Hillary Clinton and Her Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit

If she becomes president, the former secretary of State will join a small group of female world leaders, most of whom she already knows well.

From left to right: United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Abdallah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Omani Minister of Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad Al-Sabah, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Qatar's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, pose for a group photo before a US- Gulf Cooperation Council forum at the Gulf Cooperation Council Secretariat on March 31, 2012 in Riyadh. Secretary Clinton promoted a missile shield to protect Gulf Arab states from Tehran and sought to work with them to help end the violence in Iran's ally Syria during her visit to Saudi Arabia. 
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Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
May 8, 2014, 5 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton was in Pap­ua New Guinea for only a few hours as sec­ret­ary of State, but the ex­per­i­ence stuck with her, for all the wrong reas­ons.

The coun­try has one of the highest rates of vi­ol­ence against wo­men in the world, so a re­port­er asked the then-prime min­is­ter about the prob­lem as Clin­ton stood just a few feet away. The premi­er ex­plained that some­times men come home from work to find their din­ner isn’t ready and need to show their dis­pleas­ure. “Even the jaded Amer­ic­an press corps was shocked,” Clin­ton re­called four years later, while speak­ing at the Sim­mons Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence in April.

She re­cited the an­ec­dote jauntily (the prime min­is­ter was later ous­ted and his suc­cessor pub­licly apo­lo­gized to the wo­men of his coun­try), but she said it was “one of the worst” ex­per­i­ences she’s had with a for­eign lead­er dur­ing her ten­ure in pub­lic life.

By her own ac­count, Clin­ton has been in­cess­antly giggled at by Zi­m­b­ab­wean dic­tat­or Robert Mugabe; had a fist waved at her by Slov­akia’s former ex-box­er head of state; been treated as an “hon­or­ary man” in Per­sian Gulf states (and that’s bet­ter than the al­tern­at­ive); and watched even well-mean­ing world lead­ers’ “eyes glaze over … I can’t tell you how many times,” when she starts talk­ing about the be­ne­fits of get­ting wo­men in­volved in the eco­nomy.

When Clin­ton entered pub­lic life as first lady of Arkan­sas in 1983, there had been just a hand­ful of fe­male world lead­ers. Today, the Coun­cil of Wo­men World Lead­ers, a group of cur­rent and former fe­male pres­id­ents and prime min­is­ters, has 49 mem­bers (sev­er­al more have died), with 20 now serving as heads of state of demo­crat­ic coun­tries. That’s the most there have ever been at once, even though it’s a frac­tion of the num­ber of male lead­ers.

While much has been made of the his­tor­ic nature of a po­ten­tial Clin­ton pres­id­ency, the im­pact of elect­ing a wo­man to lead the United States would be felt far bey­ond Amer­ica’s bor­ders. If Clin­ton wins, she will find like-minded glass-ceil­ing break­ers around the world with whom to forge al­li­ances. In­deed, she’s already close friends with many of them.

“There are a lot of very im­press­ive wo­men lead­ers on the world scene in the last sev­er­al years…. I find a lot of af­fin­ity with them,” Clin­ton said at Sim­mons. “I love see­ing them, I love be­ing with them, I love talk­ing to them about the de­cisions they made to seek pub­lic of­fice and how chal­len­ging it was.”

Clin­ton went around the world, prais­ing some of those she’s known. There’s Michelle Bachelet, who in March was elec­ted to a second term as Chile’s pres­id­ent; Park Geun-hye, elec­ted last year as South Korea’s pres­id­ent; Joyce Banda, the wo­men’s-rights ad­voc­ate-cum-pres­id­ent of Malawi; and Dilma Rousseff, who has led Brazil’s gov­ern­ment since 2011. That’s on top of bet­ter-known fe­male lead­ers such as Ger­many’s An­gela Merkel, Liber­ia’s El­len John­son Sir­leaf, and Ar­gen­tina’s Cristina Fernán­dez de Kirch­ner (a former first lady and sen­at­or her­self).

And that doesn’t in­clude such wo­men as Christine Lagarde, the head of the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, with whom Clin­ton shared a high five dur­ing a con­fer­ence in New York City two months ago at the sug­ges­tion that Clin­ton could be pres­id­ent of the United States at the same time Lagarde is pres­id­ent of the European Com­mis­sion.

Or Janet Yel­len, who re­cently took the helm of the Fed­er­al Re­serve Board, a job that makes her ar­gu­ably the second-most-power­ful wo­man in the world, after Merkel — whom, Clin­ton notes, “I’ve known for a long time.”

What would Clin­ton’s mem­ber­ship in this small club mean?

Laura Lis­wood, the sec­ret­ary gen­er­al of the Coun­cil of Wo­men World Lead­ers, says the lead­ers she works with gen­er­ally en­joy the op­por­tun­ity to get to­geth­er. While they come from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and may dis­agree on crit­ic­al is­sues, they of­ten have shared sim­il­ar ex­per­i­ences and chal­lenges, such as deal­ing with “over-scru­tiny” from the press. “Ir­re­spect­ive of policies, there’s just sort of a nat­ur­al af­fin­ity, if you will, between these wo­men,” Lis­wood said.

Clin­ton, in an in­ter­view this week with ABC’s Robin Roberts, ar­gued that “when more wo­men are at the table, there’s a great­er chance for sus­tain­ab­il­ity” in peace ac­cords and cease-fires.

Stephanie Schriock, the pres­id­ent of the Demo­crat­ic group EMILY’s List, which has worked to pro­mote a po­ten­tial fu­ture “Madam Pres­id­ent,” poin­ted to a pre­ced­ent set in the U.S. Sen­ate, where wo­men were cred­ited with end­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down last fall. “Those 20 sen­at­ors get to­geth­er on a quarterly basis over a meal and talk about what’s go­ing on and try to find com­mon ground to move the ball for­ward,” she said.

That’s not to say we should ex­pect world peace to break out on In­aug­ur­a­tion Day 2017 if Clin­ton wins. Rather, it’s that among all the myri­ad tools pres­id­ents have to con­duct for­eign policy, the po­ten­tial to build per­son­al re­la­tion­ships can be use­ful, even if only on the mar­gins.

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