Hillary and Chelsea Clinton on ‘Gutsy’ and Receiving Hate in the White House

Make a list of the gutsiest women in American history and, regardless of your voting record, Hillary Rodham Clinton will likely rise to the top. It’s on-brand then that after leaving politics in 2016, the former presidential candidate and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, have committed to shining a light on other brave, bold women throughout the nation. They did so first with their 2019 book, The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience, and now they’ve teamed up to host the new Apple TV+ docuseries, Gutsy. Premiering Sept. 9, Gutsy is an eight-episode adventure around the U.S., in which the Clintons interview ultra-famous and little-known activists, artists, and community leaders who all embody the show’s titular adjective—with a bit of mother-daughter bonding thrown into the mix.

One episode features the Clintons painting outside with rap star Megan Thee Stallion; another shows the former Secretary of State going head-to-head with Kim Kardashian as Chelsea quizzes them both on legal terms. There’s a meal with author Glennon Doyle and another with model Quannah Chasinghorse. The Clintons visit a family from Kabul, Afghanistan, who recently resettled in Arkansas, and as you can see in the exclusive clip above, they spend time with Jackie, a New York City firefighter, who’s made it her mission to recruit more women into the force.

Overall, the series’ message is a moving one: There are good people doing good work in this country every day, hoping and striving for a better future. In the lead up to the premiere of Gutsy, the Clintons sat down with ELLE.com to discuss what they took away from working on the show and how they cope with the side effects of being gutsy women themselves.

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You’ve both spent a lot of time over the years talking about this word, “gutsy.” How has the definition of that word changed for you after doing this series?

Chelsea Clinton: I don’t know if it changed so much as it broadened. The Book of Gutsy Women included so many women who were already inspiring us. Then this series, working on what themes the producers and Apple TV+ thought would be most compelling, opened up the aperture to even more women who we probably wouldn’t have found otherwise, or we wouldn’t have been able to meet and learn from. It wasn’t so much that the qualities—of resilience and persistence and belief in making the impossible possible—shifted. It’s that now I have an even broader and deeper appreciation of how many women are gutsy in so many different ways.

The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience

The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience

Hillary Clinton: I agree with that. When we started working on the book four years ago, we each made very long lists. We actually wrote little profiles of more than 200 women, and the publisher said, “This is not a door stop. You’ve got to cut it down.” So we had to talk about, what are the qualities that really speak to you? One of them was: Is this woman being gutsy not just for herself, but on behalf of others? Is she breaking down barriers, opening up doors, creating more possibility? So when Apple TV+ bought the option to the book, and we began talking with them, it was exciting, because they did bring our attention to women we’d never heard of; women who, once we read about or got a chance even to meet, were so impressive. But we wanted to be sure that there was a common theme that went through all of the women, and I think we were successful in pulling that off.

There really are so many women featured in this series. Who were you especially nervous or excited to talk to?

CC: I was really excited to meet our firefighters. We just met four of the many women [Jackie] has helped recruit into the FDNY. [They] were so inspiring and also super humbling to me. Just like, oh my gosh, I couldn’t do this. And saying, “I’m grateful that you do,” feels very weak. I feel like there needs to be a bigger word than gratitude for what our amazing women of the FDNY do every day.

HC: We were presented with the possibility of going to Georgia to meet with a woman who had been in a white supremacy group, gotten herself out of it, and was now committed to helping deprogram others. I was curious, and I was somewhat skeptical. I was like, well what does this mean? Who is this person?

CC: I think you were also curious like, is this sincere?

HC: And then we met this incredible woman with such a huge heart and a big spirit. Her dedication to helping others find a way out of the hate and the mire of conspiracy theories and all kinds of mean and dangerous thinking was so impressive to me. She had with her a young woman who had been caught up in the Charlottesville Unite the Right march, but when Heather Heyer was murdered, that just woke her up. It wasn’t at all something she wanted to be associated with. Then [I met] Heather Heyer’s mother and another mother, a Black mother, whose son was murdered in a hate crime. Keeping that juxtaposed in my brain was so incredibly challenging but rewarding, because part of the message [from the women previously involved in white supremacy groups] is about their own trauma and their vulnerability to the arguments of the far-right and the neo-Nazis.

CC: The easy arguments.

HC: They also helped to create a world that, to them, made sense. And it was a narrow world. It was a confined world. It was a world filled with lies, basically. But it made sense at the time. What courage it took for them to come out of that. Yet, at the same time, talking to the two mothers who lost children to hate, what courage it took for them to not be totally destroyed by their grief. I found all of that incredibly moving.

chelsea clinton, hillary clinton, quannah chasinghorse, and jodi potts sitting around a fire

Chelsea Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Quannah Chasinghorse, and Jodi Potts in “Gutsy.”

Heidi Gutman

I was most surprised that there was an entire episode in this series about marriage and love. Why was it important for you to tackle this subject?

