Sometimes I think Tammy Wynette got it wrong when she sang that “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”. In the year 2016 it still is hard to be a woman, especially if you want to get to the very top. Just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton. But that does not mean we should stop trying.
Clinton did not become US President – nor therefore leader of the free world. And that is a great shame, for it was time for a woman to take that top job, to bring another perspective on the way of the world, and on how to run it, never forgetting core values of liberal democracy. And let us be clear, Hillary Rodham Clinton has a long track record of pursuing such a perspective.
She has worked endlessly for children’s rights; she has supported a myriad of women’s causes; she has travelled the world to promote US interests as Secretary of State – and at the same time she promoted family, health and human security issues wherever she went. And in Africa, alongside terrorism, global trade and world peace, she always talked clean-cooking stoves.
Millions of women across the continent cook over open fires, often in small huts, inhaling smoke. In 2009, the UN estimated 1.9 million deaths were caused by smoke inhalation. Clinton was passionate about getting clean cooking stoves into these huts: nothing fancy, cheap stoves that can burn clean fuel. So as Secretary of State she helped launch the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as a public private initiative (PPI).
As a woman and a global citizen, I can only admire the most senior international US official for repeatedly and determinedly focusing on core issues of real lives alongside broad-brush power politics. I believe that is the perspective Hillary Clinton would have brought to the position of leader of the free world – and that is what I mourn in her not attaining the position.
Since the election, as indeed throughout the campaign, many have claimed she was the wrong candidate: too establishment, too old, too many family problems, uncharismatic, a woman. There may or may not be merit to some claims, but ultimately they were and remain irrelevant, for two reasons: first, because the context of the elections had changed; and second, because of politics.
The US has become a deeply divided country and there could be no ideal candidate, or indeed one respected or probably elected by more than approximately half the electorate. A quick glance at the two parties’ candidates reflects all: there were 16 Republicans in the primaries, of which only one was black and one a woman and all were Christian. The Democrats, having already selected a black candidate who then became President, this year had a primary between a woman and a Jew, with another woman, Elizabeth Warren, a strong contender.
Within this context, a Democratic candidate who was a woman symbolized everything contrary to the Republican ethos of 2016. Moreover, the massive role of social media in this election offered voice to this difference in the crudest of terms: this was not a fight between opposing ideals couched in legally defendable journalistic terms. This was a dirty slinging match of slogans and messages decided largely by algorithms in which a woman candidate became an object of impersonal hatred. As such, Hillary Rodham Clinton actually held her own with dignity.
A core reason for her success was that she was a politician. This fact was always held against her, not least as a symbol of all that was wrong with Washington and the US body politic. However, I strongly contend that a woman probably had to be a strong politician in order to become the candidate. In a fight for the Presidency, a lifetime of having to fight your corner in the brutish atmosphere of the political world is undoubtedly the most suitable training. That does not mean that every woman politician must be supported for her gender, but rather that if a woman is to be a serious candidate she must probably be a politician.
There is much to learn from Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her campaign. She did not win, but she ran, won the popular vote, and represented everything women in security, diplomacy and politics aspire to: capability, achievement, interest in others and world events, and experience gained through sheer hard work. She withstood outlandish misogyny and personal attacks, and she rallied one of the largest political machines in the world behind her.
The next woman candidate must do all that – and win. Not through lies on social media but by continuing to offer a real alternative and a different perspective. Clinton’s was clearly not sufficient, so it must be enhanced; but she remains a trailblazer.
A woman ran to become President of the United States.
A woman. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It is a fact to savour, regardless of the outcome.
By Ilana Bet-El, Author, Historian, Consultant, and Member of the Advisory Committee of WIIS Brussels