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Category: Politics

Hillary Clinton Continues To Rewrite the Script

| February 23, 2009

Lisa Burns, author of First Ladies and the Fourth Estate (Northern Illinois University Press, 2008), concluded her illuminating book with the statement:  “the question of women’s ‘proper’ place in political culture is as relevant today as it has been during any historical period.” As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton continues to redefine our possibilities as she demonstrates that the tradition-bound role of first lady can lead to a political voice on the international stage.

On her first trip abroad, she has shown herself once again as a major political actor—one who intends to reshape the role of secretary of state by offering a decidedly human touch.  To fully understand the role of political women in the United States, we should remember the unlikely path to power that she has taken.

In 1996 Hillary Clinton met Bernadette Chirac, wife of then French President Jacques Chirac.  She was impressed with her, and was perhaps taking notes about how to manage roles as both presidential spouse and an elected official (as a council member of the Department of Corrèze).  Since there had never been any women in the United States who had been First Lady and then an elected official—until Hillary Clinton won her Senate seat in 2000—Bernadette Chirac offered a glimpse of how it could be done.

In the United States historically, the roles of First Lady and elected official could not be more different.  While presidential scholar Robert Watson notes that First Ladies regularly fulfill both private and public roles,  the public often judges those who use their white glove pulpit for controversial issues harshly. Eleanor Roosevelt’s good rapport with women journalists reduced the criticism she received for her activism, but she was still vilified for turning the social office of First Lady into a civic centered and powerful one. The promise that Bill Clinton made on the campaign trail for the presidency, that voters would “get two for the price of one,” was met with a public backlash.  As First Lady, Hillary Clinton’s work on the healthcare initiative made her an unelected policymaker, which raised the ire of those many who preferred her to stay in a small sphere of influence more akin to a traditional woman’s role.

When she announced her bid as a presidential candidate, speculation abounded:  How would Hillary Clinton re-introduce herself to the American people, at least those outside of New York State, who thought of her first as a former first lady and a polarizing figure at that.  She had succeeded in her Senate race by meeting the people of New York not as a celebrity First Lady, but as a political powerhouse who would fight for the state’s needs. She went on to easily win reelection in 2006.

Then running for the presidential nomination, Clinton needed to strike the right balance between powerful policy maker and populist ‘every woman’ who is ‘likable enough’ to win votes.  How would she highlight just enough of her First Lady experience to create an ethos that demonstrates leadership without dredging up details of the Clinton White House drama that many Americans would just as soon forget?

As secretary of state, she has traveled a trajectory like none before her.  She is balancing the heavyweight duties of a “stern superpower diplomat” as the New York Times described, with appearances on popular culture programs like “Awesome” in Indonesia, which features young people.  Hillary Clinton said she is determined to make a connection to people “in a way that is not traditional, not confined by the ministerial greeting and the staged handshake photo.  I see our job right now, given where we are in the world and what we’ve inherited, as repairing relations, not only with governments but with people.”  The Times’s Mark Landler called it “tossing the script.” Hillary Clinton has been scraping the role cast for her and re-writing the script for women in the United States her entire career.