HC: When we started talking about what it means to be gutsy, it runs the gamut. A firefighter climbing a big ladder to save people is gutsy, but also somebody deciding to get married, getting out of a marriage, standing up to abuse in a marriage—all of that is a form of gutsiness. One of the gutsiest things I had to do was decide to stay in my marriage. I mean, it was really hard, and we talk about it, because we want to give permission to women to make the choices that are right for them and not to feel compelled one way or the other to get married, not to get married, to get divorced, not to get divorced. These are really hard questions that every woman I’ve ever known in my life wrestles with. Then [in the episode,] we have Gloria Steinem, an icon, who talks about how she decided as a young woman to break off an engagement and to pursue a different life altogether, which back in the 1950s was really gutsy.

CC: And also gave permission to a lot of other women who may have never thought that was a possibility for them.

HC: Also the idea of gay marriage, when you think about it, is such a gutsy decision. It was gutsy for individuals. It was gutsy for our society taking the step; that’s why it’s so important we have to protect it going forward. I think that episode will strike a lot of chords with many different kinds of people.

hillary clinton, chelsea clinton, glennon doyle, and abby wambach sitting at a table on the beach

Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Glennon Doyle, and Abby Wambach in “Gutsy.”

Christina Belle

There’s also a recurring theme in this series about the unfortunate consequences of being a gutsy woman. In America, it often means you become the target of vitriol and hate. Chelsea, I was struck when you said that, even from a young age, you were aware there was a “whisper of violence” surrounding your family. How have you learned to cope with that side effect of being gutsy women yourselves?

CC: It’s important to say that I don’t believe it should be a requirement for any person to develop the resilience that is, I think, now required for anyone who is a public figure. For me, I am thankful that I had parents with whom I always felt safe. I think that safety enabled me to develop gutsiness in the public arena. And yet kids shouldn’t have to do that. I had so many kids say terrible things to me when I was a kid. That was one dynamic I had to learn to navigate. But then when adults started to say terrible things to me, threatening things to me, mean things to me, that required a different kind of mental, psychological, almost full-body adaptation. I have these vivid memories of being like 12 and thinking, why are all of these anti-choice, forced-birth people shouting at me that they wish my parents had aborted me to prove that they were really pro-choice? Or throwing sacks of blood at me and saying, this is where you could have, or should have, wound up. Seeing Saturday Night Live or Rush Limbaugh making fun of my appearance and calling me the White House dog—like, who are you? In some ways, because it was so extreme and so persistent and ridiculous and absurd, that actually helped me adapt pretty quickly. What is so sad to me is that we now live in an environment where that is how so many kids are treated, not only by other kids but also by adults who make fun of how kids look, threaten kids because of their climate activism or their activism for reproductive rights or gay marriage. I don’t think we learned the lessons I wish we had learned in the ’90s.

bill, hillary, and chelsea clinton standing together

Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton on the podium at the 1992 Democratic Convention.

Allan Tannenbaum//Getty Images

HC: I do think there is a lesson in how you stand up to bullies and how you don’t let the meanness and the online nastiness affect how you feel about yourself, but it’s hard. You have to be realistic; for most kids who are going through this, it feels really lonely. And sadly, a lot of them can’t find any way out of it. I’m hoping those who watch the series will see people who’ve also had to go through it. As a mom, I watched what Chelsea went through and tried to make sure she had the internal fortitude and endurance to get through it and to also turn the tables, like she was saying. What’s wrong with you that you’re spending your time attacking a 12-year-old kid? But then it got so much worse with the advent of social media. For a lot of parents, it’s really hard to know how to protect or support their kids. We have a lot of work to do on that. Being gutsy is also standing up for other people and turning the tables on the mean-spirited people, like that young woman on social media did when that ridiculous congressmember made fun of her. She said, okay, let’s raise money for reproductive rights. Particularly for girls and young women, one of the clearest ways of trying to intimidate you is by casting doubts about you, your appearance, your social skills, everything about you. And we want to say, just dump on that. Don’t let them do that to you. Stand up for yourself.

chelsea clinton and hillary rodham clinton

Hillary and Chelsea Clinton in the 1990s.

Cynthia Johnson//Getty Images

Chelsea mentioned the safety you provided whilst she was in this really difficult position. I’m sure many parents will hear that and wonder, how do you do that? Was it a conscious choice?

HC: Oh yeah. Because we were in public life, I knew I had to think even harder about how to create not just a safe, but a normal environment for raising Chelsea. We did a lot of things together as a family. But we also tried to let her know that people would be perhaps mean. I remember the first time we had that conversation, she was about six years old, and we were talking to her at the dinner table, and her eyes just got so wide. Like, why would they say those mean things, and why would they make up stories? I said, “Well that’s kind of what happens in politics.” Little did I know how much worse it would become. We both tried to provide safety and normalcy but also the real world lessons that we thought she would need. The whole thing is so much harder for young parents, because now people live on their screens. I think about that all the time.

CC: I think the way I grew up better prepared me to parent today. I am having conversations with my children about the importance of being brave and kind to themselves and to their friends. I am hyper aware and hyper vigilant about preparing my children to be resilient, having conversations at an age appropriate [level], but still probably earlier than maybe some parents would do, because I am so thankful my parents did that with me. I think that is what enabled me to survive, bluntly, and hopefully also to thrive and be healthy and have healthy relationships and generally, thankfully, be a happy person.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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