The Smart Girl in the Room by
(289 Stories)

Prompted By Intelligence

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I’m only a couple of years older than Hillary Clinton. Like her, I grew up in a middle-class suburb in the Midwest. So, I get it. She’s intelligent, didn’t hide it, and was therefore “unlikeable.” Back when we were growing up, it was considered bad form to be the smart girl in the room. I still think that was a significant factor in her loss to Trump in 2016.

Hillary, I get you. I was you. Sadly, as my mother often advised me, it’s nice to be smart but be quiet about it.

I was shocked to hear that lots of talking heads thought the first debate on September 28, 2016, was almost a tie, and that Trump was still in the game, even though every poll gave Clinton a huge win. Clinton gave a debate performance that demonstrated knowledge and preparation. She did her homework and studied hard for the test. On the other hand, Trump leaned heavily on his “charm,” talked about how not paying taxes was smart, and somehow brought Rosie O’Donnell into a discussion of foreign policy.

The second debate on October 9 was even more painful to watch. The Access Hollywood tape of Trump making lewd comments about women to Billy Bush had been leaked two days earlier. Trump attempted to even the score by inviting four women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault to a press conference prior to the debate and to be part of the audience. Trump lurked behind Hillary as she fielded questions from the live television audience. In her book What Happened, Clinton wrote that that Trump made her very uncomfortable by stalking her around the stage and she wondered if she should have told him to back off. “We were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.” Still, consensus was Clinton won this debate as well.

By the time of the third debate on October 19, Trump pinned the label “nasty woman” on Hillary. Even though he once again lost the debate, he won the battle to define his opponent as one of those smart women that no one really likes. Then it hit me. She and I grew up in an era when we were told to tone down our intelligence, hide our good grades, and never let guys see us as the smart girl in the room. I’ll admit that I played that game through high school and even college. And I’m proud of Hillary that she didn’t.

I’ll confess that in 2008, I fell hard for President Obama. While Clinton was “likable enough,” Obama was the guy who got all A’s without breaking a sweat. Her effort showed. His was masked by a coolness that always appealed to girls like me.

From time to time, I feel guilty about making that choice. I understood how hard she worked, only to discover, over and over again, that guys didn’t like women whose smartness showed. And women didn’t appreciate them either. Even in an era when women were told to lean in and have it all, women still earned less than men for the same work. And they still had trouble talking about themselves, which felt like bragging rather than self-promotion.

I understand that women like Clinton don’t appeal to some voters. She’s not perky or personable. Yes, she’s kind of what we used to call a grind back in the day. But why should a woman who was definitely the smartest person in the room during the 2016 campaign have to hide her intelligence and appear like she didn’t spend much time studying for the exam?

Hillary, I get you. I was you. Sadly, as my mother often advised me, it’s nice to be smart but be quiet about it.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, you had me at “unlikeable”. Of course I completely understand where you come from and “get” this story. I may be a few years younger than you, and went to Royal Oak schools rather than Oak Park schools, but encountered the same problems. I remember getting my first report card in 9th grade – all A’s. My first period class was Algebra. A cute sophomore baseball player asked if he could walk me to my next class. I was beyond thrilled and agreed. We had nothing to talk about, so he asked me about that report card. I told him I got A’s. He asked what else. Nothing, just A’s. He didn’t speak to me for years (we wound up in choir together two years later; it wasn’t quite as bad then). But I learned to never show that I was smart (unless someone was in class with me, then I couldn’t hide it).

    The debacle in the debates between Hilary and the Orange Monster still makes my hair stand on edge. And look how low our country has sunk since then. What a disgrace.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I know you get it. As far as Hillary goes, she had a much tougher road than I man would have had. I think she would have been better off being herself and owning her smarts. She was too managed by others.

  2. pattyv says:

    Laurie, I still feel that James B. Comey is entirely responsible for her loss. Yes the men-children in the room had a lot to do with, but they’re always there, Trump’s 40%. I think she lost on the eve of that historic vote because of Comey, voters aren’t often aware of what’s really going on, sadly, often they vote from headlines. But I do agree with you, she was the most qualified and we lost our chance. So sad.

  3. Thanx (or rather no thanx!) Laurie for your impassioned recap of Hillary’s run and a reminder of how the most qualified POTUS candidate imaginable lost to the least qualified and most horrid.

    As for this week’s prompt, I’m reminded that eight years of Obama spoiled me – I want my presidents smart and literate and civil and conscientious. Hillary surely fit the bill but look what we got.

    Forgive me for ranting to the choir!

  4. Dave Ventre says:

    The 2016 election still lingers on in the American body politic, like malaria or Lyme disease. I’m still not convinced we are going to beat it.Had Hillary not been robbed, what a different country we would be now.

    As for the problems faced by highly intelligent women, I have watched a couple of close female friends and one niece struggle with trying to foster relationships with men who either are made uneasy by their intellect, or see it as something that needs to be stifled. They were successful in the end, but it took longer than it should have. Sometimes I look at most of my fellow males and can only shake my head in confusion.

    Gina is scary-smart, a scientist and an artist. She once told me that she had ended every single relationship she ever was in because she got tired of men who could not keep up with her. Luckily for me, I find intellect to be a powerful aphrodesiac (she’s my second PhD!), right up there with creativity. I succeeded where the others failed because I was more than happy to let her be own genius self.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I wish there were more men who feel like you, Dave. I am also haunted by Gore’s “loss.” I can’t help thinking that if the popular vote decided elections, we would be so much better off. The Electoral College is killing us, but like so many other things, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  5. I felt your compassion for Hillary through your compassionate memoir.

    I supported Hilary in the primary. Obama was charismatic but did not have enough political experience to be President. To our rescue Obama had Michelle. I am not sure that Bill would have lived up to Michelle.

    Trump’s stalking of Hillary stunned most of us, but silenced others who were afraid to speak against their leader. Hillary has expressed her willingness in many ways and opportunities to speak truth to evil–e.g. the woman’s conference in China. Obama accomplished much without showing his anger–e..g Philadelphia.

    And Hillary despite this “passive” attitude did win the election.

    BTW/ I am not against expressing anger. Just need to use Sun Tze’s Art of War as a strategy. LOL

    • Laurie Levy says:

      While I still feel she is a very intelligent, capable woman who should never have lost to Trump, this country is not ready to elect a female President. Just look at everything being done in red states by by the right-wing of the Supreme Court to keep women in their place. Also, she was not a great campaigner… and then there was Comey.

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