When not provoking Bernie Sanders’s base into donating and phone-banking for him even more — thank you, Hillary! — the former Secretary of State, with her daughter, has been pursuing a sideline common to many has-beens: writing books.
At first glance, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s new book, The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience, isn’t as bad as it could be. The mother-and-daughter pair don’t limit themselves to respectable Western role models or those who conform to their usual centrist ideology; Rigoberta Menchú, for example, fought on the opposite side of Guatemala’s civil war against a CIA-backed right-wing government (just the kind of government Secretary of State Hillary would have loved). While the book sometimes reads like an elementary school textbook, the portraits are accurate and go beyond sanitized caricature: the Clintons’ Helen Keller is a socialist and their Harriet Tubman is armed.
Here’s the problem, though: like liberal feminism in general, the text depends on the shameless appropriation of other people’s labor — mostly that of other women.
While Gutsy Women is well-researched, almost none of the scholars upon whose work it relies get credit. The Clintons give Harriet Tubman biographer Catherine Clinton a mention, along with some of the women’s own autobiographies, but in most of the chapters, the biographers and scholars whose work has provided the material for these sketches go uncited. Substantial biographies have been written on many of these women, and though Gutsy Women’s sketches go deeper than Wikipedia, almost none of this work is mentioned. Each is packed with information that the Clintons surely didn’t know off the top of their heads — a detailed description, for example, of Frances Perkins’s experience of watching the Triangle Shirtwaist fire from the sidewalk below — and a large research team is thanked in the acknowledgements. Nonetheless, Gutsy Women has no footnotes or endnotes. There is no bibliography, no “recommended further reading.” Presumably, the Clintons concluded that sourcing was for non-gutsy wimps, those people-pleasing wallflowers who don’t want to rip off other people’s work without acknowledgement.
It nicely encapsulates what the Clintons’ brand of feminism is all about: even when they’re unearthing genuinely radical histories of struggle, they can’t help reproducing the system in which, for a couple women to succeed, a lot of other women — cleaners, secretaries, scholars, biographers — have to be exploited.
We would love to see the whole Clinton family find careers — or at least some hobbies — outside politics. But writing books may not be their best option.