Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is interviewed by journalist Kara Swisher during LeadOn: Watermark’s Silicon Valley Conference for Women at Santa Clara Convention Center on February 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images.
Ever since Hillary announced her candidacy for president, I have been pretty quiet. Sure, I’ve sent out some Twitter and Facebook posts, but nothing too substantial. That’s because I’ve had something sitting heavy on my chest that I need to articulate before I can fully move forward and support Hillary.
Two months ago, I attended a women’s leadership conference in Silicon Valley where Hillary Clinton was one of the keynote speakers. With the anticipation of Hillary announcing her run for president, I was very excited to hear her speak. I envisioned her coming on stage in a room full of 5,000 women leaders and emerging leaders, igniting the crowd and giving us hope and inspiration for a future where women’s rights are respected, gender equality is a reality, and women can finally take their place as leaders across all industries.
This, however, is not what happened.
In fact, it was the opposite that happened. Hillary went bland. She went neutral. She went vanilla. She shared a lot of important statistics, but she watered down her passion for women’s rights, for advancing the status of women and girls, and for promoting women’s leadership. She even initially dodged a question from commentator Kara Swisher about why we need a woman president.
To be fair, there were a few moments of inspiration like when Hillary acknowledged that where women are in leadership, there is more likely to be democracy; and that as women, we must stand with each other and speak out about how women are being treated. But these moments were the rarity.
After listening to Hillary speak that day, I flew home to Los Angeles feeling disappointed, confused and, dare I say, betrayed.
Where was Hillary’s voice in that speech? Where was the feminist that we once knew? Where was the woman who has spent decades as an advocate for women’s rights and advancing the status of women and girls?
As you may well know, Hillary has a track record of supporting the rights of women and girls. She was the one who put women’s rights on the map when she declared, in 1995, “Women’s rights are human rights,” at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, igniting international attention to this reality.
Back in the U.S., she partnered with Attorney General Janet Reno to help create the Violence Against Women Office at the Department of Justice.
Two years later, Hillary, along with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, started the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative to promote the advancement of women’s rights as an explicit goal of U.S. foreign policy.
During her time as a New York Senator, Hillary co-sponsored re-introducing the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She co-sponsored bills supporting equal pay, paid sick leave, and providing contraceptives for low-income women.
As Secretary of State, she made the empowerment of women and girls and their rights a central talking point of U.S. initiatives, and declared that equality for women is “the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”
More recently, she and her daughter Chelsea launched the #NoCeilings initiative to ensure that women and girls worldwide have the opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of life.
Last month, they, along with partners Bill and Melinda Gates, released the “No Ceilings Full Participation Report,” which analyzes two decades of data collected by the United Nations, the World Bank and other organizations, on the gains women and girls have made around the world over the last 20 years, and the gaps that still remain. They are looking at ways to accelerate progress in the years ahead.
But very little of this zeal for women and girls was present during that speech in Silicon Valley. It felt like her speech was overly cautious, highly controlled by others, and that her authentic voice was missing. This felt like an unfortunate lead up to a presidential bid to be the first female president of the United States.
Since that time, I have wanted to give voice to my experience, but I felt scared. I didn’t want to criticize Hillary because I like Hillary. I respect Hillary. And I didn’t want to fall prey to media criticism of her.
Furthermore, as a women’s rights advocate, I wanted to put my energy and voice behind her campaign and support her.
But I am also clear that a woman president will only make a difference if that woman, while in office, stands for the rights and equal representation of women and girls, without apology, without dilution, and without her actions contradicting her words.
As columnist Maureen Dowd said this weekend in the New York Times, “The most famous woman on the planet has a confounding problem. She can’t figure out how to campaign as a woman.”
This, of course, was the downfall of Hillary’s 2008 campaign.
As Dowd wrote this weekend, Hillary Clinton took advice from two men — Bill Clinton and Mark Penn — and campaigned like a man. She worried about proving she could be commander in chief, so she scrubbed out the femininity, vulnerability and heart, in image and issues, that were anathema to Penn.
I remember that well. It did not work for me. Nor for her.
