The conversation about Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s new book The Book of Gutsy Women started over three decades ago, when Chelsea was a little girl. Driven by the fact that Secretary Clinton didn’t know any women in positions of power — or even who worked outside the home — when she herself was growing up, she made sure that these women were front and centre in her daughter’s upbringing. Watching the Olympics together in Little Rock and in the White House, the mother-and-daughter duo paid particular attention to the female athletes, like Michelle Kwan. Chelsea took ballet for years, and she idolised the discipline and strength shown by the ballerinas she saw perform. Hillary Clinton passed down to her daughter some of the same books she read as a child, many of which focused on female characters, like Nancy Drew.
After they both became authors in their own right, they found that many little kids came up to them at book signings to ask, “Who were your heroes when you were growing up?” They decided it was finally time for a book about the women they admire. “We thought, why don’t we write about these women who inspired us and share their stories?” Secretary Hillary Clinton tells Refinery29 in an interview.
It was not an easy task, given the sheer multitude of women throughout history whose accomplishments deserve our attention. The result, culled from hundreds of essays down to 103, is a far-ranging anthology of athletes, politicians, doctors, activists, and other women who’ve taken risks and made a difference. It’s more textbook than biography, with each chapter kept brief, but it also contains some surprising personal asides. It’s also a testament to women — say, ceiling-shattering major-party presidential nominees? — who deserve more recognition, and to the mother-daughter relationship that endures throughout the history the two have lived through together.
Ahead, the Clintons talk to us about who they relate to most in the book, what’s on their nightstand, the 2020 election, and more.
You’ve said that you started with a list of hundreds and hundreds of inspiring women. How did you edit it down to the final list for the book?
HRC: “It was really hard. We wrote over 200 essays and then our editor basically said, you have to cut it in half. We went back and forth, and Chelsea would argue, ‘No, no, I can’t lose that person, I really, really, want to tell the world about her,’ and then the editor would say, ‘Well, then you’ve got to cut somewhere else.’ It was an excruciating process. But we finally got to 103.”
This book has been called a tribute to your relationship as mother and daughter. Would you say that’s true? Do you think it’s changed your relationship, and if so, how?
CC: “It was a lot of fun to remember the moments when I discovered these women and when my mother introduced them to me. In some ways, the gift of this collaboration for me was to revisit those memories, which have a deeper meaning for me now as a mom. I think it made me appreciate my mom even more, that she so purposefully raised me with strong, gutsy women role models before it was something that was expected.”
HRC: “The book really arose out of a conversation that we’ve had going back to when she was a little girl. It’s drawn from my experience, because when I was a little girl, I didn’t know any women who worked outside the home other than my teachers and my public librarians. I was looking for stories about women that I would never meet, and that’s how I became interested in these role models. When Chelsea was a little girl, she had a different experience.”
CC: “I think now being the mother of a daughter and two sons, I really am so proud — and admittedly, he might just be copying his sister, but when Aidan is asked who his favourite superhero is and he’s like ‘Wonder Woman!’ I’m like, ‘Yesss!’ Although then, Charlotte did ask me why Wonder Woman is not in the book and I didn’t have a great answer…” [HRC laughs, “Oh dear!”]
Chelsea, are there books you wish you’d had as a kid that you’re now reading to your kids?
CC: “One of the books that I mentioned in The Book of Gutsy Women is Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley. I mentioned it in the piece that includes Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the civil war surgeon and women’s rights advocate who remains the only woman to ever receive the Congressional Medal of Honour. That’s a book that wasn’t around when I was a kid, and it’s a great story about Mary, who as a little girl, wore trousers at a time when every girl was expected to wear dresses, and how that was the first time she had to be gutsy because there was a lot of censure and pushback, and how that was a profound moment in her life that propelled her to do everything else that she felt was right. Another one is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls: Their grandmother is featured in it, which is fun for them to see their grandma in a book.”
You feature several young women who are activists in your book, like Emma González and Greta Thunberg. Do you think that Gen Z’s activism is different from that of millennials, and if so, how?
HRC: “I think they are really passionate, and they don’t want to take conventional explanations at face value because they know things need to change. We started talking about Greta Thunberg long before she emerged as an international spokesperson, right after she began her lonely strike for climate. I found her so appealing and so genuine. She was really trying to force the world of decision-makers to confront the scientific evidence and to do something about it.”
We started talking about Greta Thunberg long before she emerged as an international spokesperson, right after she began her lonely strike for climate. I found her so appealing and so genuine.
CC: “The young women gun reform activists that we feature are working on different aspects of our crisis of gun violence. It was important to us to include these women together partly because I think that is how they think of themselves, even though they’re in different parts of the country, have been affected by gun violence in different ways, and have been working on different parts of the challenge. It really does seem to be a collective force, and I think that’s a real tribute to Gen Z and how they think about their activism and engage in it.”
