Hillary and Chelsea Clinton on what it really means to be gutsy women

Posted by for People

Our guest editors, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter Chelsea, on fighting for change, saluting gutsy women and the advice they both live by.     

I don’t know why, but I want to cry,” whispers one of the photographer’s assistants as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton leave the studio after having their portraits taken.

“That – she – is what we could have had.” He is the first person to vocalise a feeling that has silently permeated the room. If Hillary, who we meet in New York as Donald Trump is in the midst of an impeachment inquiry, had become the president of the United States when she ran in 2016, things could have been very different. 

We only find out the exact location of the New York shoot 24 hours before it happens, and look on nervously as Hillary’s secret service team sweep the room a few hours before our meeting. However, when the Clintons arrive –10 minutes early and without fanfare – they instantly put us at ease and the energy throughout is high. Hillary is smart, funny and empowering, and being on set with her daughter Chelsea, who is a little quieter but equally as engaged and smart, brings out a warm, relaxed side we haven’t often seen. It’s no wonder it’s making everyone emotional. 

Hillary Clinton
“Your mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, daughter, neighbour, friend - everybody knows women they think of as gutsy,” says Hillary.

But we’re not here today to talk about what could have been. We’re here to talk about how we can change things for the better, about strength and about gutsy women. Hillary and Chelsea have, together for the first time, authored a book on just that topic, shining a light on over 100 women (both living and dead, known and those whose stories have been largely excluded from history) who have inspired them and made a valuable contribution to the world.

“Everybody knows women they think of as gutsy,” says Hillary. “Your mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, daughter, neighbour, friend. We want people to feel like they can be gutsy, too.”

Hillary and Chelsea are undoubtedly gutsy women themselves. Hillary a glass ceilingsmashing leader born in Chicago who graduated from Yale Law School and whose CV includes: secretary of state for the United States, the first female senator for New York, the first lady of Arkansas, the first lady of the United States, the first woman to earn a major party’s nomination for president… 

Chelsea Clinton
The Book of Gutsy Women is Chelsea's seventh book.

Chelsea, meanwhile, who graduated with a BA from Stanford and holds a master’s in philosophy and doctorate in international relations, both from Oxford University, has carved out her own unique path as a teacher, advocate and author – She Persisted, about 13 inspirational American women who changed the world, topped the New York Times bestsellers list, and this is her seventh book. As we write this issue, Chelsea responds to a tweet by Trump about Nancy Pelosi launching a formal impeachment inquiry that said, “THE GREATEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POLITICS!” with a simple burn of, “Yes, you are.”

This collaboration is a natural way to celebrate progress and strength and to encourage us all to be more gutsy. And hopefully, to give us a little more hope.

Whose idea was it to write The Book Of Gutsy Women?

Hillary: The idea has been around ever since Chelsea was a little girl. We’ve always talked about inspirational role models, heroines, people who inspired us. We came of age at very different times; I didn’t know any women who worked outside the home other than my teachers and librarians. So I was constantly looking for inspiration in magazines, in fiction, reading about unusual paths that women had taken. It was a very conscious search to find women who were doing something adventurous. And when Chelsea came along…

Chelsea: It was very different. My first teachers were also women, as were the extraordinary librarians at school, but also my paediatrician was a woman and for a while our mayor in Little Rock [Arkansas, where her father Bill was elected governor] was a woman. The vast majority of my friends’ moms worked outside the home. I had a very different experience growing up than my mom had. And then being the mother of a daughter, and now two sons, and ensuring that our children grow up with role models that look like the world… I’m so thrilled that my son Aidan – he’s our three-year-old – loves Wonder Woman just as much as his sister does. It really is a conversation we’ve been having for a long time, and so when we were thinking about what we might want to work on together, this felt like such an organic place to do some of that work.

Hillary and a four-year-old Chelsea.
Hillary and a four-year-old Chelsea.

H: Chelsea wrote a book called She Persisted and it was about women who persisted against the odds. The reaction to that book was so overwhelming. In fact, it was shocking, because people were just hungry for stories about women; some of whom they’d heard of, many they’d never heard of before. And you decided you were going to do that in the face of the election aftermath and some of the attitudes.

In the book you talk about some of the conversations you’ve had on car journeys, sharing your favourite Egyptian heroes and goddesses. How did that start, the sharing of ideas?

C: I remember my mom, when I was a little girl, always asking me questions about what I was seeing in the world [and] what I thought about what I was seeing. What did I think was good and not so good? That encouraging of my curiosity then gave me the confidence and the sense of responsibility to start offering opinions and asking questions, even when unprompted.

H: Both Bill and I read to Chelsea all the time and we were always looking for stories about girls or female adventure stories, making up stories about brave little girls. We were always trying to give her context and food for her imagination.

Bill Clinton announced his decision to run for president.
Bill Clinton announced his decision to run for president in December 1991.

H: And there were a couple of movies she loved. She must’ve watched The Sound Of Music a hundred times and learned all the songs by heart because she was so taken with the story and how they had to stand up against the Nazis and run away. Chelsea was someone, from a very early age, who just soaked it up. And it was great because then we could go to museums, we could talk about people. She and I went to London when she was seven or eight, I think.

C: Nine.

H: In the airport we saw a brochure for an exhibit about the kings and queens of England. And Chelsea said even before we went to the hotel that we had to go to this exhibit. She proceeded to read every placard by every picture about every king and queen; she was always interested in what history would tell her. 

How did you find the process of working together? Did you have to fight for your own choices to make it in?

H: We did. We had some good arguments.

C: We actually wrote about more than 200 [women]. About half didn’t make it in, which was a painful but necessary process. We knew we wanted meaningful representation across the different areas of focus in the book and from around the world and over time. At the end, when we had to edit out a few more, it was deeply difficult for both of us.

