Washington (CNN) -- A gathering of Washington's most important military leaders doesn't seem like the obvious place to champion the cause of increasing women's power around the world. Nor does Hillary Clinton seem like the obvious choice for an award from the National Defense University.
But in accepting the American Patriot Award -- presented annually to honor leaders who have "strengthened America's strategic interests and advanced global security" -- the former secretary of state, U.S. senator and first lady used the stage Thursday to argue for more women in positions of power.
For 20 minutes Clinton used her Yale Law School training to lay out a convincing case that women are critical to solving the world's problems, citing women's achievements in resolving conflicts in places like Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda.
"Over and over, in country after country, women have proven themselves a powerful source for peace, even in places where their political power is slight or nonexistent," she told the crowd.
On Friday, Clinton echoed similar themes when she joined former first lady Laura Bush at Georgetown University for a panel on the future of Afghan women. Calling next year's withdrawal by U.S. and NATO troops a "serious turning point," she stressed the importance of ensuring that hard-fought gains women and girls have made in the past decade are not reversed.
It looked like a campaign stop. She was greeted with thunderous applause as she appeared on stage. Several of the women in the crowd took pictures with smartphones covered in "Ready for Hillary" cases, which they had downloaded from the website of the super PAC that urges her to run for president in 2016 and is laying the groundwork for her candidacy.
Clinton has increased her public visibility in recent months after lying low for a brief period after leaving the State Department. She has launched a Twitter account, campaigned for her good friend Terry McAuliffe, now Virginia's governor-elect, and is writing a memoir of her years as secretary of state.
But there is no issue Clinton has been more closely identified with than women's rights. Friday's Georgetown event was Clinton's third in as many weeks on the issue of empowering women. A week earlier, in Philadelphia, she unveiled a new initiative, dubbed "No Ceilings," that aims to document the progress of women since the 1995 U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women and to chart a course for the future. It will be run by the global foundation started by her husband, Bill Clinton, which now also bears the name of two Clinton women -- Hillary and her daughter Chelsea.
"The great unfinished business of the 21st century is helping women and girls break through these ceilings and participate fully in every aspect of life once and for all," Clinton said at the program's rollout.
More unfinished business
The big question is whether Clinton's increasing public profile is about her unfinished business and whether she will launch another bid in 2016 to become the country's first woman president.
Clinton ended her term as America's top diplomat with almost unprecedented approval ratings as the most popular member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet and one of the most admired women in America, if not the world.
Those numbers have dipped now that she's transitioned out of the State Department to a more political role.
The decline in Clinton's numbers comes as some congressional Republicans continue to question what she knew about the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
But current polls still indicate she is the overwhelming front-runner for 2016 among Democrats, if she decides to run. A CNN/ORC poll in September found 65% of Democrats and independents who lean toward that party would likely back Clinton as their presidential nominee. Vice President Joe Biden came in a distant second at 10%, with freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at 7%.
In the potential Democratic battle, the survey indicates Clinton performing better among women (76%) than men (52%).
But that wasn't always the case. Clinton's relationship with American women is complex. She and the sisterhood have, shall we say, a history.
Hillary Clinton is a product of the politics that shaped her. She came of age in the Gloria Steinem era, when the women's movement was gaining steam. During her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, she came under fire for passionately defending her own career, saying that she would not be "some little woman standing by my husband like Tammy Wynette," and later saying, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."
While many women held her up as the epitome of a liberated woman, Clinton's brand of feminism wasn't everyone's cup of tea. She was already seen as one of the most divisive women in the country by the time Bill Clinton took office.
It wasn't until 1995, the third year of his administration, that she stamped her name on the cause of women's rights at the U.N. conference on women in Beijing.
At that point, even in international law women's rights were considered a marginal subset of human rights. Clinton touched a nerve by ticking off a litany of abuses against women: honor killings, trafficking and dowry burnings.
A key moment in Clinton's rise
Her now-famous line, "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights," was a key moment in her rise and added fuel to a global movement of women looking to be free from violence and seeking access to health care, education, and economic and political participation.
Clinton has said that during her travels around the world, women still come up to her and say, "I was in Beijing" -- shorthand for what she views as a global sisterhood.
