Sec. Clinton Goes to Charlottesville

Jenna Goldman '18

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to a crowd of students at Old Cabell Hall. Photo courtesy of  UVA Today .

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to a crowd of students at Old Cabell Hall. Photo courtesy of UVA Today.

The University of Virginia welcomed Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton to Main Grounds on Tuesday, November 14, as the keynote speaker for the Women’s Global Leadership Forum. The Forum was held in conjunction with the UVa Bicentennial, which brought speakers from around the world to examine “The Role of Women in 21st Century Democracy.” Panels focused on Education and Health, Economic Access and Innovation, and Equity and Political Empowerment.

President Teresa Sullivan opened by welcoming Governor Terry McAuliffe and his wife, Dorothy McAuliffe. Governor McAuliffe introduced Secretary Clinton by highlighting her work as an advocate for women and children, as a First Lady of both Arkansas and the United States, as the first woman senator from New York, and as the first woman Presidential nominee of a major political party. 

Secretary Clinton began her remarks by congratulating the cheering crowd in electing Governor-elect Ralph Northam and for setting records in the number of women elected to state office in the Commonwealth. 

“When I was serving as First Lady and serving as Secretary of State I was ‘serving’ men, and in those positions, I was viewed more favorably. When I left the State Department I had a whooping sixty-nine percent approval rating,” Clinton said. “Those societal characteristics translate into politics.” 

She drew her advice to women with political aspirations from a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Develop skin as thick as a rhinoceros!” Clinton recounted the double standards as excruciating, giving the classic example of speech. “I was walking a tightrope without a safety net.” She recalled practicing for debates and being told to be careful of varying her tone to avoid the perception of “yelling” or “nagging,” and to under no circumstances lay a fist to the podium, “even though male orators often raise their voices and pound on the podium for emphasis—to men those are perceived as successful techniques.” 

More than just the manner of speaking, Clinton pointed to the recent examples of the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate, and of Senator Kamala Harris as she questioned Jeff Sessions during a Senate Intelligence Committee Hearing. Clinton encouraged the audience to take these attacks personally. “We need to understand and accept the fact that the diminishment of any woman is a diminishment of you and me,” she said. 

Though Clinton addressed the difficult realities of running for office as a woman, she left the crowd with words of encouragement. “We have made progress, and we cannot let anyone turn us back,” she said. She urged the women in the room to cultivate their determination and to take on the risks that come along with leadership. “It takes courage, but the more women who run and win, the easier this process will become.”  

After her speech, Clinton sat down on stage with moderator, and First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe. McAuliffe asked Clinton a host of questions from cyber security to tax policy.

“I am encouraged by young Americans who are much more inclusive, valuing of diversity, and better at connecting with each other than previous generations.” 

McAuliffe referenced the criticism Clinton received from those on the right and left for writing her book and for continuing to speak about the election. At first Clinton joked that if the pundits had left her alone, she still might be hiking in the woods. But she turned to the very serious reason why she continues to speak out. “When these guys, and they are all guys, when they tell me to go away I just say, ‘I’m not going to listen.’ I’m not going to walk away from the debates I’ve had my entire career.” Clinton noted that critics did not ask previous candidates like Mitt Romney, John McCain, or Al Gore to “go away” after losing an election, especially on issues like children’s access to healthcare.  

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1973, Clinton continued postgraduate studies on children and medicine at the Yale Child Study Center and began her forty-year career in public service as a staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund in Cambridge, Mass.  

“I helped found CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program] as First Lady in the ‘90s, and I will not remain silent as millions of children lose their healthcare.” Congress allowed the program, which provided insurance to 9 million children and pregnant women, to lapse in September.

What else worries Secretary Clinton? From the vantage point of international affairs she said bluntly, “Russia.” She made reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s past as a KGB leader and cautioned that Putin is cunning and no novice at meddling in foreign elections. “I’ve sat across the table from Putin. We have known for a long time what he is capable of.” [In reference to the Russian strikes on social media she recounted the adage ‘fool us once, shame on you, fool us twice, shame on us.’] 

The event took place in Old Cabell Hall, and seating was limited to those who secured a ticket through a lottery, which ran weeks before. Shivani Patel ’19 was one of the few law students to secure a ticket through the lottery. Anna Bobrow ’20 initially did not get a ticket, but was given one by a friend who couldn’t make it.    

Bobrow enjoyed the breadth of the subject matter and how genuine the conversation was. Though Clinton is on a book tour, “She kept on topic for the discussion,” instead of only referencing her book and focused her remarks on global women’s leadership and the Commonwealth of Virginia. “I heard she was more personable and funny than she has come across in the media, but I was surprised by how true that was.” Bobrow loved how she was self-deprecating and made lots of jokes, seemingly untethered from the binds of the campaign. 

First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe moderates a discussion with Secretary Clinton. Photo courtesy of  UVA Today .

First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe moderates a discussion with Secretary Clinton. Photo courtesy of UVA Today.

Patel also liked the tone Clinton struck, and one of the most memorable moments from Clinton’s remarks was her retelling a story about a linguist approaching her to improve her speech and tone of voice on camera. “Secretary Clinton said, ‘Sure, let’s try it. But can you send me a picture of a woman doing the same technique?’ The video was never sent, probably because when men do whatever it was that Hillary was doing, it’s just fine.” 

Clinton did not shy away from discussing the results of the election. “She acknowledged a real feeling I’ve heard among women my age, which is that the election was devastating because it reminded us of the obstacles that we face as women leaders,” Bobrow said. “But she also has been encouraged (as I have been) by the ways that women have stepped into leadership and politics for the first time in response to feelings of frustration and sadness following the election.”

The common thread throughout the forum was the importance of women running for office, especially in the wake of the 2016 election. The crux of her message, Patel said, was to “expect pushback from men and other women, but use it as a catalyst instead of a deterrent.” 

The biggest takeaway from the Secretary’s talk for Bobrow was that leadership comes in many different forms. “While it is certainly hard to put yourself out there as a woman leader, it’s critical that we do,” Bobrow remembered Clinton urging, “Until we have more critical mass, the status quo will never change.” 

Patel echoed, “The only way to truly change the fact that we expect something different from women in politics than from men in politics is for more women to be involved in politics—at all levels.”

Bobrow found encouragement in hearing Clinton speak, especially going into her first finals in law school. “In the midst of outlining season and exams, it was important to me that I think about the bigger picture of why my peers and I are here— even if you do not want to enter public service after graduation and even if you are not a woman, we all have a duty to be positive leaders in our communities and to take on the responsibilities that come with being a lawyer and a professional.” She said, “It was great to hear Secretary Clinton speak about some of the challenges she sees and think about how my schoolwork can prepare me to be a more thoughtful, engaged citizen going forward.”