hillary clinton
Hillary Clinton's gender politics
02:00 - Source: CNN

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Hillary Clinton has had many highs and lows when it comes to gender politics

She talks about female empowerment more now as she considers a 2016 run

Los Angeles CNN  — 

Gender – the issue that Hillary Clinton struggled to find her balance on during her 2008 campaign – is front and center as she prepares for a possible 2016 presidential run.

It is, in many ways, a remarkable evolution for a female politician once bedeviled by gender politics to the self-defined “pantsuit aficionado and glass ceiling cracker” of today.

For much of this year, Clinton has spoken with ease – and little controversy – about female empowerment. At Tina Brown’s ‘Women in the World’ conference in April, Clinton declared that the “double standard” for women was “alive and well.” In countless public appearances, she has opened up about how that standard played out in her own career: from being underestimated by male colleagues as a young lawyer to the advice given to career women her age that they should keep family pictures off their desks.

The former Secretary of State has turned scrutiny about her scrunchies, headbands and hairstyles into laugh lines. She has poked fun at the sexist slights of foreign leaders—like that of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who told her he was briefed that she only wore her hair back when she was in a “bad mood.”

She often advises young women to handle criticism by developing skin “as tough as a rhinoceros.” And she rarely gave a speech this fall without reminding audiences she was soon to be a grandmother. The tableau was complete when she tweeted a softly lit image of her cradling newborn Charlotte while Bill Clinton beamed over her shoulder.

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The careful choreography illustrates the attention her team is giving to reconnecting Clinton with Democratic women, a core constituency that Barack Obama was able to slice into during her first presidential run in 2008.

The renewed courtship essentially began with her concession speech in 2008 when she told supporters that although they hadn’t “shattered that highest, hardest glass ceiling,” it had “about 18 million cracks in it.”

“Should she run, she has an opportunity to continue to build on what (Barack Obama) has done, and another fantastic step on that ladder is the possibility of the first woman president of the United States,” said Tracy Sefl, who advised the Clinton campaign on communications strategy in 2008. “The possibility of a woman president is a welcome one, more so than is a foreign one.”

Now, Clinton allies encouraging her to run see an opportunity for her not only to hold the Obama coalition, but to improve on his 2012 showing among women, which would spell trouble for her Republican opponent in 2016.

The President led among women by about 11 points in both 2008 and 2012. But some 56% of white women—which were a strong demographic for Clinton—favored 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, compared to 42% for Obama in 2012. Obama also lost married women to Romney by 7 points.

This year’s effort to put gender front and center is a nod to those numbers. It also reflects a politician who, after more than two decades in the public eye, is more comfortable sharing her personal experiences with voters.

Another asset is that Obama’s historic election – along with Clinton’s competitive bid in 2008 – changed societal expectations of what an American President must look like. In interviews during this year’s midterm elections, many Democratic voters, particularly women, said they feel it is her turn for a historic victory.

Though Clinton has not defined her 2016 message, her speeches this year have hinted a partial framework for her candidacy: her argument that the ‘women’s issues’ she has championed – pay equity, family leave, raising the minimum wage, access to childcare – are really “family issues” that are part of her life’s work – and that of her husband – to boost the middle class.

“With women” in the next election cycle, Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden said, “the opportunity is to connect up these economic issues that they see as time challenges for them—like paid leave, or sick days or childcare—to a broader economic message.”

“I can’t think of anyone who would be better at doing that than Hillary Clinton,” said Tanden, who advised Clinton on policy as first lady, senator from New York and during her presidential campaign.

Clinton is still a cautious speaker. But when it comes to connecting with other women through her own story, she seems more comfortable in her own skin than she did even a few years ago. It is an open question, however, whether independent voters and moderate Republican women will embrace the issues she seems most inclined to talk about in 2016.

“Her natural focus is that she wants to be seen as this person who is a champion for women. It remains to be seen whether that’s a particularly successful general election strategy,” said Katie Packer Gage, whose firm Burning Glass coaches Republican candidates on connecting with female voters. “Women just don’t have history of voting for women; they have a pretty decent history of following their party behavior. So being a woman doesn’t necessarily provide some kind of big advantage.”

As Democratic Sen. Mark Udall’s failed re-election campaign in Colorado this year showed, strategies that are too rooted in gender can backfire.