Not long after the Silicon Valley experience, I learned that the Clinton Foundation took millions of dollars in donations from Middle Eastern countries known for abysmal violence and discrimination against women, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Brunei, and Algeria, all of which the State Department has faulted over their records on sex discrimination and other human-rights issues, as reported by Amy Chozick of the New York Times.
Fortunately, since then, the Clinton Foundation has modified its policies and is now only accepting foreign donations from six governments — Australia, Germany, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. But what are we to think about the former policy?
And then of course there is the email scandal. In my opinion, Hillary was in the wrong, using a private email for government business, when she was instructed to use government email for historical and archival purposes, not to mention that she also instructed her staff to use their government email address.
When it was time to address this issue, she gave a press conference at the United Nations, where her words felt disingenuous, especially when she remarked on only wanting to carry one device as a convenience. I had just heard her talk about having an iPhone and a Blackberry at the conference in Silicon Valley.
As I reflect on all of this, I feel sadness and frustration, along with a budding compassion.
I look at Hillary and all that she has been through over the years and her particular path into power, and wonder if she is an archetypal mirror for all of us to see how we, as women, still struggle enormously with living in a “man’s world.” We may talk about women’s rights and take action for empowering women and girls, and yet as we move into higher levels of leadership, our actions, and maybe even our words, perpetuate an old, outdated “power over” patriarchal system, rather than forge a new system with a new consciousness built on power with, where both feminine and masculine values are represented.
When I look at Hillary, I wonder if we are so entrenched in this old system that we end up sabotaging ourselves over and over again.
I also wonder if my disappointment about Hillary using what feels to me like an inauthentic voice, is so painful because it hits on exactly what so many of us women struggle with — using our voice.
As someone who has struggled with using her voice, I long for a female leader who speaks from the fullness of herself, without apology and without dilution. I long for a female leader who can take off the muzzle that has been placed upon her by her advisers and for her to tell her handlers to back off.
I want to hear the outspoken Hillary Clinton. The one who said: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies, and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life,” when reporters were pressing her back in 1992 on presidential hopeful Governor Jerry Brown’s charges that her law profits conflicted with her husband’s political career.
I want to hear that voice. That truth. That authenticity.
Is it possible that calling on Hillary for more transparency and honesty between words and actions could be the key to our own evolution as a democracy? A democracy where “power over” no longer defines the rules of the game, but “power with” is finally embodied.
I want a woman to be president. It’s time. As women of the United States, we’ve been in the role of second-class citizen for 250 years too long. We are the majority of the population, and it makes no sense that we have such little representation in government and have never held the highest position of governmental authority.
The New York Times contends that one challenge for Mrs. Clinton will be how to frame her lifelong advocacy for women as a universal message that highlights her unique credentials, but also does not seem aimed only at women.
I say, why not aim her message at women?
Two months ago in Silicon Valley, Kara Swisher asked Mrs. Clinton whether she would make child care and paid leave central to a campaign [if she ran], and whether she should have done so more forcefully in her 2008 campaign.
“I certainly am trying to learn from what I did right and what I didn’t in thinking about doing this again,” Mrs. Clinton said.
If Hillary truly stands for women’s rights and resolving the “unfinished business of the 21st century,” then I don’t see how child care, paid maternity and paternity leave, and paid sick leave wouldn’t be central to her campaign. I hope that Hillary will take her authentic voice into consideration as she maps out her campaign and potential future as our next president — the first woman president of the United States.
As Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, said earlier this year in an interview with me about women in leadership: “People can smell a phony. They can smell when someone is being inauthentic. And that is counter-productive.” Jill wasn’t speaking about Hillary, but her words speak a universal truth that, I think, has a powerful bearing on the Clinton candidacy.
I realize this a very big moment in Hillary’s career and it may feel risky to shift from being a gender-neutral candidate aiming to be a champion for “everyday Americans” to being a female candidate who speaks with a true, clear voice consistent with her beliefs. But the truth is, we are waiting for her to do so.
Otherwise, we just end up being women still living in a man’s world. Nothing will have changed.
Tabby Biddle is a women’s rights advocate and women’s leadership consultant, specializing in helping women find their voice. She is the author of the bestselling book, Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action, releasing in paperback on April 30th. Learn more at tabbybiddle.com.
This article was first published under a different title on The Huffington Post.