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. 
AFP/Getty Images
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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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