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Hillary Clinton’s Reasonable Response

August 11, 2009

Outburst. Tirade. Tantrum. These and other belittling words (which certainly make for more exciting, if sexist, headlines) are being used to describe Secretary of State Clinton’s response to being asked her husband’s opinion* on certain Chinese contracts in the Congo.  I would describe it quite differently.

Question: We’ve all heard about the Chinese contracts in this country. The interference is from the World Bank against this contract. What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton and what does Mr Mutombo think on this situation? Thank you very much. [note that Dikembe Mutombo was sitting beside Clinton on the stage]

Response: You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the Secretary of State, I am. You ask my opinion. I will tell you my opinion; I’m not going to channel my husband.

My first reaction (and probably the reaction of the people you can hear clapping, people whom the mainstream media is conveniently ignoring) was good for her. The idea that it is the opinions of a woman’s husband and not the woman herself that matter—or even that a woman with opinions must simply be parroting her husband’s ideas, which the phrase “through the mouth” is reminiscent of—is deeply misogynist. My partner and I work in closely related fields, and if I were asked such a question, my answer would make a sailor blush.

This isn’t just a personal question, however. People are questioning whether Clinton’s response was diplomatically appropriate. See the comments to this Huffington Post article (the article itself makes a good point about whether she actually lost her cool), this Fox News story, and this Bonnie Erbe column at US News & World Report for examples. I have found all this a little confusing, as I was unaware that college students were entitled to diplomatic kid-glove treatment. Perhaps I, like Clinton, am simply failing to understand the appropriate level of diplomatic respect owed to the male ego.

Then again, as Melissa at Shakesville notes, Clinton’s passionate speech was actually good diplomacy. Part of her mission was to empower women and girls, as well as to draw attention to an epidemic of sexual violence in the area. Empowering women means making it clear that our opinions and ideas matter. It does not mean having one of the most powerful women in the world coddle a male college student’s feelings.

*The young man who asked the question later said that he meant to ask President Obama’s opinion and that the translator had erred, but of course the translation was all Clinton had to go on. When the student explained himself, Clinton smiled and told him not to worry about it. Had she actually lost her temper, I doubt she would have been so gracious so soon thereafter.

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  1. Pam Woodbury permalink
    August 13, 2009 6:16 pm

    I believe Secretary Clinton had every right to answer the way she did. She was belittled in her position by being asked… No male Secretary of State would be asked what his spouse thought.
    Give me a break!! A tantrum? Any woman who speaks her mind is the b word, being hormonal or throwing a tantrum. Move On!! The media controls everything…

    • August 13, 2009 9:15 pm

      This is exactly why it’s so important for people like you and me to speak out about this. We can’t allow the elite media’s interpretation to be the only one heard because in the end this attitude affects every woman who has an opinion and expresses it without apology.

  2. Maryann permalink
    August 13, 2009 11:02 pm

    Hillary Clinton’s response was totally appropriate. She is Secretary of State, and it is her opinion that is important, not her husband’s. Not in a million years would a man be asked by an African male what his wife thought of anything.

    HRC should be applauded for speaking her mind. She may have taught the student that women’s opinions are important. She may have helped African women to learn to speak their minds. This is a continent in which most women are treated as the exclusive property of men. Animals have more value than a female human being. “Cultural” differences cannot be used as a reason to diminish HRC’s position or as an excuse for the horrid treatment of women in Africa.

    HRC is probably the best person to make inroads in how women are treated in many parts of the world. At the 1995 U.N. Conference on the Status of Women, she represented the U.S. HRC gave one of the best speeches I have ever heard. She said that women’s rights are human rights. That is a fact, and nobody else has ever stated it so clearly. I believe that HRC has very strong feelings about equality for women, an advantage that men cannot bring to this most important issue. She did a fine job in Africa, and I am proud that she represents the U.S.

    • August 14, 2009 4:19 pm

      Hi Maryann, thanks for commenting. I agree with a lot of what you have to say here. I worry though about the idea that “[s]he may have helped African women to learn to speak their minds.” It comes a little too close to replacing the notion of white man’s burden with white woman’s burden. African women, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and AIDS activist Thembi Ngubane, already do speak out, so it’s more about supporting them and helping them to be heard than about teaching them to speak. And who do you think the audience members applauding Hillary Clinton were other than women who already express their opinions?

      We also need to be very cautious about referring to Africa as if it were a single unit. I know that there are times when it is helpful to talk about a continent as a whole, but too often this is the only way people in the US see it.

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