Out of that conference grew Vital Voices, an international nonprofit that Clinton founded with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Melanne Verveer, a longtime friend and her chief of staff at the White House. The organization invests in emerging female leaders worldwide, promotes human rights and works to generate political and economic opportunities for women.
But Clinton never incorporated that push for girl power on the world stage into her 2008 campaign for the presidency.
Anne Kornblut, whose book "Notes From the Cracked Ceiling" examined Clinton's failed bid for the White House, said in an interview that Clinton failed to attract women in large numbers in the Democratic primaries, particularly young women.
It wasn't so much that Clinton had a "women problem," Kornblut said -- she just didn't lock in the women's vote in the way her campaign expected.
Clinton's decision to run as the most qualified candidate, rather than play up her potential to make history as the first woman president, proved to be a mistake, Kornblut said.
"Hillary Clinton did not emphasize she was a woman running for president. She really shied away from that whole subject. There was polling to suggest she needed to emphasize her credentials in being tough and running as an iron lady," Kornblut said. "In the end, some of her own advisers felt she overdid it, and a lot of the results show that."
As secretary of state, Clinton could do both -- stand up to rivals like the Chinese, while pressing the issue of human rights for women in Afghanistan, or helping female entrepreneurs in India develop clean cookstoves to prevent millions of deaths of women and children caused by dirty wood- and coal-burning ones.
One of her first moves as secretary of state was to appoint Verveer as the first ambassador for global women's issues, weaving the cause of women's empowerment into the fabric of the State Department.
"Whether it was in the trouble spots around the world, whether it was through our economic policies, whether it was human rights ... we brought women's perspectives into those discussions," Verveer told CNN.
Everything viewed through prism of 2016
Although she is out of the State Department, Clinton's mission and the mantra remain the same. She has made women's empowerment one of three signature issues she will work on at the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, along with job creation and early childhood development.
But everything Clinton does now is viewed through the prism of 2016. And these events give Clinton and her supporters an opportunity to remind the public of what has been a decades-long commitment to the issue of women's rights.
So is she simply continuing the work of a lifetime? Or is she using her public platform to build a base for 2016?
Verveer, a confidant for 25 years, said the two are not mutually exclusive and that politics is just another way of Clinton's taking care of that "unfinished business."
"The springboard for all of this is deep inside of her," Verveer said. "Politics is a way to get things done but isn't to be divorced from what you are about. This is core. This is who she is."
But can "who she is" court the women's vote? By most accounts, the 2008 nomination didn't slip through Clinton's fingers because she wasn't qualified. It was because many Americans didn't believe she was "likable." After four years as America's top diplomat, Clinton's qualifications shouldn't be an issue, Kornblut notes. But likability might be.
"If anyone has demonstrated they are credentialed at this point, it has to be Hillary Clinton," she said. "Now, is she going to prove she is likable, that people want to hear her on important issues or give the same stump speech over and over and see her in a debate? That is a different question."
Should Clinton win the Democratic nomination, the Republican women's vote is likely to be key.
Ashley Pratte, executive director of the conservative think tank Cornerstone Policy Research & Cornerstone Action in the key state of New Hampshire, said that while many Republican women voters in her state see Clinton as the best chance to make history as the first woman president, many others say her strong pro-choice stance on abortion doesn't mesh with their vision of family values.
Nor does her decision to remain in her marriage following the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Pratte noted, make her a champion of women's rights. Although it was viewed by opponents and even some supporters as a politically calculated move, Pratte argued Clinton's career would have been even stronger had she left Bill.
While the debate may continue on the fringes, the longer the Clintons stay married and the more Clinton is out in front on her own, the less relevant the issue is likely to be in 2016.
A question of likability
Now more than ever, it may come down to that same question about her own likability.
Although it was not enough in the end to cinch the 2008 nomination, Clinton identified with voters in New Hampshire and won the state after showing her feminine side, tearing up at one point when speaking with voters. By the time she made her concession speech, she was all about the girl power.
"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, it's got about 18 million cracks in it," she told supporters.
Since then Clinton seems to have realized that being a woman works.
"During her time as secretary of state you saw her loosen up a little bit," Kornblut said. "You've seen her work to seem a bit more authentic and if she runs again, she will probably do it with the knowledge that overemphasizing certain poll-tested traits didn't get her where she wanted to go -- so why not just be herself?"
Her friend Verveer says Clinton never makes the same mistake twice.