A View from Abroad: What a Clinton Presidency Would Mean for Women

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UN Women / J Carrier
Hillary Clinton speaks at the UN Women event “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality” in New York City in March 2015.

Following the Benghazi hearings, and more recently with the terrorist attacks in Paris, the foreign policy of presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton has come under scrutiny. However, few ask her about the one issue that most defined her legacy as US Secretary of State: her fight for women’s rights abroad, and her belief that “the subjugation of women is a threat to the common security of our world and the national security of our country.”

While some see women’s empowerment as a soft or secondary issue in foreign policy, Clinton clearly doesn’t: she’s been calling attention to it since her famous Beijing UN speech in 1995, and getting more women into power was a driving goal during her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State.1

However, despite her achievements, many international women’s rights advocates still refuse to embrace her—accusing her hawkish position on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere as hurting women more than helping them. Are they overlooking a chance to make the planet’s most powerful person a self-declared feminist, or are they right?

A new book, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy takes a sharp lens to Clinton’s foreign policy impact on women. Authors Valerie Hudson of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and journalist Patricia Leidl trace the history of the international women’s movement, assessing Clinton’s commitment.

First, they consider whether her premise is rhetorical or real: does the status of women and girls really matter to national security? A growing body of research conclusively says yes, and Hudson and Leidl make their case.2 For example, one study of all armed conflicts between 1954 and 1994 found that the lower the percentage of women in power, the higher the rate of violence.3 Several other studies show that governments with stronger laws for women were much less likely to use force first and were much less violent once in a conflict.4

In yet another study, 186 Harvard Business School students were given computer games in which they pretended to be national leaders in a conflict over a diamond mine. The results showed that women were much less likely to use force, and much better at resolving conflict once it starts. “Overwhelmingly,” all-female pairs proved “significantly less likely than all-male pairs, to spend money on weapons procurement or go to war when confronted with a crisis,” researchers found.

Overconfidence was also a re-occurring issue for men, as was the use of unprovoked violence as a tactic, researchers found. Much of this data is being housed at a donor-funded research website launched in 2007, Womanstats.org, run by a team of international academics—and cited frequently by Clinton.5

Despite the mounting data, women still don’t have a seat at the table—or even in the building. Women hold on average fewer than 20 percent of parliamentary seats in government worldwide. In the last 20 years, they have represented less than ten percent of participants in peace negotiations and less than five percent of signatories. Security forces are overwhelming dominated by men, even at places like the UN, where 97 percent of UN peacekeepers and 90 percent of UN police forces are still men. Even in the US, there may be “binders full of women,” but they rarely appear on foreign policy panels, at the Pentagon, or in the Oval Office.6,7

We should accept that women’s rights do matter in the global effort to stop terrorism and improve national security. How does Clinton’s record fare on the issue?

While the international women’s rights movement can be traced back to the UN declaring its “Decade for Women” in 1976, most peg its inception to Clinton’s 1995 speech at the UN Beijing conference in which she declared, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” The movement continued to gather steam as rape camps and other atrocities against women during the Balkans war spilled into the headlines; and in 2000, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which called for states to ensure women were represented in conflict resolution as well as in security and in pushing for the prosecution of sex crimes. Clinton was vocal in advocating for women globally as First Lady, and formed Vital Voices, an initiative to lobby for women’s rights.

When Clinton returned to the international stage in 2009, she had the budget and manpower of the State Department behind her—and she put it to use. At her request in 2009, Obama increased the budget for the Office of Global Women’s Issues by ten fold. She created a “women’s track” to various strategic meetings with countries such as India, Pakistan, China, and Indonesia, forcing them to provide a female counterpart and giving her access to Clinton’s top officials. Clinton pushed through the U.S. National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, which prompted countries to create specific goals for women’s advancement. Clinton’s four-year strategic plan for the State Department included 133 mentions of women and girls on 242 pages, according to Hudson and Leidl.

“There’s no doubt that Clinton’s signature issue during her tenure as Secretary of State was women’s empowerment,” Hudson and Leidl write.

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Foreign and Commonwealth Office
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, passed in 2000, is a landmark of the international women’s rights movement.

She also required gender training for State Department employees, many of whom oversee the implementation of hundreds of millions in spending for development overseas and who were now learning how to effectively use those programs to empower women. This matters because Bush, too, sent hundreds of millions of dollars to women’s causes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of it was considered a waste because of insensitive or ham-fisted implementation on the ground.8

Advancing women’s rights overseas without appearing to push a meddlesome agenda of Western feminism is tricky (just ask former Bush aid Karen Hughes, who was verbally whiplashed by Saudi women for suggesting they be able to drive.9) And Clinton deserves credit for pulling it off. She travelled extensively, met vigorously with grassroots women leaders and used social media and talk shows to spread her message. Rarely, if ever, do the media cover this.

Hudson and Leidl conclude that Clinton is not only deeply sincere on women’s issues but that she would do great things for them with the muscle of the Oval Office behind her. As Secretary of State, she funded clean cook stoves as a way to improve global health and actively promoted participation of women in the countries she visited. All this and more despite having a boss (President Obama) who showed at best a lukewarm response to women’s rights, according to the authors.

But is that worth anything to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women widowed by an invasion she supported,10 or Afghan women living in fear of drone attacks, or Libyan girls unable to attend school following the destabilizing coup she supported? Clinton stands accused by many of pushing a hawkish, promilitary agenda that perpetuates the very insecurity and instability that hurts women the most.11

To her critics, though, she is an American imperialist in a skirt and women are much worse off. If the term “feminist hawk” is a contradiction in terms, then it seems unclear how a Hillary presidency would reconcile a desire to prioritize the betterment of women’s lives overseas with a willingness—even advocacy—of using force that guarantees the opposite.

“All of the things Hillary Clinton has done for women get undone by war,” said Medea Benjamin, head of a San Francisco women’s antiwar group, in a phone interview recently from the Syrian border, where she was meeting with women. “And she has never met a war she didn’t like.”

Many of her supporters believe that a Hillary presidency would mean an even deeper implementation of the pro-woman agenda she began at the State Department—and she’d be able to put real muscle behind it. The question is exactly how much of Hillary’s muscle do women around the world really want?