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Playing the Woman Card on Foreign Policy

After the recent primaries, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the woman card. In response, she said "deal me in." The examples Clinton used in connection to that remark were all related to domestic policy. But as I've suggested in the past, we also need to aspire to a more feminist foreign policy.

When I talk with my Democratic friends about the 2016 presidential election, this is the concern about Clinton that always comes up: is she too much of a hawk on foreign policy? That question was confirmed recently by Mark Landler's article in the New York Times Magazine titled: How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk. It only heightened the concern about Clinton's tendency to favor military intervention - especially as the Middle East continues to be such a global hot-spot.

What is interesting to note about Landler's article is that it is entirely constructed around what President Obama called the "Washington playbook." In other words, it assumes that the best way to judge Clinton's approach to foreign policy is to focus on her views about the military. That is especially interesting given that she was Secretary of State (as opposed to Secretary of Defense), where her role was primarily diplomacy. In order to get a full picture of what a Clinton presidency might look like with regards to foreign policy, it is important to look at her full record in that office.

Here is what Secretary Clinton said on International Women's Day in 2012:
The United States is committed to making women and their advancement a cornerstone of our foreign policy not just because it’s the right thing to do. Investing in women and girls is good for societies, and it is also good for the future prosperity of countries. Women drive our economies. They build peace and prosperity and political stability for everyone—men and women, boys and girls. So let us recommit ourselves to a future of equality.
In her book Hard Choices, Clinton talked about the role of women in forging peace.
When women participate in peace processes, they tend to focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace. They generally build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and are more likely to speak up for other marginalized groups. They often act as mediators and help to foster compromise.
That aspect of Clinton's work as Secretary of State has gotten much less press. But one of the things she and President Obama developed was the first-ever National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Here is a description from the introduction:
The goal of this National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security is as simple as it is profound: to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence, and insecurity. Achieving this goal is critical to our national and global security.

Deadly conflicts can be more effectively avoided, and peace can be best forged and sustained, when women become equal partners in all aspects of peace-building and conflict prevention, when their lives are protected, their experiences considered, and their voices heard.

As directed by the Executive Order signed by President Obama entitled Instituting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, this Plan describes the course the United States Government will take to accelerate, institutionalize, and better coordinate our efforts to advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention; to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence; and to ensure equal access to relief and recovery assistance, in areas of conflict and insecurity.
Clinton described her work on that plan in Hard Choices:
I spent years trying to get generals, diplomats, and national security policymakers in our own country and around the world to tune in to this reality. I found sympathetic allies at the Pentagon and in the White House, including Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. State, USAID, and Defense got to work on a plan that would change the way diplomats, development experts, and military personnel interact with women in conflict and postconflict areas. There would be new emphasis on stopping rape and gender-based violence and empowering women to make and keep peace. We called it a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.
As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon documented back in 2011, much of this work relied on what she called "Clinton’s knack for personalizing foreign policy." She gave examples of how the SoS made it a centerpiece of everything from online discussion groups in Egypt during the Arab Spring to conversations with heads of state and interagency task force meetings with other members of the Cabinet. But here is how Clinton defined one of her main challenges (from Hard Choices):
We had to push tradition-bound bureaus and agencies to think differently about the role of women in conflicts and peacemaking, economic and democratic development, public health, and more. I didn’t want [the Office of Global Women’s Issues] to be the only place where this work was done; rather I wanted it to be integrated into the daily routine of our diplomats and development experts everywhere.
Lemmon discussed one of the ways Clinton addressed that:
For her part, Clinton says that her ambition now is to move the discussion beyond a reliance on her own celebrity. She must, she says, take her work on women’s behalf “out of the interpersonal and turn it into the international.” At the State Department, that goal is reflected in a new and sweeping strategic blueprint known as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which establishes priorities over a four-year horizon. Women and girls are mentioned 133 times across the 220 pages of the final QDDR document.
That sounds a lot like the leg work her successor John Kerry put in to developing a focus on climate change in the State Department - something that eventually led to the Paris Agreement.

I am not suggesting any of this in order to completely dismiss the concerns people have about Clinton's view on the role of the military. But to focus only on that is the build a caricature of a very complex woman. If she is elected president, we have no way of knowing what kind of foreign crises she might face. We can rest assured that she will focus much of her work on engaging women both here and at home and abroad in the process of forging peace and ensuring security around the globe. That has been her commitment since she said this back in 1995 at the World Conference on Women:
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes—the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.


  1. Nancy, I've often wondered if Hillary talks tougher than she really thinks or would act if she were President. I base this supposition on the effects of sexism in our society, politics, etc. It seems to me that a woman in her situation "has to" seem tougher and more intransigent than she actually is in order not to seem (in the eyes of most people) weak or waffling. I hate that this is likely true, and I so appreciate the critical points you make in this article. I plan to share it widely.

  2. Nancy, thank you so much for your efforts! Many do not comment , but we enjoy your thoughtful commentaries. Of course I will support Hillary, she knows us Obamabots realize Pres. Obama's accomplishments, and she needs to build on them. Dee


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