But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that during the 2008 recession male voters became more attuned and receptive to the economic issues that disproportionately affect women, like raising the minimum wage and pay equity.

“What happened in this recession was that men lost their jobs before women did,” said Lake, who oversaw focus group research for the Clinton campaign in 1992 and served as a consultant to the campaign. “In lots and lots of families, you had the woman at some point as the primary, and maybe the only, breadwinner in the family. So this last recession really changed things.”

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Over her long career, Clinton’s remarks about women’s personal and career choices have often shaped the peaks and valleys of her popularity.

She was shadowed during her husband’s 1992 campaign by his suggestion that American voters could “buy one, get one free.” That notion quickly became a liability as Hillary Clinton’s work as opponents scrutinized her work as a lawyer in the Rose Law Firm while he was governor of Arkansas, as well as her outspoken demeanor.

Fed up with what she considered “spurious” charges about her business dealings in March of 1992, Clinton delivered the disastrous retort that she “could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas.” When strung together with her earlier defense of her husband from charges of infidelity—”I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette”—she became a sharply polarizing figure among women.

“Critics were venomous,” she recalled in her first memoir, Living History. “I was called a Rorschach test for the American public, and it was an apt way of conveying the varied and extreme reactions that I provoked.”

Even by the summer of that 1992 campaign, she noted, most Americans did not realize that she had a child. She relented to a joint People magazine interview where the couple described 12-year-old Chelsea, who appeared with them on the cover, as the center of their lives.

“Friends of the Clintons say that the public labeling of Hillary as an ambitious careerist misses her warmth and playfulness,” one notable line from the ‘People’ profile said. Both Clintons defended her tea and cookies comment as misunderstanding. “It gave a totally false impression of who she is,” her husband told the magazine, insisting that she had not been “muzzled” after the controversy.

Improving the First Lady’s image among women and presenting her in a more “likeable light” became a preoccupation for the White House staff, as 1990s documents released by the National Archives this year reveal.

She regained some of her footing at a 1995 women’s conference in Beijing where she said that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” In another sign of how the female-centered message will coincide with her campaign, the Clinton Foundation plans to release a report tracking women’s progress since her 1995 speech this spring.

But as late as 1999 before her Senate run, she was still being advised by strategist Mandy Grunwald to try to show “more sides” of herself and look for “opportunities for humor” to avoiding coming off as so stern.

“The only two (female) candidates I can think of over time who were really perceived as being too tough are Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton,” said Dianne Bystrom, who has studied female politicians since the 1990s at Iowa State’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

That liability surfaced for Clinton most notably in 2008. She spoke early on about trying to break the glass ceiling of the presidency. But her campaign ultimately centered on the message that she was the only candidate with the strength and experience to lead. When she was asked what it meant to be a woman running as president, her answer was always that she was proud to be a woman making that attempt, but she was running because she thought she’d be the “best president.”

Not long before her third place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Bystrom recalled, Hawkeye state polls indicated that voters perceived her as tougher than Obama, but less caring. Soon the campaign had launched a website full of soft testimonials from friends and admirers about the “Hillary I know,” and cut ads featuring Clinton and her mother laughing in the kitchen.

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She won the New Hampshire primary a day after startling voters by becoming emotional when asked how she was handling the pressure of the campaign. “It’s not easy,” she said as her eyes filled with tears before a group of undecided women at a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, diner.

Her campaign arranged other female-focused events in the long duel with Obama that followed, but that New Hampshire meeting would mark a rare moment of vulnerability for a candidate who was profiled in ‘The New Yorker’ in March 2008 as “The Irony Lady.”

Clinton had soon swerved back to framing herself as “someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world,” as one of her ads said—the person voters would want answering the phone at the White House at 3 a.m..

Looking ahead to 2016, Clinton seems unlikely to face the hurdle of a competitive primary, much less a battle over historic firsts. And after four years as Secretary of State—which tabled the experience question for many voters, according to polls—Clinton may feel that she simply has more latitude to talk about her life experiences in a more personal way than in previous campaigns.

“She has more freedom, because she has more political accomplishments than she did when she ran in 2008,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. At the same time, “all of the Monday morning quarterbacking suggests that it was probably a mistake that (the 2008 Clinton campaign) took the women’s vote at all different generation levels for granted.”

Primary or not, Clinton and her team seem determined not to make that mistake again.