Days before Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, came out on Tuesday, HuffPost reporters and editors were talking about it, many with excitement, some with dread, others with apathy. For both feminists and political junkies, this was basically our “Star Wars.”
So several of us decided to form a pop-up book club. The conversation took place on Slack, an office messaging app, and was moderated by Samantha Storey, a senior enterprise editor. Reporters and other editors discussing the book included Emily Peck, Emma Gray, Rowaida Abdelaziz and Melissa Jeltsen.
We all read the book before discussing it informally. The transcript below was condensed and edited for clarity.
Samantha Storey: Who here wanted to read the book?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: I had no intention of reading the book. I don’t think I ever felt personally connected to her. I didn’t feel represented by her before the race, during, or now after. As a woman of color, I still feel a good amount of apathy since my experiences and identity are still very much lost and underrepresented.
Emma Gray: I think I was both excited to read it and dreading it. In part because I didn’t particularly want to relive the pain of the 2016 election. We are already living in the deeply painful aftermath every single day.
Melissa Jeltsen: Same, Emma. I hadn’t planned to read it. I guess I didn’t feel like she needed to explain “What Happened” ― and I knew it would be painful to relive.
Emily Peck: I read the book interested to see if she would finally open up and reveal some of herself.
Reliving The Election
Storey: I think of this book as a really long TV recap. I wanted to read it to go back and relive some of the moments, both good and bad.
Jeltsen: For me, the most interesting part of the book was learning how Hillary handled the intense pain of losing to a candidate like Trump. That’s the biggest punch in the face I can imagine. The country looks at you and Trump, and decides the racist, sexist, alleged sexual predator is a better fit. A rejection of insane proportions.
Peck: She really does share that pain too. That was striking coming from a woman who’s so often accused of being secretive/shut-down.
Gray: The introduction where she discusses the inauguration was one of the most interesting parts of the book to me. That aspect of the book felt incredibly raw and compelling. (And “raw” is not a word we are necessarily used to associating with Hillary Clinton.) I appreciated the way she could oscillate back and forth between being a suburban white lady watching HGTV and then jolt you back into realizing that she’s watching HGTV instead of being the president of the United States.
Did She Need To Write This?
Abdelaziz: But did she have to write the book? I guess I haven’t figured that part out yet.
Gray: It’s been frustrating to me the suggestion that she shouldn’t have written this book. If you are at the center of a historic, culture-shifting election, why wouldn’t we want and need to hear from you?
Jeltsen: I feel like she felt she owed it to the country she let down. So much of the book is how bad she feels for failing, for all of us. When she calls Obama to apologize, I cried.
Hillary’s Food Obsessions
Peck: She clearly loves food and there are tons of descriptions of snacks and meals in here that were delightful. What about her disturbing recitation of the number of calories in Pepperidge Farm Goldfish? “I have a weakness for Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers,” she writes, “and was delighted to find out that 55 goldfish were only 150 calories ― not bad!”
Jeltsen: I am very disturbed that she eats egg whites. I want to talk to her nutritionist. Has s/he not got the message that fat is good for you? She should not be depriving herself of the yolks.
Gray: I enjoyed her admission that chardonnay was a key coping mechanism.
Jeltsen: I really enjoyed her explanation of alternate nostril breathing.
Peck: She is in so many ways the most cliché white woman from Westchester County imaginable.
Gray: She really is! She loves “NCIS”! She’s both a cliché white suburban lady and one of the most brilliant women in the world.
All The Sexism
Jeltsen: I wanted to talk about her voice. Did you guys catch the part about when she goes to the voice coach?
After hearing repeatedly that some people didn’t like my voice, I enlisted the help of a linguistic expert. He said I needed to focus on my deep breathing and try to keep something happy and peaceful in mind when I got on stage. That way, when the crowd got energized and started shouting ― as crowds at rallies tend to do ― I could resist doing the normal thing, which is to shout back. Men get to shout back to their heart’s content, but not women. Okay, I told this expert, I’m game to try. But out of curiousity, can you give me an example of a woman in public life who has pulled this off successfully ― who has met the energy of a crowd while keeping her voice soft and low? He could not.
