Nasty women unite: An evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton

Addressing an 8000 plus crowd, Clinton talks the burden of being a woman in a man's world

Aparna Balakumar attended 'In Conversation with Hillary Clinton' at the ICC Centre on May 11 2018

Hillary Clinton is done with hiding beneath the bed covers. After taking time off to play with her dogs and try out some “alternate nostril breathing,” the first female candidate to run with a major party, and then lose a landmark Presidential election, knows the public is not done with her yet. They reserve the right to make of her what they will—a feminist, a crook or a trailblazer, depending on who you talk to. And Clinton is happy to charge up to $500 per ticket so long as they remain fascinated with unmasking the ‘real’ her.

“As you may have heard I ran for President,” she says in the opening address of her ‘An Evening with Hillary Rodham Clinton’ series held in Sydney on Friday night. “It didn’t go so well,” she chuckles, finally able to see some humour in the unprecedented contest that was the 2016 Presidential election.

“In the past I’ve often felt like I had to be careful in public and keep my guard up,” Clinton says to the 8000 plus crowd gathered at the International Convention Centre. “Those days are over,” she continues deadpan, still desperate to sell the message she has nothing to hide.

While the former Secretary of State touches on Russian interference, those pesky emails and a certain FBI director as reasons her campaign was derailed, she remains firm that it was largely sexism and misogyny that kept the proverbial glass ceiling from being broken. “The more successful a man becomes, the more people like him,” she says. “With women, it is the opposite: the more professionally successful we are, the less people like us.”

When rising through the political ranks as First Lady, then New York Senator and later as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, Clinton says she got a clear insight into how people liked her, so long as she held a supporting role. “But the minute that I, or any woman, stands up and says, ‘now I would like a chance to lead’, the approval starts to change.”

An “I love you Hil” rings through the auditorium, and dozens of heads nod along in agreement. The invigorated atmosphere, even on this side of the world, speaks to the legacy of Mrs. Clinton herself, as someone whose reputation preceded her long before she first ran for office herself. It has been a constant struggle to assert her identity in the global psyche as separate from that of her husband, the 42nd President of the United States. She turned down Bill Clinton’s proposals of marriage twice as a young lawyer, she says, wondering: “If I marry someone with as big a personality as he obviously is, how will I know what I am doing on my own?”

These experiences clearly resonate more broadly for many women, and perhaps that’s why the What Happened author remains able to draw audiences (in Melbourne, Auckland, Sydney and beyond) to her talks for such a high fee. Whether one disagrees with her politics, policies or pant suits (and there are many forums dedicated to all those topics in equal measure), it’s indisputable that her role in recent history has been pivotal. The millions of supporters at the Women’s Marches, following her loss to a man who joked about ‘pussy grabbing’ and had multiple sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him, held the same fears: even if you are the most qualified person in a room, as a woman, can you truly ever win?

The constant calculations high-profile women need to make is mentally taxing, the now 70-year-old admits. If she shows too much emotion, “it could very well look like I was angry as opposed to being in control,” Clinton says. “And being an angry woman is really quite a dangerous position to be in.” How could one not be angry though, she asks, when such a heavy burden of representation rests upon the shoulders of a few?

Another woman who knows what it feels like to be in the minority accompanied Clinton on stage: Australia’s first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The My Story author said many tweets towards Clinton, at worst, called her a cunt, bitch or threatened to rape her. The gender-based equivalent terms levelled at her candidate in the primaries, Bernie Sanders, at most, seemed to say ‘dad’.

While Clinton agrees calling a female candidate incompetent is fair game—“it’s not pleasant but it comes with the territory”—it is the “foul accusations and insults” alongside the rape threats that insidiously work to keep women’s voices muted, she believes. “They track you down, they publish your address or phone number, and they urge people to go after you,” she says, recounting how Facebook groups that supported her Presidential run had to make themselves private due to vicious attacks. “The behaviour online is painful enough; disgusting enough; but if the threat is then moved offline so it becomes a matter of physical safety it keeps women’s voices muted.”

In the most poignant part of the evening, this idea of repressing women from engaging in the public sphere, is what Clinton seems most concerned about. Though girls are taught to summon up their internal resources, she says, they are not necessarily taught to share these with the world. It therefore takes deep vulnerability to put yourself on a public stage, she believes, especially if Trump-esque strategies attacking women for their looks rather than their intellect continue to gain momentum.

Gillard asks Clinton if she knew then what she knows now, would she have stopped herself from taking the leap in the first place.

“No, I don’t think that at all,” she responds defiantly. “Instead, I  think, ‘boy, I should have watched The Apprentice.’”

Such a quip about the bizarreness of the ”first reality television election in history” follows the same strain of joke made throughout her book. If audiences had hoped for a glimmer of insight or personality that went beyond the lines in her memoirs, they would have left disappointed. Clinton remains reliant on the same anecdotes she has previously put on-the-record to draw laughs from a responsive crowd. What she does garner though, simply by asserting herself after being knocked down repeatedly, is respect; rows of ‘nasty gals’ give her a standing ovation, content with simply seeing someone so unashamedly secure in her power, pass on her wisdom in the flesh.