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Category: Politics

Secretary Clinton: The Uses of “First Lady Tendencies”

| August 24, 2009

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Secretary Clinton speaks with women at the University of Nairobi on August 6.

A recent media take on the secretary reveals a truncated view of appropriate diplomatic style. A sense of mission derived from her own experiences drives Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and the broad scope of her background grounds her work.

Hillary Clinton was an active first lady turned politician who almost won the democratic nomination for president. The skills she developed in those roles are what make her a strong secretary of state with a distinct and effective style. So when Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times described her as a “recovering politician, with first lady tendencies. And a celebrity in her own right” he completely missed what is to be admired about her.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton traveled to more than 80 countries, meeting with foreign leaders and visiting isolated villages and health clinics. On her first trip as secretary, she traveled in February 2009 to Seoul. In July, Secretary Clinton presented a major foreign policy address where she called for “a new mindset about how America will use its power to safeguard our nation, expand shared prosperity, and help more people in more places live up to their God-given potential.” And upon her arrival in Kenya for an 11-day Africa tour, the South African children and women sang “Hill-ar-ree, Hill-ar-ree!” as they met her.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton has displayed many of the rhetorical skills evident during her first lady tenure, Senate campaigns and notable presidential bid. These skills should be seen as universally positive attributes as she travels the globe in her effort to improve international relations. They point to an ability to move freely between a masculine and feminine style of speaking.

In my book, Almost Madam President, Why Hillary Clinton “Won” in 2008, I note that Hillary Clinton’s style as a public speaker demonstrates a rhetorical agility that no other American woman has exercised. We accept a wide range of styles from our presidents: from showy and loquacious to cerebral or instinctive. It is time we accept a wider range of style from women leaders. The major attribute of Hillary Clinton’s public speaking that helped her to become the first non-symbolic woman candidate for president is the very rhetorical elasticity that Jeffrey Gettleman criticizes.

To the surprise of many in the state of Arkansas, when her husband became governor, Hillary Clinton did not limit herself to a traditional first lady agenda. Instead, she used her strong rhetorical skills to lead a task force to reform the Arkansas education system. As America’s first lady she stretched the rhetorical constraints of the role, becoming an extraordinarily important actor in her husband’s administration. She went on to run and win elective office as senator from the state of New York, and she became the first front-runner woman candidate for the presidency of the United States. And all the way she had as many detractors and admirers.

As an academic, I don’t take a political view. In my research analyzing the public presentation of women speakers, however, I have concluded that the limited sphere we prescribe to women speakers restricts their potential. That is why the media and the American people would be wise to exercise more elasticity, too, and adopt a new mindset about women in the public sphere so that we could focus on the import of the work they do instead of whether or not we are comfortable seeing them do it. Only then will we be able to “expand shared prosperity, and help more people in more places live up to their God-given potential.”

Hillary Clinton told Mark Landler of The New York Times, "I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress—that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential." For this secretary of state, politics is personal.

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