Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices: Why Women Matter

By Nancy L. Cohen, June 9, 2014

Here’s some advice about Hillary’ Clinton’s new memoir Hard Choices—read the last chapter first.

There, Hillary makes a moving case that women’s global empowerment is a core national security issue.

“It was no coincidence that the places where women’s lives were most undervalued largely lined up with the parts of the world most plagued by instability, conflict, extremism, and poverty.

“This was a point lost on many of the men working across Washington’s foreign policy establishment.”

Generous of Hillary to frame this gentle criticism of the Old Boy’s Club in the past tense.

That the U.S. Secretary of State considered the fate of half the world’s population to be significant should be unremarkable and uncontroversial. Instead, Hillary’s policy initiatives to make women’s empowerment “a cornerstone” of foreign policy was instead treated by some critics as evidence that she wasn’t a “great” secretary of state. “21st-century planetary humanism,” quipped one man about the women’s rights work, underscoring his contention that she failed to lead on any big issues. Hillary has been unfavorably compared to John Kerry in almost every major media outlet. According to conventional wisdom, he is a risk-taker, while she played it safe to preserve her political options.

Foreign affairs is a highly specialized and insular field in which a gendered conception of how the world works—think “hard” and “soft” power —is deeply ingrained.  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had an answer to those who dismissed women’s issues as “soft”–“The bottom line is that women’s issues are the hardest issues, because they are the ones that have to do with life and death.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that female leaders—Hillary, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice—were the ones to insist that women’s deplorable status across large swaths of the globe is a national security issue that demands America’s action.

“I have to admit it,” Hillary writes in Hard Choices of several instances of ‘mansplaining by foreign leaders, “I grew tired of watching otherwise thoughtful people just smile and nod when I brought up the concerns of women and girls.”

If only extremists and terrorists thought women’s empowerment was so easily ignored and dismissed. Rather, they see women’s full participation in society as a mortal threat to their fond dreams of domination and ideological conformity. Witness the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the attempted assassination of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for daring to go to school. (UPDATE: In one of its first acts, ISIS imposed Sharia law and ordered women “Only go out if needed.”)  The nations that pose some of the greatest national security challenges–Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Iran—all rank among the ten worst nations in the world on women’s equality. Of the seven regions measured in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report, the Middle East and North Africa rank lowest for women’s economic and political participation.

“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to,” Hillary has said. “It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim, they all want to control women.”

Maybe rebranding women’s empowerment the Terrorist Deterrence Doctrine would grab the attention of the ‘establishment’ and the pundit class. Or we could just support leaders who understand instinctively that women’s equality and global stability are inseparable.

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Nancy L. Cohen