If there is a prevailing message in Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s The Book of Gutsy Women – albeit perhaps not precisely the one they meant – it is that making change for women and girls is painful, tough, and requires almost inhuman reserves of personal grit. The volume is a collection of mini-biographies of “gutsy” women, and its intended mood, I surmise, is upbeat and inspirational. The subjects range from the learned 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana de la Cruz to the bracingly named Cherokee politician Wilma Mankiller. But behind the celebratory gloss the real “take-home”, to use the requisite Ted Talk phrase, is this: toughen up. The fight is on.
“My view,” Hillary says, “is that we are going to continue to progress – there is too much energy behind that, and women are not going to easily surrender to the pressures they are now facing. But we have to be aware that it doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because women and men continue to point out the unfairness and oppression and absurdity of trying to put women out of the public arena.”
We are speaking during a mother-daughter book tour, the morning after an event at the Southbank Centre in London with Mary Beard, herself one of the book’s “gutsy women”. In person, the Clintons are professionally graceful and solicitous. Hillary is a warmer figure than she sometimes appears on screen, with a deep and mischievous chortle.
Chelsea is poised, diplomatic, and sometimes quite funny – as well as, I imagine, armoured and defended in ways that are unimaginable to most, having grown up an only child in the White House, a teenager when her father was impeached, and the victim of vitriolic attacks from girlhood. Hillary radiates that particular lustrous quality – not exactly charm, but a certain aura – that successful politicians always seem to be able to produce. Both of them speak in military metaphors constantly. Don’t retreat! Hold your ground! To the barricades!
At the time of our interview, there were rustlings about the possibility of Hillary making a late entry into the presidential race. I offer her the (surely irresistible) opportunity of announcing her candidacy through the Guardian’s literary section. “That would be deeply charming!” she agrees, unleashing her chortle. “I would have been a good president, so obviously that lives in the back of my head. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure we retire the current incumbent.”
The stories told in the book open up the lives of some fascinating people. Take Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman in her class at Syracuse Medical College in the 1850s. She was determined to enlist in the Union army as a field surgeon; that wasn’t allowed, so she volunteered and essentially did the job anyway until she was commissioned as the army’s first female surgeon. She was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1865 – the only woman to have been given it, ever. Throughout all of this, she insisted on wearing trousers – she was even married in trousers and a dress coat.
“After the war,” says Hillary, taking up the story, “she became a strong proponent of the dress reform movement. She was arrested for wearing pants, numerous times. She would just be adamant about it. Now we can wear pants. But if you’re a woman in Japan you’re not supposed to wear glasses and you’re supposed to wear high heels – so it’s always one step forward, pushback, move forward again, in the arc of women’s history. We are still fighting these rearguard actions.” Chelsea continues the tale: Edwards Walker was stripped of her medal in 1917, when it was abruptly decided that she lacked the field experience to have received it. “She was buried with it. ‘Out of my cold dead hands it shall not be pried’ was not a metaphor for her, it was her actual practice.” (Her reference is to a slogan adopted by pro-gun organisations in the US – “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands”.)
The story of Edwards Walker is amazing. But, to me at least, it also carries an undertow of melancholy at how hard her life must have been. In some of the other stories told by the Clintons, women, or even very small girls, have not chosen gutsiness, but had it thrust upon them. For example Ruby Bridges Hall, who in 1960, at the age of six, was escorted by a phalanx of FBI4 agents into a previously race-segregated school. There is a famous picture of this: a tiny black schoolgirl surrounded by enormous white men. Out of shot, according to the Clintons’ book, was a crowd of jeering white supremacists, with banners emblazoned with: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” She was the only black child there. The staff, bar one, refused to teach her. She received lessons in a room on her own. Heroic, but one can only surmise at what personal cost.
Or take Vera Rubin, “largely seen within her own field as being one of the Nobel prize’s inexplicable misses, because she really articulated and made the case for dark matter,” as Chelsea put it at the Southbank event. She was barred from taking her PhD at Princeton because women were not admitted into the astronomy programme there until 1975. Or Aly Raisman, the US gymnast who was one of those courageous enough to tell the truth about the team doctor, Larry Nassar, who had abused hundreds of girls – “it could have gone totally unrecorded, and he would have never ended up in prison had she not stepped forward”, says Chelsea.
As I read The Book of Gutsy Women, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, in its tone and style, it reminded me of something. It’s true that in the wake of the extraordinary success of books such as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, there has been a wave of volumes aiming to reclaim inspirational women for the historical record. Some are good (such as Cathy Newman’s witty, sharp Bloody Brilliant Women), some of them are rather more off-the-peg.
It wasn’t that, though. Eventually it struck me: in its rather earnest style, The Book of Gutsy Women reminded me of saints’ biographies – hagiographies in the literal sense. The virtues of, say, St Thérèse of Lisieux’s silent suffering in the convent laundry have been replaced with those of resilience, persistence and “gutsiness”. But even so, you could think of it as a Book of Martyrs for the modern feminist. It is full of sentences such as this one, from a biography of Temple Grandin, a reformer of livestock living conditions. “Despite the challenges she faced, Temple never doubted her mission, her training, or her unique qualifications.” Or this, about Alice Min Soo Chun, who designed a remarkable inflatable solar lamp, which has been of enormous benefit to those around the world without access to electric lighting. “Alice couldn’t stop thinking about how to bring relief, safety and security to disaster areas, along with hope, wonder and awe.”
