“What Happened” in the 2016 Election is Part of Women’s History—And Hillary Deserves to Tell It

Some say that Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, is only furthering the divides in the Democratic Party. Politico reports that Democrats “dread” Clinton’s book tour, with former campaign staffers calling it “the final torture.” Both Politico and New York Magazine reported the following exchange with Claire McCaskill:

Asked whether she was excited about Clinton’s book tour, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of Republicans’ top 2018 targets, responded first with, “Beg your pardon?”

Asked again, she started shaking her head, walking away.

But whether Clinton’s book came at the best time for Democrats doesn’t really matter. Clinton’s story now represents a vitally important moment in American political life that took the United States 241 years to reach. Her story is part of something bigger than any one party—it’s part of history, and, more pointedly, it’s a major part of American women’s history.

Political memoirs don’t have the best reputation. As a genre, they tend to be at once itinerant and formulaic. Often, their release is met with long lines in bookstores, triumphant pre-orders on Amazon, press tours and think pieces before the tombs themselves are retired to living room bookshelf—their pages and spines conspicuously pristine. These memoirs must serve as a time capsule and PR strategist, supplying future historians an immediate public with a figure’s authorized account of events. The needs are tough to balance, and the assemblage these parts is more interesting than their often milquetoast contents.

But even in the aftermath of a less contentious election and amid a less deranged presidential administration, Clinton’s memoir is an important piece of history in its own right, for much the same reason her presidency would have been. What Happened presents the first time a woman’s gaze will provide the candidate’s view of a major party’s presidential race. Grappling with sexism will be part of that first-hand narrative for the first time, just as grappling with racism was when former President Barack Obama captured the nomination and the White House in 2008. For the first time, a candidate will draw on a professional career that began and has been continuously devoted to policies and programs affecting women and children. Issues which are traditionally seen as “soft” and which have only very recently found their place in mainstream “hardcore” policy debates will be cemented in a presidential candidate’s memoir as signature issues.

Clinton has not packaged her book like a typical political memoir, though it has been received much the same. Its title is declarative rather than questioning. She’s out to set the record straight, not to ruminate on could have-beens. The cover does not have the universal dull-but-glossy-enough-its reflection-will-catch-your-eye headshot that I suspect a marketing agency decided was the best way to sell political memoirs circa 1982. Although the question of “what happened” has been on everyone’s mind since November 8, What Happened isn’t Clinton coming to explain—she’s coming to tell. In a recent interview with CBS Clinton seemed to underline the book’s aim, she declared that she is “done with being a candidate.” Although Clinton has vowed she will remain active in progressive democratic politics, she’s made clear she is finished being a linchpin for the Democratic Party, or anyone else.

It’s not news that women’s voices have been subjugated throughout history in the interest of the “greater good.” Education, financial and intellectual resources and opportunity have all been sacrificed on the altar of women’s prescribed role as moral arbiter of the hearth, home and community. Progress has been made, but women around the world and at every level of society continue to pay for the ramifications of being told for millennia that their stories, their ideas and their personal beings were second, third, last to men and to the social order.

There’s no such thing as a woman “earning” the right to tell her story, as some defenders of Clinton have acknowledged amid griping. Every woman—every person—has a right to tell their story, and What Happened will mark the fourth time Clinton has done so in book form. What Clinton has earned is the right to tell the story of the first woman—and arguably most qualified candidate in history—to secure the presidential nomination of a major political American party, and who beat the most unqualified, misogynistic and dangerous president elected in modern times by three million votes.

The fact that so many are comfortable denigrating that story at this juncture of women’s history proves that there are far bigger problems than a book tour ahead. What Happened is doomed to happen again—unless, this time, we listen.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.