H: We had some vigorous conversations. The publisher kept coming back and saying, “We have to cut some more.” Oh my gosh. It was horrible.

Chelsea and Hillary at Bill’s inauguration in 1993.
Chelsea and Hillary at Bill’s inauguration in 1993.

You seem incredibly close. Do you speak every day?

H: Pretty much.

C: We’re in contact even if we don’t speak every day.

H: It’s texting, emailing, speaking and visiting. I’m just so grateful that she lives close enough that I can come see her all the time, which I do.

C: Although, let’s be clear, it’s mainly about the grandchildren.

H: Well, it’s largely about the grandchildren but, you know, I get some ancillary benefit to see my daughter. She’s never said, “No, don’t come.” So it’s been a special treat for us. 

How has your relationship evolved over time?

H: One of the great experiences in my life is seeing my daughter become a mother and seeing these remarkable children she and her husband are raising. When you’re a grandmother, you have to be respectful of the role you play as opposed to trying to usurp the role of your child, who is the parent. That takes a bit of adjustment.

C: I didn’t know what a gift my children would give me in seeing my parents as grandparents. Seeing my mom with her not only immediate love, but her immediate caring for our children, from the second they were born, and how involved she is in both the glamorous parts of being a grandparent – like getting to spoil them despite my best efforts to the contrary – but also being so willing to help clean up after them or change a diaper. It’s a gift. 

Often when you become a mother, you see the way you behaved as a teenager with fresh eyes. Have there been any of those moments for you, Chelsea?

C: I think maybe because I’m an only child, or maybe because early on mom and I established this close bond around conversation and sharing… we had remarkably few tense moments, even as a teenager. To the point where I was like, is there something wrong with me? My friends seem to be fighting with their parents all the time and I really like my parents. I got to Stanford and everyone said, “God, I’m so glad to be away from my parents.” I was like, “Gosh, I almost didn’t come here ’cause it’s so far away from my parents. I know this is the right place for me, but I miss my mom.”

What’s the best advice you’ve given each other?

H: I think the best advice I gave Chelsea was the advice my mother gave me. Which was: everybody gets knocked down and the question is, are you going to get back up? My mother, who had a much more deprived life, was someone who was determined that, as her daughter, I was going to stand up for myself. To be brave and willing to tackle whatever came my way. That’s what I tried to convey to Chelsea.

C: I agree. My grandmother really was and still remains my North Star. I think all the time about what my grandmother would think about something or what would she recommend. She had this adage: life’s not about what happens to you, it’s about what you do with what happens to you. We both try to live by that. 

Chelsea graduated with a Doctorate from the University of Oxford in 2014.
Chelsea graduated with a Doctorate from the University of Oxford in 2014.

Has Chelsea given you any advice that’s changed how you think, Hillary?

H: All the time. Chelsea was one of the earliest people I knew advocating for gay marriage here in New York. She was really convincing us to move as quickly as we could.

C: I just hadn’t really thought about marriage candidly until I started dating my now husband [Marc Mezvinsky]. Once I started thinking about it, it just seemed so iniquitous that people couldn’t marry whoever they wanted to marry. It didn’t really feel like advice so much as a compulsion to talk about something that felt so clearly right to me, with people that were so important to me. My parents, my grandmother, other people in my life who, at the time, were maybe not as convinced that it was so obvious. Yet all of whom came to believe with as much passion and conviction as I do.

Hillary and Chelsea at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in 2015.
Hillary and Chelsea at the Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in 2015.

When it comes to this issue of Stylist, what is the one thing you’d like women reading this to do, feel or act upon?

H: Well, I don’t want to be too political. But you have, right now, a gridlocked political system. You have a new leader who, like the one we have in the US, is principally in it for himself. The entertainment factor, the opportunism, doing anything to elevate his own position.

C: Also [who is] deeply allergic to facts.

H: I’m not asking every woman to be political in an electoral sense, but I am asking for women in our great democracies – and in Britain you have been at it longer than we have – to say, “I have a stake in what happens here and who the leaders are and the kind of country that we’re going to be leaving to our children.”

You talk a lot in the book about global feminism. What kind of things can we do to support all women?

H: I think it starts with who you are as a woman, with your commitment to not only living a life of gutsiness and courage, but also to helping others to do that and showing kindness for the struggles other people have. Then it goes to what you study in school and how you feel about the opportunities that girls and women have, and being willing to stand up and speak out to claim those for yourself and for other girls around the world. And also to stand against bullying and insulting and stereotyping. Just start really personal, really local, and then move it up. It is almost a pyramid of actions. And then, you know, who you vote for makes a big difference, too.

C: There are a lot of charities that are doing really good work. Educate yourself on them. Make sure that they are accountable with the money that they receive and spend. If child marriage is an issue that you care about, there are plenty of things you can do to support those who are on the frontline, fighting that cause.

H: But we don’t want people to forget the personal. Sometimes people get overwhelmed and think there’s nothing they can do. It feels too big. What difference can one person make? And yet there are things you can do. The perfect example is the school strike for the climate, which grew to millions. Greta Thunberg is in our book because that kind of commitment, her sense of mission, it became contagious and people started to say, “Gosh, this one little girl is doing this. I think I’ll go join her.” Even if they joined because of climate change or because they feel sorry for her, who cares? They showed up and then they became allies.

The pair at a book signing in New York.
The pair at a book signing in New York.

Finally, can you describe each other in three words?

H: Thoughtful, caring, loving.

C: I was going to say loving, gutsy and thoughtful. So we overlap on two of the three.

That’s great synergy there…

C: I’m sorry but I’ve got to run home to the munchkins now. Mom, I love you.

H: Bye honey, I love you. I’m coming over tomorrow night.

Photography: Pamela Hanson

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