HRC: “I agree with that. I think that it’s not just individual action for the sake of individual action, but to promote a movement, a collective response, that’s what Greta did on climate, it’s what Emma and the other young women did with gun violence, and it’s what Malala [Yousafzai] did with education. You take what happened to you, as terrible and tragic as it might be, and try to elevate it and bring others to that cause.”
Young people have really taken the lead when it comes to the fight against climate change. What do you think is the next “frontier,” so to speak? What is the issue that you think the generation that is now your kids’ age, Chelsea, will make us pay attention to?
CC: “Oh my gosh, what a great question. What are we not doing enough of? What have we not gotten right? I really do think that maybe the answer is a question of acceleration. Just an unwillingness to wait for something to happen and then demanding that what people know is right, particularly I think in climate change, has to happen quickly, that we have to transition to a carbon-free system. Whether it’s equal rights, equal opportunity, equal justice, or climate change, just the understandable impatience and disappointment. The thing about Greta Thunberg’s speech where she called out everyone, all of us, I think and hope that’s what we’ll see more of, and I expect that that’s what we’ll hear from people including my own kids.”
Who in this book do you particularly connect with? Who speaks to your personal journey?
HRC: “I am somewhat partial to women who I saw enter the political system and compete and suffer all the slings and arrows that come with being in politics, starting with Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican Senator from Maine who was the first Republican to take on Joe McCarthy. I’m a big fan of Shirley Chisholm. I’m a big admirer of Barbara Jordan, who gave one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century when she was on the House Judiciary Committee considering articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Women like Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, both of whom were beaten, tortured, exiled, and never gave up on what they hoped to see happen inside their societies. Those are women that I think about a lot, because they went through some of the things I went through, so it’s very personal for me.”
CC: “I have to say my grandmothers, who we write about, who were hugely important to me and remain so even though they’re no longer with us, particularly my mom’s mom, my grandma Dorothy, who passed away almost eight years ago. She very much remains, to this day, the person that I think about when I’m thinking about what the right thing to do is.”
Secretary Clinton, with the 2020 race getting more intense, what has your role been in mentoring and advising the candidates running for president, particularly the women?
HRC: “I have talked to most of the candidates, and I’ve talked to all but one of the women candidates. Of course Kirsten Gillibrand succeeded me in the Senate, and Elizabeth Warren was someone who I knew before she became a senator, and then as she has served, and Amy Klobuchar was someone that I served with, and Kamala Harris is someone that I’ve known and her sister was one of my top staff members on my campaign. So I know those four women and I admire them, and I really am pleased that we had so many women running this time, because when I ran in 2016 there were more American women in space — two — than there were running for president.”
Anyone in particular who you’ve been close with?
HRC: “I wouldn’t say that. Because I have relationships with all of them. I don’t know Tulsi Gabbard. I don’t think I’ve ever even met her. If I did, I don’t recall it right now. So, the three remaining are all people that I really respect, and I hope do well because I think that’s good for everybody.”
You worked on research during the Nixon impeachment hearings as a young staffer on the House Judiciary Committee. Are there any lessons you’ve absorbed there that are applicable to what’s going on right now?
HRC: “I was very pleased at how careful the House Democrats under Nancy Pelosi have proceeded, because it’s a really serious matter to open an impeachment investigation. When I was serving on the staff doing that investigation back in 1974, it was as nonpartisan, nonpolitical as we could make it. We had both Democratic and Republican lawyers working together and everybody was told, you just collect the facts and then apply the law and the Constitution. Don’t jump to a conclusion, you’ve got to be really careful that this is done right. That’s what I see happening now.
“Hopefully when they make a decision, one way or the other, much of the American public will be able to say, well, that’s fair, whatever the decision is. [Back then], Republicans joined with Democrats in their decision. I don’t know that that will happen this time, it’s a different era in our history, but you want at least to make it possible and have the evidence presented in a clear, convincing way that maybe even some Republicans will put their country before their party. [laughs] Let’s hope, right? [makes a finger-crossing motion]“
News about impeachment aside, what are you both reading? What’s on your nightstand right now?
CC: “On my nightstand are so many kids’ books! But on my Kindle, I’m really excited to read Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib. It is a book about the impact of a Tribe Called Quest, which was the soundtrack to my teenage years. I just finished another book about our growing alarm around antimicrobial resistance, and I needed a good antidote to that…and so, this is my treat to myself.”
HRC: “I am deep into The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, which is stunning. It’s based on a true story of an American man who’s trying to get safe passage, getting visas and tickets for scientists and artists and writers to get out of Vichy France before the Nazis invade. It’s just brilliantly written — it’s my treat. And then I just picked up Ann Patchett’s new book The Dutch House. I’ve got a big stack on my nightstand.”
CC: “And I have a long queue in my Kindle.”
HRC: “I’m still reading books! It’s another one of our technological differences.”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
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