The last time Hillary Clinton told me she was going to run for President, I was thirteen, and sitting alone at my family’s kitchen table. The lights were low, and her face flickered from a small curved TV screen mounted on our wall. I cried.
In 2007, I measured feminist successes quantitatively. How many of my friends call themselves feminists? How many members of Congress are women? How many CEO’s? The numbers were low. I walked through middle school halls where words like “slut,” “fag,” and “dyke” were common vocabulary and boys sometimes snapped your bra strap or kicked you to show you they liked you. I went to movies to make out with people I didn’t like, and heard my friends talk about each other’s changing bodies like specimens ready for inspection. It didn’t feel right, but I wasn’t aware things could be different. So I counted and hoped, somewhat unconsciously, that if the numbers climbed, life would change.
Sometime around fifth grade, after developing a strong interest in politics and news, I decided I wanted to be President. In 2006, I entered an essay contest for a book called “She’s Out There: 35 Women Under 35 Who Aspire to Lead.” My essay was selected and published in the book three years later. The cover featured a photo of 14-year-old me holding an American flag, walking determinedly, lips clamped over my braces. When people talk about awkward middle school photos, I’ve always got them beat. For the next few years, I worked for a Congresswoman, snuck my way into the Democratic Convention, and sought out opportunities with groups like, that strive to get as many women into politics as possible, regardless of party affiliations. And I unquestioningly loved Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president was the moment that linked my life as a 13-year-old girl with my identity as a feminist. This happened less because of Clinton herself, and more due to the words of others. As soon as Clinton announced, mainstream and fringe media outlets alike began debating everything from her pantsuits, to her “frigidity,” to her cleavage. I don’t wish to recount the media’s endlessly sexist treatment of Clinton’s 2008 campaign–we should all be familiar with it. Even amongst the pro-Hillary-hype that’s monopolized the internet in the past year and a half, gendered coverage still occurs. Several weeks ago, David Remnick accused Clinton of exploiting her gender (note to Remnick: women are not the only people who do yoga). Discussions about Clinton’s age, life as a grandmother, and personal emails have raised questions that I do not believe would be asked of a man. I don’t think the question of whether she’s playing up her gender really makes sense on a theoretical or practical level.
Clinton’s 2008 campaign taught me about gender-bias in the media, but it also helped me understand gender-bias in my own life. At school, peers labeled Clinton ugly and frumpy, called her a bitch, and made ceaseless sexual jokes. Friends told me they just didn’t like her, or that she just didn’t seem cool. As a feministing-bag carrying, aspiring female leader, and loudmouth member of the debate team, I took the criticisms personally. It sounded a lot like what people sometimes said about me. In other words, Clinton inadvertently helped me learn that the personal is political.
The more I realized the pervasive sexism in nearly every conversation I had about Clinton, the more I vowed to stand by her, and the more–perhaps blindly–I grew to admire her. I weaseled my way into numerous events to have a moment with her, took a Hillary selfie before Meryl Streep did, and stood in a crowd of middle-aged women, crying once again, at her concession speech. While I wouldn’t do those same things today, my obsession with Clinton taught me crucial lessons. Clinton’s campaign for president in 2008 changed my life, and the way I view feminism, not because she almost became the first female president. It shaped me because her campaign taught me that feminism is about more than just counting. It’s about the gendered frameworks that dictate our lives, and the ways we’re viewed by others.
In those days, I was a true fangirl–never thinking too deeply about what I hailed. Of course Clinton is smart and accomplished, but the moments when I was impressed by her most were those when she addressed gender-bias. But these are not reasons for unconditional love, as I have come to realize.
Today, I can’t help but feel emotional. In the years since middle school, many of my eighth grade feminist dreams have come true. Almost everyone I know identifies as a feminist. The word is so commonly used that TIME Magazine suggested it be banned, along with slang like “OMG,” and “YOLO.” In 2011, Clinton’s approval ratings were higher than ever. But the reality of this rise in Hillary-fandom and Buzzfeed feminism has been somewhat numbing. Recently, it seems that blindly identifying as a feminist is sometimes a way out of having hard conversations, or of grappling with the ways in which we all perpetuate sexism.
Then there’s Clinton’s track record and policies, many of which are hard, if not impossible, for me to get behind. From her confusing stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to her generally hawkish foreign policy, her politics often do not align with my own. But I’ve also learned not to expect much more from a nominee of either major party. It’s frankly been a long time since I imagined myself in the Oval Office, as I’ve realized mainstream U.S. politics won’t provide the answers I’m looking for.
Yet for some reason, sitting in the library this afternoon, reading that the announcement had finally happened, I couldn’t help it: I cried. That’s right–a quick, shoulder-shaking sob that prompted my friend to look at me in horror, and launched me into a subsequent fit of giggles at the ridiculousness of the scene (I won’t be going back there soon). As my friend tried to comfort my sudden and phantom burst of emotion, asking me what in the world was wrong, I searched for an answer to no avail. The thing is, I’m not sure why I cried. Maybe I cried because I hate that it’s still exciting and novel to imagine a female president. Maybe I cried remembering my middle school self–a girl who spent hours defending a woman, instead of indicting a system. Maybe I cried recalling my naive hopes that bigger numbers of visible female leadership is the complete answer to the problem. Or maybe I cried because I spent so long admiring this person, and her face has become some kind of weird tear trigger–if that’s true, I’m clearly not ready for Hillary.
In the coming months, I anticipate a lot will happen, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to stomach it. The excitement of having a female candidate paired with the disappointment over her politics will be a lot to handle. I’d like to think the media coverage will be different in 2015, but a part of me is too jaded to find out. Yet distancing myself from the campaign might be hard. After all, I won’t always defend Hillary, but she’ll always make me cry.