Maybe all of this is true. Or maybe these valorous women have also been afflicted with the shame, self-hatred and anxiety that are surely part of the human condition – at least for most of us. Sometimes, the parade of gutsiness in the Clintons’ book left me thinking wistfully about the ungutsy women – the quiet, introverted women, the silently decent women. The women whose talents never found a way to be expressed, through poverty, or lack of education, or racism, or just temperament. I thought, too, of the women who have led essentially blameless but unexceptional lives – that is, most of us.
Beard and I had a brief email exchange before the Southbank event about our respective interviews. “To be honest I’m a bit terrified,” wrote gutsy Beard. “Oh God, I’m terrified too,” I replied, albeit with no special reputation for gutsiness to uphold. I report this correspondence to Hillary. “Admitting that is gutsy in itself!” she retorts. “Everyone needs time off from manning, or womanning, the barricades.” She adds, “We want people to see, yeah, it can be exhausting, but take heart, because there are a lot of women who have been speaking out for a very long time; join their ranks, don’t give up and retreat, hold your ground.”
Chelsea chips in. Everyone needs respite from the struggle. She herself takes days and weeks off from Twitter (though she never, she says, blocks or mutes the haters). And both of them, she says, love detective stories, by authors such as Donna Leon and Louise Penny. “It is good to have an escape; it’s also good to know that there is going to be closure and the bad guy is going to lose, because that is the world we want to live in. And then we can get back up and go into the breach.” Hillary is also a great enthusiast of Madeline Miller’s novels The Song of Achilles and Circe. “Isn’t she fabulous? Is she writing another one? I look forward to another one with hope. She has captured the essence of those [Greek myths] and just given them a 45, 90 degree difference. I loved them.” She has warm words, too, for Margaret Atwood: “She said some very supportive things during and after the election and made some incredibly astute observations.”
There have been some amazing advances in women’s rights during Hillary’s 72 years – and at the moment, also a “pushback, even backlash”. And despite everything she remains, she says, optimistic. “We’ve knocked down or changed a lot of the legal barriers against the participation of women, but we are just at the beginning of trying to uproot the attitudinal barriers, the cultural barriers that are internalised in both men and women.” Some of that “is exemplified by the rise in autocratic leaders who are explicitly sexist. They don’t even hide it in what they say and how they behave, and there is almost an admiration for some of them in the west.”
Her thoughts are clearly drifting from Vladimir Putin to Donald Trump to Boris Johnson, because now she adds, “I find it incredibly surprising and unacceptable that in your country there is a government report sitting there about Russian influence and your current government isn’t releasing it. I mean, who do they think they are that they would keep information like that from the public, especially before an election? Well, I’ll tell you. They think that they are the all-powerful, strong men who should be ruling.
“We know that this is happening and we have to come to grips with it. And for people in your country or mine who refuse to see it or are in denial about it, this authoritarian streak in leadership in the west, they will rue the day. Because authoritarians have to restrict freedom and the easiest targets are marginalised people and then women.”
Women are the victims, too, in strongly patriarchal religious societies, she adds. “Why do women need to be demeaned and degraded? Why do they need to be oppressed and marginalised – because in any authoritarian mindset, and we’d need a psychologist sitting here to help us understand it – women are the targets.
“That’s true in fundamentalist societies. So whether that’s Christian fundamentalists, ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, it is all about control, and controlling women is viewed as the sine qua non. It is shocking to me.”
In her book Women and Power: A Manifesto, Beard concludes that it is the very structures of power, rather than women themselves, that need to be adjusted. Hillary agrees. But patriarchy and capitalism are so deeply interwoven that it would take a more deep-seated change to achieve this than her politics would accommodate, I suspect.
Nevertheless, it’s clear, without the merest shadow of doubt, that she would have made an infinitely better president than the current occupier. “Look, it was devastating,” she says of the 2016 election. “And we are still facing some of the same problems that we didn’t know we had to confront back in 2016.” She is speaking, again, of Russian influence . “That’s why the failure to release this Russia report in the UK is so damaging and so inexplicable and so shaming.” She adds, “I feel a little Cassandra-like.”
On one level – if you had a bleak cast of mind – you could read The Book of Gutsy Women as a lament for the toll exacted from women who attempt to make small fixes in a broken, irredeemably patriarchal system. But this is certainly an unintended and maybe, in the end, not an especially helpful way to see the book. It is, as they suggest, a spine-stiffener. A reminder that our foremothers fought tooth and nail to improve the world for the women and men who followed. A reminder that the fight is never easy. And that the struggle does require guts. As Chelsea tells me, “The other side is relying on being the last man standing, and trying to exhaust us with the constant derision and demeaning. And we cannot give into exhaustion. Because that’s how they win.”
• The Book of Gutsy Women: Favourite Stories of Courage and Resilience, is published by Simon and Schuster.
• This article was amended on 22 November 2019 to correct the spelling of the names Wilma Mankiller and Sor Juana de la Cruz.