Hillary Clinton: A brief exploration of politically powerful women

by Kathleen Goodwin

HclintonI think I realized the depth of my veneration of Hillary Clinton when the tumblr sensation textsfromhillary.tumblr.com appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. I saved my favorite of the (generally clever) memes which all feature a sunglasses-wearing Clinton, checking her blackberry onboard what a quick google search found to be a Tripoli-bound plane in October 2011. The meme I saved to my iPhoto collection features Obama reclined on a couch, surrounded by campaign posters, typing on his own blackberry. The bold faced type that has replaced speech bubbles in our contemporary versions of cartoons reads “Hey Hil, Whatchu doing?”

Clinton's response?

“Running the world.”

I remember realizing on that day that Hillary Clinton was the role model I'd been searching for. I'm coming of age in a country where ambitious young women are urged by those who have already achieved powerful careers to “lean in,” “stand tall,” and “speak up.” We watch some of these women enjoy momentary celebrity for their courage in initiating a dialogue about a still male-dominated political and business sphere, before they face an inevitable backlash (by both other women and men) where they are called elitist, whiny or, worst of all, bitchy. Who, then, are we supposed to emulate when every piece of advice we're given is alternately glorified or criticized?

The closest I've come to finding a woman to admire unequivocally is Clinton. The image in the meme above is of a wearied and reclining Obama, meanwhile Clinton sits upright, enacting the “change” that Obama's campaign posters promise. It promotes the idea that Clinton is not just leading America; she runs the whole world. Clinton gracefully rebounded from her democratic nomination defeat in 2008 to her appointment as Secretary of State, leading a life filled with global jet-setting, successful political negotiation and, most significant in my eyes, the universal respect of both her male and female peers. In the wake of the Benghazi attack in September 2012 and the accusations of Clinton's subsequent misconduct, she remained a force to be reckoned with, much more than a female figurehead within Obama's cabinet. Clinton did not allow Benghazi to rob her of political significance, instead it solidified her position as an unambiguously essential voice in global politics. This is validated as speculation about her 2016 presidential bid is claiming line space in all major publications. I am now even more convinced that Clinton is the woman who will pave the way forward for the women of my generation, should she choose to enter this race.

Of course, there are Hillary haters and she is subject to the same sorts of gendered criticism that all female leaders endure, even as their male counterparts manage to escape them. Despite the fact it's been a decade since I read the novel, I still remember the passage in Meg Cabot's “The Princess Diaries” which read, “Hillary Rodham Clinton totally recognized that her thick ankles were detracting from her image as a serious politician, and so she started wearing pants.” As recently as this past summer, a friend remarked that she could never respect (and implicitly vote for) Hillary Clinton because she remained married to her husband even after he cheated on her. Which brings me to the elephant in the room when it comes to any and all discussion of Hillary Clinton…how do you account for the importance of Bill?

Bill Clinton is the large detail which makes me hesitate to hold Hillary up as the hero of women everywhere. Unlike my friend, my hesitation has nothing to do with the Bill's sexual infidelities and Hillary's public forgiveness. Rather, it's the existence of Bill Clinton, former U.S. president, as Hillary's husband that makes me suddenly question all of the success she has achieved. When I remember Bill Clinton, I wonder if Hillary Clinton would have been elected to the Senate in 2001 if not for her established visibility as First Lady. I wonder if her 2008 campaign would have attracted half as many fundraising dollars, or half as much voter support and media hype if not for the charisma, fame and prior achievements of her husband. And suddenly I wonder, if any women at all have made it politics without standing on the shoulders of the men with which they are affiliated by marriage or by blood.

As a South Asian scholar, my immediate points of comparison are in the political history of the world's largest democracy. Indira Gandhi was the second longest serving prime minister in the India's 65 year history and the longest serving female head of state in world history. Born Indira Nehru, her biological father was also the father of the modern Indian state and its first and longest serving prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Indians should take pride in their ability to foster a female political leader over a decade before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the UK and (at the absolute least) a full half century before Americans may be able to elect a female head of state. Yet, the questioning of Indira Gandhi's validity as a leader begins with questioning whether she would have even been the prime minister of India if not for who her father was. Similarly, Sonia Gandhi the current president of the Congress party, owes her place on the inside of the Indian political sphere to her marriage to Indira Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi who followed his mother into the prime minister's role.

The real danger of this frame of mind is that both the achievements and failures of female leaders are trivialized by their holding power solely because of their husbands' influence. When you devolve into this mindset, you believe that Hillary Clinton only ended up as Secretary of State because of her original affiliation with Bill Clinton. Thus, Hillary Clinton's mistakes in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks can be diminished to incompetence, since she would have never gotten the job on her own in the first place. At the same time her political triumphs, including a rebuilding of the U.S.'s credibility worldwide, which had crumbled during the Bush administration, can perhaps be attributed more to Bill's presence, either literally or symbolically, than Hillary's diplomacy. Similarly, can Indira Gandhi's declaration of the Emergency period and suspension of democracy be tied to her father any more than her role in the successful liberation of Bangladesh can be attributed to the late Nehru?

Just when this nagging fear that female power is only a proxy of powerful male affiliations threatens to depress me with the futility of my sex ever achieving true equality I think of the counter-examples of twentieth century and contemporary female leaders who do not appear to have gleaned their political prowess by means of their fathers or husbands. The aforementioned Margaret Thatcher was daughter of a grocer and wife of a businessman, both largely absent from the political spotlight. Angela Merkel, arguably the most powerful political voice in a Europe emerging from the debt crisis, has a husband who was described with just nine words inside parentheses in a recent article in The Economist as “(a scientist who otherwise stays out of public view)”.

I also don't mean to separate female leaders into those who achieved political power by means of a man and those who made it on their own. This view undermines the 112 countries Hillary Clinton visited as Secretary of State and the 401 days she spent traveling the globe, working tirelessly to protect the interests of the American people and people everywhere. It does not just Hillary, but women everywhere, an egregious disservice. Rather, I can admit that while Bill Clinton undoubtedly played a role in Hillary's career, he may have had just as much of a negative influence on her public persona as a positive one. Perhaps, if not for her marriage to Bill we would have been celebrating the election of the first woman into the White House in 2008 instead of the first black man. I can't view Clinton, or any other women, as more or less deserving of power or success because of the men in their lives. Like all leaders, male or female, countless conditions and circumstances come together to allow for the winning of elections or the loss of them. And once in office, it matters far less who your mother, father, wife or husband was than how successfully you, as an individual, manage to do your job.

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