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Hillary Clinton, State Feminist? | The Nation

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Hillary Clinton, State Feminist?

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on US diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya, during a hearing held by the House Foreign Affairs committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 23, 2013. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Hillary Clinton stood at a podium at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and began her speech, one of the last she would make as secretary of state. Wearing rectangular-framed glasses, pale pink lipstick and tapered heels, she looked out on a crowd of foreign-policy wonks, lawyers and journalists. She directed some of her remarks to members of the media—“the pundits,” as she calls them, who see women’s issues as “a bit soft”—and wondered aloud, imitating those selfsame pundits, “What about the hard stuff?”

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Tara McKelvey
Tara McKelvey, a 2011 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret...

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“Well, that is a false choice,” she continued, explaining the need for an American foreign policy that encompasses so-called soft issues, like the advancement of women, economic development and energy diplomacy, as well as the usual “hard power” concerns. At various times during her speech, she held her right hand aloft and lightly touched her index finger and thumb together, as if to illustrate the concept of something that was both delicate and precisely calibrated. Her approach to the job of secretary of state—a four-year effort to balance military might, women’s issues and diplomacy—as well as her overall investment in a career that spans more than two decades in Washington, have also been exercises in patience, balance and fine-tuning. 

On this day, at least, she got things right. Her speech was a virtuoso performance, a thirty-three-minute discourse on “American leadership,” done without notes, in which she riffed on “smart power” and name-checked Frank Gehry (foreign policy needs a new architecture, “highly intentional and sophisticated”), as well as Osama bin Laden and current Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Martin Dempsey. Then she sat down and waited for questions. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, later told the audience that Clinton’s successor at the State Department, John Kerry, had “some fairly large Manolo Blahniks to fill.” (In fact, Clinton told me later, her shoes were designed by Miuccia Prada.)

Despite the inescapable fixation on Clinton’s brand of femininity (right down to the designer of her shoes), as well as her claims concerning her women-oriented policy priorities, the balance of her work as secretary of state has actually favored muscle over soft power. Clinton pressed to send additional troops to Afghanistan, lobbied for military intervention in Libya and supported a more aggressive targeted-killing program. 

Still, many see in Clinton a secretary of state who was attuned to the needs of women. “Having a female secretary of state is sometimes a game changer in itself,” says Shelby Quast, a senior policy adviser at Equality Now. Perhaps more than her predecessors (some of whom were, of course, female), and certainly more than Obama, Clinton has been able to charm political leaders, both men and women, because of her warmth, her deep knowledge of the issues people are facing, and a genuine curiosity about the world and the people around her. Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, told me at a breakfast in Washington that Clinton has reached out to women in Pakistan, leaving behind “a legacy that will endure.” 

During her first five months as secretary, Clinton mentioned women 450 times in the speeches she gave, according to columnist Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian. Later, in a Newsweek interview, Clinton said, “I have been working hard to integrate women’s rights as a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Women are key to the success of the Obama administration’s major development and economic-growth initiatives.” 

“They are often discriminated against, even brutally enslaved, or simply not able to contribute to society or realize their potential,” Clinton added. “We have an obligation to stand up for their rights.” And she has worked hard to create programs that will help create gender equality, promoting women’s right to education and addressing problems like the high rate of female fetuses aborted in China. 

In one of her most important achievements, Clinton shined a spotlight on the dangers women face in war-torn countries. She went to the Democratic Republic of Congo during her first year as secretary, for instance, and met with women who had endured sexual violence. She also pushed for United Nations Security Council resolutions that “have put real teeth into tackling the issue,” Bunting wrote, including the appointment of a special representative on sexual violence in conflict, and the creation of a team of experts responsible for tracking down its perpetrators. 

But some view Clinton’s impact in a different light. “There were moments with Hillary Clinton when I felt like we were getting too close to a rescue narrative: ‘Here’s Hillary Clinton and here’s the United States. We are going to save the women of the world,’” says Mallika Dutt, the president of Breakthrough, a human rights organization. 

As Dutt points out, the situation for Clinton is complicated. “There are aspects of US foreign policy that have created that situation in these countries. We supported the mujahideen” and helped to create the conditions that led to the Taliban. “We’ve supported Saudi Arabia for decades,” she says. “Here we are, strong advocates for women’s rights, and we’re going to rescue women in the global South, while we are creating circumstances that allow these things to occur.”

During Clinton’s tenure, for example, expanded US counter-terrorism operations have made parts of the countries where she was attempting to help women, such as Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, more volatile. Pakistani Ambassador Rehman is a fan of Clinton’s, but she has denounced the US drone program, which is “creating an entire community of future recruits and radicalizing people who were standing up against militancy and terrorists.” Rehman refuses to talk about the role Clinton has played in expanding the drone program, but those efforts have been well documented. 

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