Last night I was in the same room as Hillary Clinton – and the 2,500 other people who, within two hours of the tickets being released, sold out the London theatre where she was being interviewed.
Despite our relative proximity, the audience’s fidgety anticipation and adrenaline-fuelled nerves were in no way reflected back at us as Clinton presented her usual calm, charming, witty and breathtakingly eloquent self.
In a one-off event at London’s Southbank Centre, the doyenne of US politics spoke candidly about everything from those godforsaken emails to how we can fight endemic societal sexism.
She didn’t say much you won’t already have heard if you’ve listened to any of the myriad interviews she’s been giving while promoting her book about the 2016 election campaign, the poignantly titled What Happened. But in those 90 minutes I spent in the audience, furiously taking notes and revelling in the buzzing atmosphere, I saw for the first time that she shouldn’t just have won that election because she was the voters’ rightful choice, or because of the sickening alternative that came to be, but because the passion and awe she can inspire with the faintest of smiles or by answering the driest of questions is unparalleled.
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I was seven years old when Bill Clinton gave his now infamous “I did not have sexual relations” testimony and I don’t remember a world where Hillary wasn’t a fixture in everyone’s consciousness. Yet it wasn’t until a decade later when she battled then-unknown senator Barack Obama for the democratic nomination that she began to gain dimension in my adolescent mind.
While I always hoped Obama – the more progressive candidate, I thought – would win, there’s no doubt in my mind that I, and so many others on the cusp of adulthood, must have been influenced by seeing woman exist so competently and powerfully on the world’s political stage.
The 2016 primaries were something of a déjà vu. Yes, Bernie Sanders aligned more closely with my political views, and the idea of him running for president excited me infinitely more than an establishment politician – even a female one. But when Hillary won the nomination, I breathed a sigh of relief. Surely the American people who elected Obama for two terms would never pivot to a xenophobic, misogynistic megalomaniac with no background in politics, especially when the alternative is arguably the most experienced candidate ever to run for office.
When I woke up to the news, I thought I was dreaming. It was worse than Brexit. I never thought I’d cry watching a political speech until Clinton’s concession.
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But it’s not just her clear credentials, experience, level-headedness and mind-boggling intelligence which would have made her a great president; it’s her humanity, humility, humour and genuine passion that really hit me when I saw her speak live.
As a woman with the temerity to think I have the right to publicly voice my opinions, I’m no stranger to having abuse and threats hurled at me by droves of strangers over the internet. Yet I will never – hopefully – be able to fathom the level of vitriol Clinton has endured.
There’s the seemingly endless backlash after that fateful 1992 comment about not wanting to “stay at home and bake cookies” and the endless speculation and ridicule over her sex life throughout the Lewinsky debacle; the constant media commentary on her appearance; and even in the last few months since she published her book, (mostly male) pundits clamouring to tell the world that she should just be quiet and go away.
And yet at every fall Clinton gets up, dusts herself off, and climbs back into the ring for another round. Some may think it’s masochism, or a desperation to stay relevant, and I’ll admit that her strength seems so alien that sometimes I’ve wondered too. But seeing her onstage speaking so passionately about the positive change she hopes to make in the world made me realise she’s dedicated her life to the causes she believes in because someone has to. The rest of us don’t get it because most of us would never be willing to make such sacrifices.
When I told people I was attending this event, there were two decidedly different reactions, and they weren’t coming from different political standpoints. Every woman in her 20s and 30s – regardless of their thoughts on Clinton’s policies – was unwaveringly excited. Middle-aged men couldn’t understand why I’d bother.
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That Clinton is such an inspiration for women of my generation is at once empowering and tragic – so few women are there in positions of political power that we have to share the same handful of role models. But more poignant is the fact that so many older men – and women – can’t understand this.
To them, Clinton will always be Hillary: the First Lady, the shamed wife, the entitled shrill, the woman who keeps banging on about sexism. To us, she is the only Clinton that matters, the woman who everyone wants to knock down from all angles, but who just keeps coming back, always poised, calm, thoughtful yet passionate about what she believes in. She’s the woman who refused to stay in the kitchen and bake cookies, even though that was what the world wanted from her.
There’s no one who saw her speak last night who could not have left knowing that, for all her faults, she deserved that presidency and it was stolen from her. Now it’s our job to claim that power back, in one form or another, and continue her legacy by fighting for what we believe in, no matter how hard it may seem.
This event was part of Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival which runs to 1 November