Wherever she goes – a hike in the woods near her Chappaqua home, at the theater for a Broadway show, delivering a speech to a room of women and girls – Hillary Clinton causes a stir. Fans ask for photographs. Crowds stand for extended ovations.
Such appearances have been rare. In the more than four months since her devastating election loss to Donald Trump, Clinton has largely resisted the spotlight. On Friday, however, she hinted that she is ready to return to public life.
“I am ready to come out of the woods,” Clinton said at the Society of Irish Women’s annual St Patrick’s Day dinner, in an apparent reference to the chance encounters with supporters while hiking.
She continued, saying she was ready “to help shine a light on what is already happening around kitchen tables, at dinners like this, to help draw strength that will enable everybody to keep going.”
For decades, Bill and Hillary Clinton have been central figures in Democratic politics. Since Hillary’s loss, Democrats have been divided over what her role in the party should be.
Some argue that her time has passed, and that the party’s energy is with the wing of the party loyal to the man she beat in the primary, Bernie Sanders.
“The era of Clintonism is gone,” said Winnie Wong, a co-author of the Women’s March guiding principles document and the co-founder of People for Bernie, an active grassroots group. “Finished. Finito. She lost.”
But others – especially her supporters who are now active in the opposition movement – are certain that she has a future in Democratic politics, even if it is not as a candidate.
“There is a reason why so many people looked to images of her in the days after the election,” said Jess McIntosh, executive editor of the liberal new site ShareBlue, and formerly of the Clinton campaign and Emily’s List. “People want to hear from her.”
After Clinton’s first post-election sighting, women started hiking in the Chappaqua area in hopes of running into her. The sightings inspired a sketch on Saturday Night Live and a Twitter account, “HRC in the wild”, which collects photos of supporters run-ins with Clinton.
At the Women’s March on Washington in January, a number of women carried signs that read: “I’m still with Her.”
Clinton has shown solidarity with the Trump opposition movement. She wore white – the color of women’s suffrage – to his inauguration. The next day, a son women led protest marches around the world, she tweeted: “Scrolling through images of the #womensmarch is awe-inspiring. Hope it brought joy to others as it did to me.”
McIntosh said: “She is living proof that women really do have to be 10 times better and work 10 times harder to get half as far. At this day and age that’s something that’s easy to forget.
“For a woman that qualified to lose to a man that ridiculous really drove it home for a lot of people that we have so much more work to do.”
Advocacy for women and girls has been central to her life’s work, and it’s a theme Clinton returned to in the days and weeks after the election. In a speech on International Women’s Day, she praised the women leading protests against Trump’s agenda.
“Our voices have always been vital but they have never been more vital than they are right now – not just in far away countries but right here,” she said at the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in Washington, wearing red in solidarity with the women’s rights movement.
‘She is who most people wanted as president’
While Clinton is a source of inspiration for some Democrats, for others she is a representative of the old guard. Such tensions played out in race for chair of the Democratic National Committee last month: the top candidates, former labor secretary Tom Perez and Minnesota representative Keith Ellison, were viewed as proxies in battle over the ideological bent of the party.
Clinton carefully avoided inserting herself into the deliberations over how the party should move forward in the Trump era. But ahead of the vote, she published a video urging Democrats to “keep fighting”. “I’ll be right there with you every step of the way,” she said.
Perez won and immediately appointed Ellison deputy chair. Together they have made a show of unity and have moved quickly to elevate young people. But is there space for a party elder such as Clinton?
“When people see her and hear her, it serves as a reminder that she is who most people wanted as president,” said Jesse Ferguson, the deputy national press secretary for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“She is a reminder to those organizing in opposition to Trump that the country can, should and wanted to be better.”
As the nation adjusts to the new realities of a Trump administration, Clinton’s plans, and especially her political ambitions, will continue to be a source of speculation and intrigue. How Clinton fits into the political moment is just one of the many unanswered questions.
Will she run again in 2020? A USA Today/Suffolk University poll taken after the election found that 62% of Democratic and independent voters said the two-time presidential candidate should not run again for president.
A rumor that she is considering a run for mayor of New York resurfaced this week – and a January Quinnipiac University poll found that if she mounted an independent bid against the current New York mayor (and Clinton ally) Bill de Blasio, she would win.
Wong, the co-founder of People for Bernie, said: “The governor’s race in Massachusetts: roll her out there. Send her to fundraisers. But do not send her to a town hall to talk about poverty in coal country wearing a $12,000 jacket and diamonds that are slightly more modest than Melania’s.”
Clinton delivered the St Patrick’s Day speech in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a former industrial center where her grandfather worked in a lace mill and where her father was born, raised and buried.
Pennsylvania helped deliver Trump the presidency in November, but Lackawanna County, where Scranton is located, went for Clinton.
A spokesman for Clinton, meanwhile, said that in the immediate future her plans include helping causes she believes in and writing.
Clinton is working on a book of personal essays that is scheduled for publication in the fall. The book, which is still untitled, will include “stories from her life, up to and including her experiences in the 2016 presidential campaign” and will be inspired by quotations she’s collected over the past decades, according to the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Next month, she will speak at the LGBT Community Center in New York; in May she will deliver the commencement speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College, where nearly 50 years ago she launched her storied political career when she delivered its first student commencement address.
Last week, accepting the Girls Inc 2017 Champion for Girls award, Clinton spoke to a new generation of women whom she hopes will do what she ultimately did not.
“Let us hope there is a wave of young women running for office in America, and let’s be sure we support them in every way we can,” she said.
“Let’s help them shatter stereotypes and lift each other up. They are the history-makers, the glass-ceiling breakers of tomorrow.”