That just summarizes this bind women are in ― match the energy, but with your little quiet girl voice.
Abdelaziz: There’s also the makeup part where she realized anytime she didn’t wear makeup, it made news. I felt annoyed for her.
Peck: I think this book to me is the real Lean In. This is a woman who has tried so hard. For her to reveal all the big and little ways sexism hits her is important for people to understand.
Jeltsen: She says the more women succeed, the less liked they are. And you need to be liked to be elected president.
Peck: That’s the classic double bind. Her experience basically affirms pages and pages of research from academia on gender discrimination, which I guess is the nerdiest thing I can say about the book.
She came back again and again to ask why she was criticized for being ambitious. Like how many male politicians are criticized for being ambitious? It’s a bizarre accusation to level against a presidential candidate.
Jeltsen: I like how blunt she is about being hurt. “For the record, it hurts to be torn apart.” That’s not something she could have said on the campaign trail. Maybe she could have.
Oh, Hillary, C’mon
Storey: Did anything make your eyes roll, or maybe that’s the wrong term, but was there anything where you were like, “Oh, Hillary, come on”?
Peck: I thought she needed an editor. There was a lot of recitation of policy details, her forte of course, that was a bit too much. I wanted more memoir and less white paper.
Abdelaziz: When she discusses feminism, it seems to be a specific middle-class white woman type of feminism, which left me isolated. She did little to convince me that she had my interests as a Muslim American woman in mind.
Whenever she discussed Muslim Americans, she always led with the war on terror and tying our value to society with our efforts to combat terror ― not as basic human citizens living side-by-side with our non-Muslim neighbors. So I think she lost a lot of women of color there.
Jeltsen: She won women of color by a large margin in the election.
Abdelaziz: Right, she did win women of color, but as many women of color have mentioned, not enthusiastically unfortunately.
Peck: When she got into the race, the standard line of thinking was that younger women didn’t care about her being potentially the first female president (she mentions this in the book). Do you think young women now see things differently?
Gray: I think in part some people didn’t care about her being a woman because the connections she makes in the book about how her gender impacts her passions and life story and policy objectives didn’t really break through during the campaign. I also think that there are many women who did not feel compelled by her during the election that still don’t.
Abdelaziz: I think for many people of color, her policies, driven by the lens of a privileged white woman, overshadowed her distinction running as the first female nominee, for example.
Jeltsen: I guess I’m not sure that young women didn’t care that she was a woman? If that’s the assumption.
Gray: It’s often quite useless to speak about young women as a monolith. 🙂
I do think it was telling that there were so many women under 30 in the super long line to get her book Tuesday at Barnes & Noble [in Manhattan’s Union Square]. Many young women ― whether they voted for Clinton in the primaries or not ― are curious to hear her perspective and believe it’s valuable.
Peck: I think her losing probably did more to unify women than her winning would have.
Hillary Clinton Is A Human Woman
Storey: What’s the takeaway from the book?
Jeltsen: I have no expectations from her at this point. I don’t feel she owes me anything. And I feel grateful she exposed herself as much as she did, given the pain of what she just went through.
Gray: My takeaway is that Hillary Clinton is a goddamn human woman, both brilliant and flawed. And I hope one day she can be afforded the credit that male politicians get for doing far less with far more opportunity.
Abdelaziz: This book gave her a space to paint her own narrative since she felt like she couldn’t before. I appreciate that and I learned a bit more about her personal life, which was interesting. But at the end of the day, the book didn’t do anything for me as a woman of color and didn’t really change my feelings about her overall.
(And I hope I can still be friends with everyone here after I have exposed myself. ha ha)
Jeltsen: Friends forever!