Hillary's History: What the Media Overlooked

Ms. Rosen is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and former Professor of History at the University of California Davis.

HOURS AFTER Sen. Hillary Clinton's memoir, Living History hit the bookstores, the media saturated the airwaves with her reaction to her husband's confession about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Readers are obsessed by the details of her personal life and that's what most reviewers have also emphasized. But what this fascination with gossip fails to emphasize is that her real legacy as first lady was using her enormous prestige to help redefine women's rights as human rights.

After her efforts to reshape national health policy failed, she was blamed for the backlash that swept in many conservative Republicans in the midterm 1994 elections, and gave rise to Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America. " As a result, Clinton knew she could no longer assume a public role in shaping domestic policy.

So she moved her political passions onto the global stage. In her book, she writes, "I had been working on women's and children's issues in the United States for 25 years and, although women in our own country had made gains economically and politically, the same could not be said for the vast majority of women in the world. Yet virtually no one who could attract media attention was speaking out on their behalf."

As she traveled to different continents, Clinton hoped to "stress the correlation between women's progress and a country's social and economic status." In Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and Thailand she met women's groups who were already redefining such "customs" as wife beating, genital mutilation, dowry deaths and honor killings as human rights crimes.

For the most part, the American media ignored or trivialized what she did and said in these distant countries. We saw photographs of her and Chelsea riding atop an elephant, but we didn't read that she had denounced crimes against half of humanity. We saw pictures of her in elegant Indian saris and colorful African robes, but we didn't know that she had advocated micro-loans to advance women's economic independence.

During these exhausting travels, Clinton's words and presence helped publicize an international movement that sought to transform existing global policies on development, population control and human rights so that they would address the needs and rights of women and children.

By 1995, when China hosted the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, Clinton was ready to use her prestige to advance women's rights as human rights. "What do you want to accomplish?" asked Madeleine Albright, who would soon be appointed secretary of state. "I want to push the envelope as far as I can on behalf of women and girls," answered Clinton.

And she did. In Beijing, she delivered a daring 21-minute speech that has since turned into a manifesto for women's human rights. "I believe that on the eve of a new millennium," she began, "it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say . . . that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights."

She then spoke about the need to promote education, health care, economic independence, legal rights and political participation for all women. "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference," she said, "let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all."

When she finished, delegates leaped to their feet and gave her a standing ovation. It was a speech that could not be ignored. The next day, the New York Times editorialized that the speech "may have been her finest moment in public life."

So far, reviewers and the media have ignored this historic chapter in her life, which is extensively described in her book. Yet this is the real living history of her life as our first lady.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Dave Thomas - 8/22/2003

No American politician with a future is candid and forthright in an autobiography. Hillary is no different than the others and to think otherwise is naive.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/22/2003

To Mr. Chafee's name I'd like to add that of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the best defender of the Constitution we've got in Congress.

John Cuepublic - 8/22/2003

I concur with Howard but would like to be a bit more explicit. Hawks, including "superhawks" are vertebrates. I would not classify Hillary (and Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, and John Kerry, all of whom voted for the unprecedented and unnecessary blank check of October 11, 2002) in that phylum. I expect a tremendous amount of "spin" to try to cover up the everlasting disgrace of these Democrats. Thanks to the historical profession, the spinning will ultimately fail.

Any Republican readers ashamed of the even more un-American actions of their party can take some comfort in Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI) who voted with the non-spineless Democrats against Bush's Sharonistic war.

Joey G - 8/22/2003

What the media overlooked seems to be the same thing the posters overlook.

The media is only a reflection of our own worst aspects, after all.

Lynda - 8/21/2003

It is interesting to me that none of the responses so far posted regarding Rosen's article addressed the subject of the article. It is also interesting that all of those responding are men who have hauled out all the old ad hominem attacks, name calling either Hillary and each other. It reminds me of a student (male) in one of my classes a few years ago. In a discussion about the influence of women on social policy I commented that Clinton, for good or ill, was considered by many to be one of our most influential First Ladies. (note the neutral statement.) I got no further. When the student became heated in disagreement, I offered the sources of my statement and refused to get into a discussion of current political hot-buttons. The student stormed out of class, and complained to the department chair that I was 'teaching U.S. history as if it was women's history'. Duh. The class was "Women in American History".
It would appear that the responses to Rosen's article were on the same planet that student was on, and didn't understand the language: For your information Gentlemen: the article was about what the media had overlooked when writing about Hillary Clinton. How sad to think that academicians are no less likely than reporters to be knee-jerkers.

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/21/2003

Mr. Meyer's post below brings up a good point that I somehow overlooked- St. Hillary's vote for the unconstitutional congressional blank check that allowed Mr. Bush to have his war in Iraq.

Aren't you a pacifist, Mr. Kriz? Shouldn't this slavish support for the neoconservative warmongers discredit Hillary a bit in your eyes?

Howard N Meyer - 8/20/2003

It is possible to say nice things about Hilary, but....
Whatever credit she may have earned for being on the side of the angels in matters of feminism, health care, etc,
is more than erased by her role as advocate for and voter for a war that undermines the causes she has supported
and a foreign policy the ultimate result of which will be to drag America down further in domestic and international affairs

Jesse Lamovsky - 8/20/2003

Actually, Mr. Kriz, I didn't get the "one-seventh" line from Rush Limbaugh (although I did get it from someplace else- lewrockwell.com, to be exact, so I suppose you've kind of got me there). But it is true, is it not?

It appears that you and I are simply in fundamental disagreement over the issue of abortion and natural rights. The non-violent choices people make pertaining to their own bodies are indeed none of government's business. But from where I stand, abortion is a violent act, and it is committed against a defenseless human being. That, to me, is murder, and I believe murder is the business of the authorities. That's just what I think.

(By the way, what I think of as "no-choice" abortions- abortions of fetuses conceived out of rape and incest- accounts for only about two percent of terminated pregnancies in the United States)

Also, Roe v. Wade represents a usurption by the federal government of the will of the people of the state of Texas, and that is the sticking point for many conservatives.

Peace to you as well, Mr. Kriz. May we always be free to disagree.

Stephen Kriz - 8/20/2003


Jesse Lamovsky - 8/20/2003

Yeah, Hillary Clinton was a real saint, all right. She should be congratulated for attempting to communize a seventh of the American economy, as well as for obsessively campaigning for a woman's "right" to have her unborn child brained with a fork and dismembered. What a gal! May we sing her praises forever.

Stephen Kriz - 8/19/2003


History News Network