03:11 - Source: CNN
Hillary Clinton looking to 2016?

Story highlights

Clinton's appearance at recent panel discussion looked more like a campaign rally

Clinton has record on pushing women's rights since her time as first lady

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Clinton didn't emphasize the fact she was a woman

2016 strategy? Close confidant says Clinton rarely makes the same mistake twice

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.

Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush talk security for Afghan women

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.

More than 1,000 days out, pro-Clinton group holds first finance strategy session

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.

Clinton: Helping women succeed is ‘great unfinished business of 21st century’

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.

Poll: Clinton, Christie in virtual tie for 2016

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%.

Opinion: Clinton vs. Warren in 2016? Don’t buy it

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