After Hillary Clinton unexpectedly lost the Electoral College despite winning the popular vote in 2016, coming closer to the presidency than any woman had before, something changed in the psyche of scores of her supporters. While some had been afraid to even post on social media or put a Hillary bumper sticker on their car for fear of being shouted down by trolls from the right and left, Clinton's admirers — particularly women — came out of the woodwork (while Hillary went into the woods) to tell the world that their icon had been wronged. That's exactly when many of the former Secretary of State, senator, and first lady's supporters turned into a different phenomenon entirely: superfans.
Superfans don't just post and retweet and wear T-shirts and send small donations. They create entire social media accounts dedicated to following Clinton's every move, outfit, and honorary degree. They camp out overnight outside of the Union Square Barnes & Noble to get first dibs at What Happened, Clinton's memoir, while the Secretary's staff surprises them with a late-night pizza delivery. They fly from the Philippines to Australia to see her. They create paintings, plays, and, of course, memes. If the "women's rights are human rights," baby-pink suit moment in China began to turn Hillary Rodham Clinton into an icon, then the anger, devastation, and defiant hope of the post-2016 era cemented that status.
In the aftermath of November 2016, "there was an explosion of letters — we had to shut down the website," Rob Russo, one of Clinton's closest aides and her office's king of correspondence, tells Refinery29 in a recent interview. "We had to rent a U-Haul to go to the post office to pick up our mail! There were over 30 bins, and we’re still not done with it. We have been diligently going letter by letter and responding to people." Clinton developed an elaborate system of correspondence with fans and critics alike back when she lived in the White House to make sure everyone's letters are answered, members of her staff say. It's how the OG superfans, like the late Maryland resident Ruth Love who created the first Hillary Clinton fan club back in the 1990s, communicated with the first lady before the digital age took off.
And if that 1990s holdover seems quaint, so be it: After all, it's a much more personal form of correspondence — and one that typically yields fewer angry trolls than, dare we say it, emails or social media. "She understands that there’s something very special about tangibly reaching out to people by sending a letter," Russo continues. "A letter is something people will carry with them for a lifetime. It’s something people can hold; it can become an artefact."
A letter is how Corinne Pina, 48, from Queens, NY, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks, first reached out to Clinton, a New York senator at the time. After surviving the World Trade Centre attacks, Pina developed PTSD and was unable to fulfil the requirements for her student visa. After she was threatened with deportation, she contacted Clinton's Senate office in panic, and Clinton stepped in to help her reinstate her visa and even refer her to counselling services.
"I was so thrilled that someone cared about me who only saw me on paper," Pina tells Refinery29. "I suffer from ADHD and a slow information-processing disorder that makes it very difficult for me to find employment despite having a BBA in Accounting. When I talked with Hillary during the campaign, she promised me that she would implement plans and programs that would get us back into meaningful jobs." Now, Pina says she often feels like hope is lost. Like so many women, she felt Hillary's loss as though it were her own. Still, she continues to go to events and post articles and memes — the name on her Twitter bio is HRCisTrue45. She also wears her Hillary Clinton shirt, tote bag, and iPhone case everywhere. She's met Clinton several times, and every time she says talking to her feels like talking to a friend. "She listens, and she takes you seriously."
"Hillary has inspired me not to give up and to keep going no matter how hard it is," Pina says. "Her resilience gives me new hope and strength every day."
It's stories like this, in which she connects with and helps her supporters in tangible ways, that make it clear Clinton's fandom goes beyond the flattened, superficial "powerful woman" veneer. Those close to her suggest that she's not super-comfortable being viewed as an "icon."
"She sees herself as more human than symbol, although she obviously recognises that she will have a place in history," Nick Merrill, Clinton's longtime senior adviser and spokesperson, tells Refinery29. "The symbolism is secondary."
Still, the iconising of Hillary Clinton continues, driven in part by the desire to make sure she gets her rightful place in history and that her complex, pioneering legacy isn't drowned out by the visceral hate she has so often been the target of. The superfans play an active role in perpetuating that legacy. Rebecca Brubaker, for example, a 22-year-old who "super-volunteered " for the 2016 campaign, got to know Clinton campaign staffers through social media and showing up at book signings. She created the documentary To All the Little Girls (which you can watch, below) to tell the stories of the women who have been inspired by Clinton.
"I found myself complaining that the media wasn't covering how impactful Secretary Clinton’s campaign was for multiple generations of women and girls, so I decided to take it upon myself to make it," Brubaker tells Refinery29. "I traveled the country and heard so many stories similar to mine. The same people who were impacted by Secretary Clinton’s run in 2016 are now organising their communities and even running for office themselves. Her legacy lives on, and I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to highlight it in my documentary."
Kristen Blush — one of the recipients of the aforementioned late-night pizza while camped out for What Happened — is a photographer and fixture at HRC's events who authored The Revolution Is Female, a photography book celebrating Clinton's historic candidacy and the feminist movement that ensued. Blush, 38, created a group called Babes for Hillary during the campaign that held fundraisers and social events in New York City. Photos of many of the members ended up in her book. "I realised that we really needed a popular culture movement to help elect her," Blush says.
Social media plays a major part in keeping Clinton in the cultural consciousness and celebrating her accomplishments. The meme-ing of Hillary started back in 2012 when she was Secretary of State with the Texts from Hillary (Who could forget Texts from Hillary?) tumblr, which originated as a joke between two friends at a bar. (She even invited the creators to her office in the State Department and took photos with them.) But post-2016, the digital aspect of her fandom evolved into homages to her career, nostalgic photos of her youth, and lots of GIFs (think shimmying shoulder shake), which fan accounts like @HillaryPix, which currently has close to 14,000 followers, supply daily. You'll see everything from Clinton riding a unicorn in rainbow sunglasses during Pride Month to a young Hillary in a black-and-white high school class photo. Not an insignificant number of the posts are encouragements to run for a second term, although Clinton has said she doesn't plan to run for office again.
"She reawakened my feminism, and she made me political in a way I never was before 2016," the woman who runs @HillaryPix, who prefers to stay anonymous to avoid more online harassment, tells Refinery29, echoing the words of many women who wrote to Clinton after the election. "I joined Twitter in early 2016 because I couldn’t believe the sexism and misogyny she was facing in her presidential campaign. Twitter was a way to defend her, and I thought I might get 20 or 30 followers if I was lucky. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone."
As she veers further away from public figure-dom and deeper into private citizenry, Clinton's relationships with her fans, "super" or otherwise, seem to be deepening. "There are days when the amount of time she spends on social media, she wouldn’t like to admit!" Merrill says, laughing. "She’s no longer doing six to seven events a day, after all. But she’s hearing from people personally whom she might not otherwise get a chance to interact with."
This also means she has more time to stay in touch with her core group of superfans outside of social media, whether personally or through her staff. "The Secretary has always made a point to follow up," Opal Vadhan, Clinton's executive assistant, tells Refinery29. "‘How is Corinne doing?’ ‘How is Kristen’s book doing?’ ‘What is Becca up to?’ As a team, we do talk to them on a daily basis because our boss cares so much and genuinely wants to know what they’re up to."
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