, not a member of Congress) which was an overstuffed mess that included many seemingly “progressive” elements. Sander later regretted his vote. Hillary, too, regretted having advocated for it. But for many Sanders supporters, both Black and white, “1994 Crime Bill” and her use of the term “super-predator” said all one needed to know about Clinton. Many spoke as though she was personally responsible for the spike in mass incarceration that was a consequence of her husband’s bill.

Since the primary contest of 2016, Sanders has never done anything to revise the view of Hillary that he implanted in the brains of a generation of young people. When he “endorsed” Hillary, speaking to a crowd in which many of his supporters jeered her name and held signs saying “Won’t Vote Hillary,” he looked grumpy and grudging and devoted most of his speech to congratulating himself and his followers. It was not exactly a rousing call, designed to energize his supporters and redirect their passion toward Clinton. In his speech, he mentioned just two of her accomplishments: “as a great first lady who broke precedent in terms of the role that a first lady was supposed to play as she helped lead the fight for universal health care” and “as a fierce advocate for the rights of children.” Stellar accomplishments, yes, but hardly doing justice to the myriad ways in which Clinton had served the country (and a smidge gender-typed, too.) Then, after Trump won, he implied that Hillary had botched the election by running on “identity politics”: “It’s not good enough,” he declared on tour with his book, “for someone to say ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me! What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.” A few weeks later, he attributed Trump’s win to the fact that the Democrats didn’t “offer candidates” with “guts.” His use of the plural fooled no-one.

The perception of Hillary as an outmoded “establishment” feminist without credentials either in the movements for racial or economic justice or the “correct” kind of gender politics (she stayed with Bill! Oh my god, could you be more 1950’s? And then she expected us to vote for her just because she’s a woman!) has stuck among many self-identified “progressives.” It’s not so surprising then, that as the 20-somethings who supported Sanders (many of whom continued to do so when he ran in 2020) began to play a more central (dare I say “establishment”?) role in political and cultural representation, Hillary’s historical importance would be diminished. The Right continued to despise and vilify her; “the left” simply erased her. And that deliberate erasure has spread its tentacles into the imaginations of a more collective forgetting, including many who voted for Hillary. It’s been happening for a long while. But the irony of it — one might even say perversity of it — in post-inaugural accounts of the “breaking of the glass ceiling” has to be remarked on. (I’ll probably be accused of “not moving on” yet again.) Had it not been for (James Comey) (the Russians) (Right-wing disinformation) (media malpractice) (those who voted third-party or stayed home, convinced by Sanders that Hillary was an establishment tool, barely better than Trump) Hillary would have been the first woman to break the most resistant glass ceiling of them all.

Hillary Clinton, of course, still has millions of fans, and they include not just the feminist generations that preceded the Sanders “revolution” but those that were born too late to experience it: The little girls whom Hillary specifically addressed at her concession speech: “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.” Little girls like Kamala Harris’s grand-niece, whose greatest wish during the inauguration was that she get to meet Hillary (of course, she did.) And all the other little girls (and boys) for whom knowledge of Hillary’s accomplishments will hopefully outlast any attempts to erase them. In our times, with the authority of fact so undermined, getting history right for them isn’t a failure to “move on”; it’s part of the task of doing so.

POSTSCRIPT MARCH 2:

I published this piece yesterday, March 1, which happens to be the first day of Women’s History Month. Immediately after it appeared, my Twitter and Facebook pages were flooded with additional examples testifying to the non-anomalous, systemic nature of the erasure I describe here, some of them celebrating Women’s History Month!

One of these celebrations was particularly disturbing, as it was posted (both on twitter and Facebook) on the authorized “Senate Democrats” page. I’m not aware of who is responsible for it, but it demands inclusion here:

POST-POSTSCRIPT MARCH 3:

Since I published my piece, the Senate Democrats have posted a new image, with Hillary’s campaign photo rather awkwardly inserted, and an annotation that creates the impression that the first post was simply the first in a series of posts:

I’m glad, in the face of a flood of protests, that Senate Democrats recognized the insult of their original post, but the concocted and unconvincing “explanation” is disturbing. We don’t need any more self-justifying revisions of history. Acknowledgment should be the keynote of 2021. Acknowledgement first; “moving on” after.

engendered

Using gender as a lens to examine power, privilege, and oppression in culture and society

Susan Bordo

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

engendered

An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

Susan Bordo

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

engendered

An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

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