Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie interviewed Hillary Clinton at a PEN World Voices Festival lecture at the Cooper Union in Manhattan on Sunday night, and she took the opportunity to confront the former Democratic presidential candidate with something that was bothering her. Why, with all of Clinton’s career accomplishments, did her Twitter bio primarily identify her as a “Wife”?
“In your Twitter account, the first word that describes you is ‘Wife.’ And then I think it’s ‘Mom,’ and then it’s ‘Grandmother,’” Adichie said. “And when I saw that, I have to confess that I felt just a little bit upset. And then I went and I looked at your husband’s Twitter account, and the first word was not ‘husband.’” (Bill Clinton’s Twitter bio leads with, ‘Founder, Clinton Foundation and 42nd President of the United States,’ for interested parties.)
Adichie wanted to know if it was Clinton’s choice to first identify in relation to her husband, and if so, why. “When you put it like that, I’m going to change it,” Clinton said, prompting roars from the crowd. But she did have a pretty good explanation for why “Wife” kicked off her bio, which is that women should be able to celebrate both their accomplishments and their relationships. She told a story about hearing the late Barbara Bush speak at Wellesley in the early 1990s. “She said, you know, at the end of the day, it won’t matter if you got a raise, it won’t matter if you wrote a great book, if you are not also someone who values relationships,” Clinton recalled.
And though Bush got a standing ovation after that speech, Clinton told Adichie and the PEN crowd she’s not sure Bush was right:
It shouldn’t be either/or. It should be that if you are someone who is defining yourself by what you do and what you accomplish, and that is satisfying, then more power to you. That is how you should be thinking about your life, and living it. If you are someone who primarily defines your life in relationship to others, then more power to you, and live that life the way Barbara Bush lived that life, and how proud she was to do it.
But I think most of us as women in today’s world end up in the middle. Wanting to have relationships, wanting to invest in them, nurture them, but also pursuing our own interests.
I do agree with Adichie—women have worked hard to be defined as more than just wives and mothers, but to be authors, doctors, lawyers, bloggers, farmers, journalists, mechanics, and, you know, U.S. presidential candidates, and it feels like somewhat of a step back that the woman who came thisclose to shattering the glass ceiling still sees herself first in relation to her husband. But the beauty of feminism is that it means women have the choice to define themselves as they wish, and Clinton is a wife/mom/grandma just as much as she’s a former “FLOTUS, Senator, SecState, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate,” as declares the rest of her bio.
Clinton also mentioned watching Senator Tammy Duckworth cast a Senate vote with her newborn strapped to her chest, marking the first time in history that babies were permitted on the Senate floor. “I think that summed it all up,” Clinton said. “She’s a mom, she’s a Senator, she’s a combat veteran. She is somebody who is trying to integrate all of the various aspects of her life. And that’s what I’ve tried to do for a very long time, and it’s not easy.”
But Clinton said Adichie has convinced her to update her Twitter. Adichie had a good substitution. “It could say, ‘Should have been a damn good president,’” she said, to big cheers. Bet @realdonaldtrump would love that.
Additional reporting by Katie McDonough.