Americans are living during an administration–and in a historical moment–that few could have imagined several years before. Except for the current chief executive, perhaps no one is more surprised at the current circumstances than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believed she would be the forty-fifth and first female president. Last year, she wrote and published What Happened, a memoir of her experiences during the campaign. As she explains in her “Author’s Note,” the book is “is my story of what happened.” It is not an exclamation or question asking how this all came to pass, as people on the internet have prolifically joked about, but rather a statement. Clinton wants to convey her narrative to present day and future generations, feeling that “we have a responsibility to history–and to a concerned world–to set the record straight. What Happened is an early entry in what is likely to become an extensive popular and scholarly historiography of the 2016 presidential election. Thus, she offers this book, or body of words, up for scrutiny just like she, her record and even her body, were during the election.
What Happened is a primary source in that it was written by a participant in the events it covers. However, since it was written after the election concluded, it does have the bias and benefit of hindsight and is noticeably shaped by Clinton’s frustration at her loss (and at former FBI director, James Comey). She structures the book thematically, breaking it down into six sections: Perseverance, Competition, Sisterhood, Idealism and Realism, Frustration, and Resilience. Perseverance, Sisterhood, and Resilience focus on internal motivations, while Competition, Idealism and Realism, and Frustration focus on outside influence and factors in the campaign. Clinton’s female gender and the treatment of it were significant factors in the campaign, and it also a major theme of the work. Clinton even dedicates an entire chapter, “Making History” to the importance of her being a viable female candidate. She also addresses her belief that sexism and misogyny contributed to her loss. This is evident when discussing her motivations for running president, couching her desire to be president regarding wanting to improve the lives of Americans, and how her previous accomplishments would have helped her to the job. She remarks: “In short, I thought I would be a damn good president,” and is resentful of the media’s questioning of her motives that implied they thought she had “some dark ambition” and craving for power. It is a given that anyone who wants to be president has ambition, it is not exactly an entry-level position. However, ambition is not viewed as appealing in females, and especially such a grand ambition as being president. Another common theme through the book is Clinton’s anger with James Comey, and it should be interesting to see if he rebuts any of her complaints in his upcoming memoir, A Higher Loyalty. Overall, the memoir is even-handed, considering the psychological turmoil Clinton must have undergone when losing to Donald Trump in the electoral college. Another instance of a qualified woman losing to an unqualified man.
What Happened was not the only work to address the issue of sexism in the 2016 election and Clinton mentions explicitly two works by historian that do: Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, and Mary Beard’s “Women in Power,” first published in the London Review of Books and later in Beard’s book, Women, and Power. “Women in Power” first printed in March 2017, and examined women, relationships to power to unpack perceptions of women in power. Bordo’s book came out in April and examined how a negative narrative about Clinton shaped by sexism was a major factor in Clinton’s press treatment and eventual loss. Bordo’s previous book was The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, and she compares Clinton and Boleyn, as victims of gossip and false narratives, “a poisonous alchemy” that shaped views on both women. Bordo also points out how the seemingly unlimited things Hillary is blamed for or supposed to control, is reminiscent of the older, nontraditional woman as witch archetype. These analyses represent an academic complement to Clinton’s memoir and support it by reaching similar conclusions on the role of sexism, conclusions that were apparent to many women during the campaign.
One prominent theme, if not necessarily a conscious choice by Clinton, is the importance of Clinton’s biologically female body and its contrast with the biologically male bodies of all other presidents, and most presidential candidates. The biologically male body, because it has a penis, conveys virility, i.e., strength, which have become concepts Americans expect in their president. A biologically female body, with breasts and a vagina all, meanwhile can imply multiple things at multiple times: fecundity, sexuality, a maternal nature, uncleanliness, weakness, and after menopause, lack of reproductive/sexual use. For Clinton, the perceived weakness of the female body, as well as its lack of virility were the most salient issues. Critiques of her fainting at the 9/11 memorial event were crouched regarding health concerns but reflected the belief of woman as the “weaker sex/weaker vessel,” when debating if she was strong enough to be president. Clinton’s female body was not always indirectly referred to; Clinton recalls that in his convention speech, her husband, Bill Clinton, mentioned her water breaking when she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter Chelsea in 1980 and that it was probably the first time that was said of a presidential candidate.
