Why was Hillary Clinton so hated? What would E.M. Forster say about America's first ladies, and the problem facing all ambitious women?

May 13, 2019
Why was Hillary Clinton so hated? What would E.M. Forster say about America's first ladies, and the problem facing all ambitious women?
Julius Drost
Chai TeaLightning Strikes by Dawn and Hawkes

Dear Erica,

Michelle Obama’s book has been very successful and I started thinking about how she is generally well-liked, unlike Hillary Clinton, who seems universally hated by conservatives and liberals alike. Any idea what’s going on?

Perplexed in Portland

Dear Perplexed in Portland,

At the end of the 2016 US election, I wondered to myself why were Michelle Obama and Laura Bush such well-loved public figures, while Hillary Clinton was viewed with such hate? Yes, Hillary is not exactly charisma personified, but is there a deeper issue?

We like to think that times have changed, but perhaps E.M. Forster had the answer to this very modern question nearly 100 years ago. In his novel, A Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch chafes against the confines of her genteel, and ladylike existence. She wonders to herself, “Why were most big things unladylike?”

As her aunt Charlotte goes on to explain, “It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves. Indirectly, by means of tact and a spotless name, a lady could accomplish much. But if she rushed into the fray herself she would be first censured, then despised, and finally ignored. Poems had been written to illustrate this point.”

With the affection and sympathy E.M. Forster shows for his feisty heroine, it seems he felt the hypocrisy of this view, a view that still dominates today. Michelle Obama, originally Obama’s boss at a law firm, becomes a loving and supportive first lady upon her husband’s entry into the White House. She did not want the grand glory for herself and the American people loved her partly because of this very fact. As E.M. Forster’s spinster aunt Charlotte recommends, “a woman indirectly inspires her husband.”

The truth is that society judges women who demand credit, thirst for glory, or yearn for adventure. Hillary demanded recognition for herself, even when she was only first lady. She “rushed into the fray” in the 90’s with her quest for universal healthcare, rather than standing on the sidelines and allowing her husband to be celebrated. She then had the audacity to run for President. Many who had considered George W. Bush, son of a former president, an acceptable candidate, derided her for using her husband’s legacy to push herself forward. It will be telling if the many women running in the upcoming US Presidential election are given a fair shot, or similarly “censured, and despised.”

In A Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch ultimately breaks off her engagement, and runs away with George Emerson, causing a massive scandal in her community. She risks losing family, and family, and her status in society, and women, even today, find themselves pushed into a similar position when they try to break out of the confines of society’s expectations. Until we are able to relinquish this view that women must only accomplish greatness indirectly, women will continue to be attacked for being bold(pushy), opinionated(nasty), and assertive(bossy).