The Sneaky Feminism Of Bill Clinton's First Gentleman Speech

Bill's speech about Hillary gave accomplished women their due.
Bill's speech was far from perfect, but it sold Hillary Clinton as the the accomplished woman she is.
Bill's speech was far from perfect, but it sold Hillary Clinton as the the accomplished woman she is.

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton made history, cracking that highest glass ceiling to officially become the first female presidential nominee for a major political party in the United States. And thus Bill Clinton became the first man (and potential First Gentleman) to give a speech at a major party convention pitching his wife as our next president. 

For 43 minutes, Bill told the story of how he met and has loved and worked alongside Hillary over the last 45 years. “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl,” he began, going on to talk about Hillary’s life as a student, daughter, organizer, attorney, wife, first lady, mother, senator, secretary of state and presidential nominee. And what was so fantastic about it is that he framed these roles as seamless, all significant parts of Hillary’s life story. All significant parts of what make her her.

It was by no means a perfect speech. There were parts that dragged or felt a little too primed for some sort of sexualized joke about his past, and Bill went off-teleprompter with a particularly misguided line that seemed to imply that black Americans were responsible for making police officers feel safe. (Say what?) But the parts of the speech that resonated most were the parts that encouraged Americans to confront the sheer breadth of Hillary Clinton’s resume ― and the human woman behind that list of accomplishments.

He spoke about a young, politically engaged Hillary who would hardly give him the time of day ― a Hillary that he “found magnetic” from the first moments he met her. And part of that magnetism was her drive to get shit done.

Bill touched on Hillary’s internship going into migrant camps for then Sen. Walter Mondale’s subcommittee, how she “started the first legal aid clinic in northwest Arkansas,” her work on reforming the Arkansas education system, her work trying to reform health care, her seminal speech declaring “women’s rights are human rights” in Beijing, her time serving on the Armed Services Committee, the time she spent as secretary of state on negotiations with China and India to get them to officially commit to reduce their emissions... the list goes on.

It was Hillary's professional achievements that got to take center stage -- framed as a major part of what makes her appealing, both as a partner and as a future president.

And he effectively communicated that all of these things were done by a human woman, not a Hillarybot. This is a woman who was in the Situation Room with Obama during the mission to take out Osama bin Laden and moved her daughter into a dorm room at Stanford. A woman who “built a new global counterterrorism effort” and “calls you when you’re sick or when your kid’s in trouble.”

Women ― especially women in the public eye ― have long been painted with broad strokes. Political wives are expected to stand by their men, look pretty, be unobjectionable and unconditionally supportive, a role Hillary always struggled to fill (likely because it’s kind of a bullshit one). She was criticized for keeping her last name, for saying she didn’t want to “stay home and bake cookies,” for wearing scrunchies, for her husband’s sexual indiscretions and for her changing hairstyles. But last night, it was Hillary’s professional achievements that got to take center stage ― framed as a major part of what makes her appealing, both as a partner and as a future president. 

Bill’s speech was long ― mostly because Hillary’s done a lot. Regardless of whether you like her or not, there is no denying that she has done a hell of a lot of work for this country. She’s a doer, a “change maker,” someone who opened the 42nd President of the United States’ eyes “to a whole new world of public service by private citizens.”

And that’s the pitch Bill made, calling out that Hillary “has done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime in office.” 

The beauty of Bill weaving together schmaltzy personal anecdotes with Hillary’s resume bullet points is that one of her weaknesses has been her reticence to speak about herself. (As New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister put it in a May profile: “The dichotomy between [Hillary’s] public and private presentation has a lot to do with the fact that she has built such a wall between the two.”)

Hillary is notoriously cautious about telling her story. She just doesn’t love talking about herself, a trait Donald Trump certainly does not share. But last night, Hillary’s partner in life and politics did the talking about her for her, and did so effectively.

“If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many people’s lives are better, you know it’s hard, and some people think it’s boring,” said Bill. “Speeches like this are fun. Actually doing the work is hard.”

The implication is that as president Hillary is more prepared than anyone to do that hard work. Bill may be charming, and he may know how to give those “fun” speeches, but last night he showed that he’s prepared to use that charm in the role of supporter, to step to the side and let his wife show off her hard-earned chops. For a man who was once a beloved President of the United States, it’s a poignant role reversal. 

It’s finally, at long last, Hillary’s turn in the spotlight, and #HesWithHer. 

Watch the full speech below:

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