Clinton’s femaleness also influenced how her opponent verbally and physically related to her. Trump remarked that Clinton did not have the stamina to be president and did not look presidential, and his chauvinist and misogynist rhetoric fed into and incite similar sentiments in his supporters. The oft-repeated phrase “Lock Her Up” reflected the desire to control Clinton, by physically imprisoning her. Trump supporters also used misogynistic language to sell products with slogans like “Trump that Bitch.” In What Happened, Clinton correctly cites real products that feature her as the severed head Medusa, held aloft by a victorious Trump as Perseus, but misidentifies the venue that sold them, which led to claims she was not truthful. However, Mary Beard references the same products and their prominence online, noting: “[T]his scene of Perseus-Trump brandishing the dripping, oozing head of Medusa-Clinton was very much a part of the everyday, private American decorative world. You could buy it on T-shirts and tank tops. On coffee mugs, on laptop sleeves and tote bags (sometimes with the logo TRIUMPH, sometimes TRUMP.” It is still available today. As Americans would learn during the release of a 2005 tape, Trump has no respect for the female body and the autonomy of the women to whom it belongs.
Even before the release of the Access Hollywood or “Grab ‘em by the pussy” tape, Clinton’s team prepped for the possibility that instead of the traditional handshake between men, Trump would attempt an embrace or kiss. This gesture would be performed “not out of affinity or chivalry, but rather to create a moment where he would tower over me [Clinton], making it clear he was a guy and I was a girl.” Trump’s height would imply as a male that he was tall and strong, and Clinton small and weak. More sinisterly, a successful kiss or hug would imply the traditional idea of men as sexual actors, and women as the passive sexual objects. Mercifully, no kiss or embrace was attempted. However, given Trump’s continued obsession with Clinton and his popular vote loss, as well as his alpha male tendencies, I think he retains, at best, an infatuation with her, and at worst, a primal urge to vanquish her completely, i.e., sexually. To Trump, Clinton is a combination of the worst kinds of women, those who reject his sexual advances, and those who reject what he views as his male superiority. She is beyond his mental and physical reach and control
The female body also came into play when opponents of Clinton reduced the diverse reasons (cis)women supported her to genitalia, with the lovely term “vagina voters.” I am sure plenty of men voted for Trump and Bernie partially out of a shared gender, but you never hear the term penis poll-goer, do you? “Vagina Voters” also erases the other groups of people who supported Clinton and the fact that there plenty of serious reasons one can want a female candidate because she is female, such as the ability to have a personal understanding and stake in fighting gender discrimination and women’s reproductive health issues. Additionally, it is hard to understand how deeply meaningful having a female president is, especially to older women, when all the others have shared your gender, and if you are white, your race. As important as Clinton’s body of words and work are to her success and losses, it is incorrect to discount the role her female body played in her loss. I am half-joking, half-serious, but if a president is allowed to allude to having a “bigger nuclear button,” which we all know is a phallic allusion, can Clinton or another female presidential candidate possibly do a rousing speech and similar gesture to what is seen in Showtime’s The Borgias. Visually and forcefully, Clinton or the hypothetical female candidate could assert that, yes, she does not have a penis, but that does not mean she is weak. Just because Caterina Sforza never did it historically, doesn’t mean they cannot, though over the pantsuit may be best.
Submitting her words, and by extension herself, Clinton’s goal in publishing What Happened merely is presenting her version of events, aware that it is unlikely to change opinions about her. The reception of the book proved this, with devotees lining up or shelling out lots of money to meet her, and detractors mercilessly mocking its title and contents. As she expresses in her book, Clinton is committed to remaining politically active, even if she does not run for office again. This desire and her erstwhile opponent’s fixation on her makes it certain that she will remain the United States’ most famous/infamous woman for many years to come. There is still plenty that can happen in her life.
 Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2017), xi.
 Ibid., xii.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 Clinton, What Happened, 126. See Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (New York, NY: Melville House, 2017). & Mary Beard, “Women in Power,” in Women and Power: A Manifesto (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 2017): 47-92.
 Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, 14-19.
 Clinton, What Happened, 144.
 Ibid., 126.
 Beard, “Women in Power,” 76.
 Ibid., 106.