November 22, 2008
Another Triumph for Clinton, Many Women Agree
By JODI KANTOR
Hillary Rodham Clinton, a first lady turned senator turned almost-president, is now transforming herself again, this time into the nation’s top diplomat. But she is also back to a role she cannot seem to shake: a canvas for women’s highest hopes and deepest fears about the workplace.
As she pondered this week whether to trade her hard-won independence and elected office for a job working for a more powerful man, mothers and schoolteachers and law partners mulled in tandem with her. After eight years of building her own constituency, how could Mrs. Clinton surrender it? they asked. Is secretary of state a promotion or an acknowledgment that her political prospects are now limited? And ultimately, how well will her male boss treat her?
As news spread on Friday evening that Mrs. Clinton had decided to accept the job, so did a basic consensus: the assignment was probably a triumph for Mrs. Clinton, if a costly one.
Gloria Steinem said in an interview, “Secretary of state is far superior to vice president, because it’s involved in continuously solving problems and making policy and not being on standby.”
Liz Kuoppala, a City Council member in Eveleth, Minn., said, “As a senator, you’re just 1 of 100, and she’s had to play quiet and polite.”
“I think this will allow her to blossom,” Ms. Kuoppala added. “It’s good for women everywhere.”
On pro-Clinton e-mail lists, supporters were already calling their heroine the next George Marshall, a figure who would reshape the world while President-elect Barack Obama becomes entangled in the sinking economy.
Their case for Mrs. Clinton’s decision as feminist triumph has gone something like this: Ten years ago, she was still a first lady whose hairstyles were the subject of late-night jokes; now she will be the world’s top diplomat. She may still be in a more powerful man’s shadow, but being married to a president and working for one are worlds apart. And Mrs. Clinton is such an esteemed figure, no one will see her as a mere emissary.
“If she mishandles a negotiation between two disputing nations, she can’t blame that on somebody else,” said Christine C. Quinn, the first female speaker of the New York City Council and a longtime political friend of Ms. Clinton. “She will be the one on the line, just as she is as a senator.”
And in terms of sheer impact, the imprint she leaves on the world and on history, the State Department would offer a more global platform than the Senate. “I always come back to what Hillary wants, which is to do the most important work she can do, the biggest work,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a longtime supporter and friend of Mrs. Clinton from San Francisco.
But there are corresponding worries: that Mrs. Clinton will have to compete with Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. for influence, that Mr. Obama, just months ago her mortal rival, will not trust her fully with assignments.
Some are sad to see Mrs. Clinton, who recently made a bid to lead health care reform in the Senate but walked away empty-handed, part from her core issue.
Nancy B. White, a retired school administrator in Bloomington, Ind., who cheered Mrs. Clinton on in primary rallies last spring, wishes Ms. Clinton would have stayed on Capitol Hill.
“I would have told her to hang tough in Congress and work on health care,” Ms. White said.
Like many others interviewed, Marie C. Wilson, president of the White House Project, a women’s leadership organization, said she would like to have seen Mrs. Clinton as Senate majority leader, a situation she now knows will never happen.
“I feel real mixed about this. I think it’s better for women to be their own boss,” Ms. Wilson said, pointing out that more governors than senators had become president in recent times.
The fledgling Obama administration is a mostly male club, with figures like Rahm Emanuel, Eric H. Holder Jr. and Timothy F. Geithner filling or expected to fill top positions, and in recent days, some speculated that Mrs. Clinton was selected, at least in some small part, because she was a woman.
Throughout Mrs. Clinton’s presidential run, women across the country saw in her a mirror of their own career fortunes: when she teared up just before the New Hampshire primary that she was expected to lose, they remembered their own workplace humiliations, and when she lost the Democratic nomination, many saw it as an accumulation of all-too-familiar sexist slights. Now several of those interviewed said her selection as secretary of state — the third woman to hold the position — said nothing much about gender at all.
“The question of whether one has one’s own political power or goes to work for someone else is not only a feminist question,” Ms. Steinem pointed out.
Ms. Quinn agreed, “If she was a guy going to work for a guy, nobody would ask if it was a diminution of her voice.”
“Our country has been shunned by our allies, been rejected off of the world stage,” she continued. “The president, who has a job that you have the deepest respect for, says ‘You are our gal, put our country back on the world stage.’ Unless you are blind with ambition, how can you walk away from it? It’s a calling too great for somebody who has a deep sense of patriotism and duty.”
Reporting was contributed by Michael Barbaro, Lisa Belkin, Winter Miller, Conrad Mulcahy and Scott Shane.