One year ago today, Hillary Clinton ended her presidential campaign, much to the relief of millions of ardent Barack Obama supporters like me. Throughout the primaries, I had been irritated and then outraged by those who argued feminism obliged women to back her. The possibility that our first female president would be a former first lady promising to continue her husband’s legacy struck me as profoundly dispiriting. During the campaign, her hardball tactics horrified me. So when she made her rousing and gracious speech in the National Building Museum, conceding defeat but celebrating "18 million cracks" in "that highest, hardest glass ceiling," I was too furious to really hear her.
Listening to it now, though, I can’t help but tear up. I’m still glad I supported Obama, who I think is proving to be a better, defter president than Clinton would have been. Nevertheless, I was wrong to mistake her political ruthlessness for a lack of principle. Just as Clinton proved her skeptics wrong upon entering the Senate in 2001 with hard and diligent work, she is now quietly remaking the State Department. That’s especially true when it comes to women’s rights. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has been the feminist hero of this administration.
Just as Clinton proved her skeptics wrong upon entering the Senate in 2001 with hard and diligent work, she is now quietly remaking the State Department. That’s especially true when it comes to women’s rights. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has been the feminist hero of this administration.
Clinton made it clear during her confirmation hearing that women’s rights would be at the center of her approach to foreign policy. “[O]f particular concern to me is the plight of women and girls, who comprise the majority of the world's unhealthy, unschooled, unfed, and unpaid,” she said. “If half of the world's population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal, and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity will remain in serious jeopardy. We still have a long way to go, and the United States must remain an unambiguous and unequivocal voice in support of women's rights in every country, every region, on every continent.”
Rhetorically, there’s not much new here—for years, politicians, economists, development experts, and national-security specialists have argued that women’s oppression leads to economic stagnation, and political instability. (As Lawrence Summers, no paragon of radical feminism, argued when he was chief economist of the World Bank, “Educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment in the developing world.”) But Clinton has acted on this understanding in bold and unequivocal ways.
We saw this almost immediately with the firing of Bush’s global AIDS coordinator, Mark Dybul. Initially, Obama had asked Dybul to stay on, and it was easy to see why the president liked him: Dybul is a gay man with Democratic leanings who prided himself on his ability to work with religious conservatives. But women’s-rights activists believed he had consistently sold out women in order to appease his right-wing allies. He championed abstinence-only programs and fought against attempts to integrate AIDS prevention with other reproductive-health services like family planning.
Dybul’s critics pointed out that you can’t fight AIDS without taking women’s rights seriously—in parts of Africa, after all, young women are three times more likely to be infected than young men, and marriage can itself be a primary risk factor. Feminists in the field prevailed on Clinton to get rid of him. Shortly after inauguration, he got a phone call telling him to clear out his desk by the end of the day.
This was the same unyielding pugilism Clinton had shown against Obama in the primaries, but it was a lot more fun to watch her aim it at the right. It was a reminder that the inexorable sense of righteousness that made Clinton so infuriating as an opponent makes her tremendously valuable as an ally.
With her in the State Department, the administration has taken a number of other steps to make American foreign policy more responsive to women. Obama created a new post, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, and filled it with Clinton’s former chief-of-staff, Melanne Verveer. Clinton challenged Hamid Karzai when Afghanistan came close to passing a law that would have curtailed the rights of Shiite women. Later, during a press conference with President Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, she pressured both of them to improve the lamentable situation of women in their countries, saying, “I will also reinforce, as I have on many occasions, that this is not just me speaking, but this is the American government speaking; that we do not believe either Afghanistan or Pakistan can achieve lasting progress without the full participation of all of your citizens, including women and girls.”
On April 22, antiabortion Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) confronted Clinton during a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He wanted to know if the Obama administration was going to seek to undermine or oppose antiabortion legislation in Africa or Latin America, and if it included abortion in its definition of reproductive health. Her response stands as the strongest defense of reproductive rights worldwide ever to issue from the lips of a senior government official:
When I think about the suffering that I have seen, of women around the world—I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil, where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies, and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. I’ve been in African countries where 12- and 13-year-old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship.
So we have a very fundamental disagreement. And it is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate, and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so, and so are we. We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health, and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal, and rare.
As I write in an upcoming issue of The American Prospect, there are plenty of forces working against the creation of a feminist foreign policy. It may be beyond the scope of any American government to significantly improve the lives of women in anti-American countries on the other side of the world. But Clinton’s commitment has proven fierce and enduring.
To her supporters, no doubt, this has been obvious all along. After all, she electrified feminists across the world in 1995, when she spoke at the U.N.’s Beijing Women’s Conference and declared, “[W]omen’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Way before Hillary Rodham ever married Bill Clinton, her friend (and later his gubernatorial chief-of-staff) Betsey Wright imagined that she would become America’s first female president. “We had both read Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer,” Wright says in Carl Bernstein’s biography of Clinton, adding that she was “obsessed with how far Hillary might go.”
But Clinton’s history in regard to feminism is complicated—one reason she’s always been such a Rorschach test for admirers and detractors alike. After all, she put her own ambitions aside for decades to be a political wife, and when her husband’s mistresses threatened his ascent, she took part in trying to silence or discredit them. As first lady and later as the first serious female presidential candidate, she put on and discarded so many personas that it was hard to figure out who she really was.
Hard for me, at least. I underestimated her. Freed from the pressure of campaigning, her best self has emerged. I’m still happy that she pulled out of the race a year ago. But I’m even happier that she’s become a leader anyway.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism . She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, and many other publications.