Arts Books Muse

She’s a woman, not a villain

Jenna Luxon discusses biographical fiction novel Rodham and asks what it is about ambitious women that society still finds so unpalatable.

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Image Credit: Sky Documentaries, 2020

'Some people who run for office want to create change, and some want everyone to fall in love with them.' These are the words of Gwen Greenberger, a mentor to the young Hillary Rodham in the eponymous biographical fiction novel by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Published earlier this year, Rodham imagines an alternative life for former first lady and democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton had she not decided to marry Bill Clinton aged 27. Sittenfeld uses this fictionalised account of Rodham Clinton’s life as an opportunity to dismantle what she felt was an oversimplified public image of the first female major party nominee.

Hillary Rodham Clinton is someone who has been scrutinised in the press for decades. Cold, calculating and unlikable, the public perception of Hillary has dehumanised her into more of a villainous character than a real person.

It is ironic, therefore, that through this fictionalised biography Sittenfeld uses the character of Hillary to challenge these tropes, and instead portray a more personal, intimate insight into Hillary’s life from childhood to present day, looking at what she has achieved and sacrificed.

Despite having never met Hillary herself, Sittenfeld uses this novel to hazard a guess not only at what an alternative life for Hillary could have been but also to look into the broader themes of politics, power, love and ambition.

Throughout the novel, Sittenfeld offers a commentary on what drives individuals’ want for power. Bill Clinton’s character, for example, who in the novel takes the role of a lover turned political opponent for Hillary, is portrayed as a self-indulgent sex-addict who is more charismatic than talented and ultimately hungry for power.

A dichotomy is set up between Bill, many of the other male characters seeking political office, and Hillary herself. The former is represented as personally ambitious for the sake of achievement, desperate for praise and limelight, whilst Hillary is positioned as sincerely seeking office through a sense of duty to help people.

During the novel, Hillary’s character speaks of how much she wants to become president for all women and girls as they are ‘half the population and deserve, as a basic human right and means to ensure justice, to be equally represented in our government’.

And indeed, had Hillary Rodham Clinton won the presidential race either in real life in 2016 or the fictional race represented in the novel, it would have been a ground-breaking achievement for gender equality. Yet, it feels disingenuous to suggest that individuals seeking office, regardless of their gender, can do so without feeling any sense of personal ambition.

The question this novel seems to ignore is what’s wrong with women being personally ambitious? Rodham represents men seeking power for personal gain and women like Hillary seeking power to do good. When in actuality, isn’t what people find so unpalatable about Hillary Rodham Clinton in real life not that she wants to do good but that it seems she might dare to want power for herself as well?

Rodham is an excellent novel. It is fast paced and engaging, balancing fact with fiction, the personal with the political. It is both touching and thought-provoking. Yet, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, what this novel made me think about most was why we still require female candidates for political office to hide their ambition behind the idea of the greater good. Why can’t we stomach the idea of a female leaders without a feminist incentive coming neatly pinned to it?

'Some people want to run for office to create change and some want everyone to fall in love with them.' It seems unlikely to me that anything is this clean-cut. Motivations are more complex than this because people are more complex too.

What is more likely is that people want to create change whilst changing their own lives simultaneously. True equality cannot be reached until women can be accepted as capable of running for office for themselves as well as others, until women can be accepted as ambitious and powerful without being intrinsically villainous too.

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