The Democratic nominee grapples with her own symbolic significance.

By virtue of her official nomination as the first female presidential candidate for a major party, Hillary Clinton has become a symbol of feminist progress. But after years of scrutiny in the clutches of a ruthless and misogynistic press mob, the candidate has developed a fraught relationship with her own symbolic significance.

Raked Over the Coals

Having spent the majority of her adult life in the public sphere, every aspect of Clinton’s personal life has been dissected by the media. Given the shockingly persistent sexist coverage of her marriage, her appearance, the sound of her voice, and the length of her hair, it should come as no surprise that Clinton, now in her late sixties, is noticeably guarded. Her aversion to the spotlight and skepticism of the national press corps make her an unlikely and reluctant embodiment of a century’s worth of feminist striving.

In Rebecca Traister’s brilliant profile of Clinton for New York Magazine, Clinton’s former speechwriter Lissa Muscatine summarized the politician’s hesitancy to embrace her own symbolic significance as a woman: “I used to tell her, ‘You’re not using the symbolic power of your position,’” to which Clinton would reply, “‘That’s not going to effect systemic change or make a lasting impact.’” Muscatine’s counterargument: “‘sometimes you effect the change through the symbolic act.’”

Deal Me In: A Shift Toward Symbolism

hillary 2016 sign

Despite Clinton’s distaste for the sensationalized media narrative that’s been constructed around both her professional and personal life, her opponent Donald Trump’s polarizing declarations about women and minority groups have cast her as the sensible and symbolic alternative to his blatant misogyny. Most memorably, after Trump accused Clinton of “trying to play the woman card,” she shot back: “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in.” While this kind of blatant feminist pandering (a pink “woman card” is for sale on HillaryClinton.com) might have alienated portions of the electorate during Clinton’s 2008 campaign, it’s become the rallying cry of decency in the face of Trump’s hateful remarks.

The thing is, Clinton knows she shouldn’t need “the woman card.” To brandish it downplays the lifetime she’s spent in the trenches, fighting for women and families. But the 2016 election has seen an evolution in Hillary’s stance on the matter. Traister asked Clinton if it still makes her uncomfortable to be thought of as a symbol, to which Clinton responded: “I’ve really kind of matured in my understanding of how symbolism can be efficacious, so I’m more embracing of that. But at the end of the day, being the first woman president can only take you so far…I’m still a results-oriented kind of person, because that’s what I think matters to people.”

DNC 2016: The Vanishing Video

That doesn’t mean Clinton isn’t still walking a delicate line. An 11-minute video celebrating the life of her mother was abruptly cut from the DNC’s programming on July 26, 2016. The video was produced by Emmy Award winner Linda Bloodworth Thomason and is narrated by Academy Award winner Meryl Streep, and powerfully casts Clinton as the worthy heir to the women’s rights movement.

So why pull it? According to the New York Times, campaign officials feared the video was “too narrowly focused to expand her appeal.” Rather than rely on the powerful reality of Clinton’s unprecedented nomination, her convention consisted primarily of testaments to her proven abilities in the political sphere.

Balancing the contradictions she embodies will no doubt continue to be Clinton’s greatest challenge on the campaign trail. To dismiss a woman with Clinton’s résumé as nothing more than a symbol of feminist progress is reductive, and frankly, at odds with the tenets of feminist thought. Like any candidate for the highest office in the land, Clinton should answer tough questions, and in doing so will have the opportunity to cite her longstanding prioritization of policy issues that directly impact the wellbeing of women and families — without being accused of playing “the woman card.”

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(Image credits: Hillary for America/Flickr, Hillary for America/Flickr)

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

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