The XX Factor

On Humans of New York, Hillary Clinton Recalls Sexist Taunts From Her College Days

Hillary Clinton at a veterans’ forum on Wednesday in New York.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton may have trouble swiping her MetroCard, but she can place a decisive checkmark next to at least one item on her True New Yorker bucket list: appearing on Humans of New York.

Today, the Upworthy-does-street-style blog featured a portrait of Clinton and an anecdote from her college years about the overt sexism she faced as an aspiring lawyer. Clinton describes taking the LSAT with a friend at Harvard where, as two of the only women in the room, they faced down misogynist taunts from fellow test-takers. She kept her head down and her focus on the exam, trying to keep her emotions in check. It was a lesson she’s had to draw upon throughout her career in politics, she says:

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I was feeling nervous. I was a senior in college. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do. And while we’re waiting for the exam to start, a group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on.’ One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena. And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.

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Clinton has told the same story before, notably in Rebecca Traister’s May New York Magazine profile, but this seems to be the first time she’s used it to help defend the so-called aloofness repeatedly cited by her persistent personality critics. Her message seems to be this: If you get ragged on enough, you’ll get really good at ignoring insults so you can make it through the day and function in your job. If you want to succeed as a woman, you’ll get even better at hiding your feelings so people won’t doubt your strength. And if you want to be president, you have to “take responsibility” for other people’s arbitrary interpretations of your emotional range.

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Comments on the Facebook iteration of the Humans of New York post have run the political spectrum, but many acknowledge that Clinton’s lifelong battle with sexism will sound familiar to most women, especially those who’ve sought positions of power or pursued careers in male-dominated fields. One reader commented that she loved how Humans of New York author and photographer Brandon Stanton framed Clinton’s entry like any other, with no name, occupation, or any other identifying information. “Just a woman describing her journey and how hellish it was at that time,”  the commenter wrote. “And if this was any other successful woman today with the same fight to get there, so many of these ‘meh’ comments would be ‘Way to go!!’ comments.”

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Humans of New York has departed from its historically apolitical stance in this presidential election. In March, Stanton posted a scathing “open letter” to Donald Trump, castigating the candidate for his statements and actions against refugees and Muslims. The Facebook post noted that Stanton had turned down requests to interview multiple presidential candidates because he didn’t want to “risk any personal goodwill” by coming down for or against anyone. “I thought: ‘Maybe the timing is not right,’” he wrote. “But I realize now that there is no correct time to oppose violence and prejudice. The time is always now. Because along with millions of Americans, I’ve come to realize that opposing you is no longer a political decision. It is a moral one.” Which means we’re unlikely to see Trump taking responsibility for any of the perceptions he creates on Humans of New York anytime soon.

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