On Hillary Clinton's Beautiful Refusal to "Go Away"

image of Hillary Clinton grinning cheekily in front of a U.S. flag
[Photo: Michael Davidson for Hillary for America.]

There are two words I have heard over and over since Hillary Clinton emerged from the woods after losing the presidency: "Go away."

I have heard them from random people responding to any news item about her; from commenters responding to my writing about her; from political pundits, especially but not exclusively of the male persuasion. I have even heard them from some of her supporters, who couch the admonishment in a heaving sigh of regret: "I just think it's time for her to go away."

It functions not unlike the ubiquitous scolding to "get over it"—and often in tandem: Get your grief and your anger and all your other stupid feelings out of public view, and take your loser candidate with you.

It's not entirely clear (to me) what Hillary "going away" would actually look like. I suppose that's because it depends on who is saying it. For some people, it would be an assurance she will never, ever, run again for public office. For others, seemingly nothing short of curling up in a ball and dying would suffice.

Not that it matters. The objective is the projection of contempt, which is satisfied by merely uttering "go away," irrespective of the precise conditions attached.

This is a thing we culturally do to women who fail—with the very definition of "failure" itself a constantly moving target, to suit our misogynist disdains. It can be a quantifiable fuck-up, which costs people their safety or jobs or other measurable assets, or something decidedly less so: A young female pop star who "fails" to be sufficiently aware that she is "annoying," or a fat woman who "fails" to project at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of her everlasting remorse for having wrought her monstrous self upon the world.

The latter examples are not actual failures, but subjective "failures" to hew to impossible standards around female visibility. Impossible, because a pop star who frankly addresses overexposure is summarily told to "go away" for her intolerant navel-gazing, and a fat woman who does not walk with her head held high is told, in so many words, to "go away" for not carrying herself with pride.

Women of color, and women of other marginalized classes, have less room to fail, and more exacting and unforgiving definitions of failure, than straight, white, thin, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women. There is no wiggle room—and there are precious few people invested in redemption narratives for marginalized women.

They are further burdened, much more so than privileged women, with representing the whole class of people who share their identities. A failure—legitimate or invented—is not just a personal one, but one inevitably used to underwrite bigoted commentary about the entirety of their communities.

Each deviation from the kyriarchetype increases a woman's odds of being held to impossible standards—and the chance of hearing "go away" as a result.

Even a woman like Sarah Palin, who benefits not only from her extraordinary privilege but also conservatives' absurd willingness to fail people upward, has been diminished since being the Republican Party's vice-presidential pick. She may still be able to score a White House invite, but she has been relegated from Celebrated Conservative It Girl to just another conspiracy-minded Facebook ranter.

Palin doesn't deserve any more chances, but it isn't irrelevant that the man who elevated her to her former prominence, Senator John McCain, hasn't suffered any professional consequence for his appalling decision that she was suitable to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

She was told to "go away." He was not.

When Monica Crowley, another conservative woman with privileges akin to Palin's, was discovered to be a plagiarist, she was obliged to withdraw from contention for a spot in the Trump administration. When Neil Gorsuch was found to have plagiarized, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

She was told to "go away." He was not.

Because that is simply not a thing we tell men. I don't mean that the words "go away" are never spoken to a man (although you'll be hard-pressed to find nearly as many professional media types saying the literal words "go away" to any man as have said the same regarding Hillary Clinton). I mean the attendant expectation that they slink away from public view, never to return; that powerbrokers limit their opportunities because of their failures.

Men's failures and redemption narratives, however, go together like chocolate and peanut butter. There is an entire cottage industry dedicated to rehabilitating the images of men who have had real, significant, often criminal failures—athletes, pop stars, actors, politicians welcomed back to public acclaim with boilerplate profiles telling us all about their newfound gratitude, hard-won humility, and the love of a good woman, filed under headlines like "The Comeback Kid."

Hillary Clinton has not been—and won't be—granted any such generous reprieve, despite the fact that her "failure" was spending 18 months campaigning, day after exhausting day, keeping up a ruthless schedule that would drive most people half her age to collapse after three weeks, giving up time with her family, sacrificing anything resembling free time or privacy, making countless sacrifices on behalf of this country in order to prevent the exact outcome we now call her failure, sniffing that she was a weak candidate, even though she was derailed by foreign interference, breathtaking unprofessionalism from the intelligence community, and a tsunami of misogyny, yet still managed to win the popular vote by three million votes.

No, Hillary is told to "go away."

And because women are always told to "go away"—always have our hard work and tireless energies dismissed as failures if the result does not look like retrograde expectations of women or does not achieve precisely what we might have hoped—I am very, very glad indeed that Hillary is utterly refusing to go away.

I am glad because she still has important things to say and important things to contribute. She is not just a presidential candidate, but an accomplished stateswoman who represents this nation in a manner in which we can be proud.

I could write an entire essay just on the reasons that Hillary Clinton does and should have a prominent role in our national discourse. But, if you've read this far, you are probably already well aware of those reasons.

Hillary doesn't owe us a goddamned thing, and if she'd decided to spend the rest of her days on a sunny island somewhere, trading in her pantsuits for a bathing suit and drinking booze out of a coconut while merrily cackling at the Alt-POTUS 45 Twitter account, I would be undilutedly thrilled for her.

If she had decided to stay away, I would understand that. I would understand that so hard.

But that is a very different thing indeed from going away.

And I—selfishly, I readily admit—am incredibly relieved, and grateful beyond measure, that Hillary Clinton refuses to go away.

That she continues to speak, that she continues to advocate, that she continues to be seen, that she continues to exercise her right to speak freely, and to be heard.

Though I am ever despondent about the misogyny that obliges her to model such tenacious gumption, I am exhilarated by the example she is setting (again, and always) for young women who will, inexorably, be told in their lives to "go away."

And for we not-so-young women, too. That Hillary is also an older woman who refuses to go away is tremendously important. Older women occupy a very particular space in our culture—a space frequently defined by an abandonment of listening. Rather than valuing the lived experiences of older women, and the wisdom those lives have imparted, we turn away from them, dismissing them as irrelevant; we neglect to listen, just at the moment where they may offer insights most profoundly worth listening to.

Hillary has a voice. And people listen to it. She has experience, which people respect. She has knowledge, and it is widely valued. This is not the typical experience of older women, who are devalued at the intersection of misogyny and ageism—and whatever other parts of our identity (race, disability, body size, sexuality, gender) are used to devalue us, too.

Hillary's refusal to go away is a direct challenge to the habit of tossing away older women, like so much useless rubbish.

And it is a long sideways glance at every insolent shitheel who tells her to go away, meeting their gaze with a steely resolve and a firm NO.

No, I will not go away.

Because Hillary Clinton knows she has value, which is one of the most brazen assertions any woman can make.

It is magnificent to behold her assert it.

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