Wed, Jan 19, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Hillary Clinton proving the possibility of a feminist foreign policy

By Madeleine Bunting  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Back in the heady days of 1970s feminism there was an argument that once women achieved political power, there would be no more war. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and her Falklands war exploded that myth, and along with it any residual notion that women might do foreign policy differently from men.

Indeed, it became a credibility requirement for any women with a senior foreign or defense brief to give a wide berth to anything with a whiff of being a woman’s issue.

Women had to work extra hard to look tough on the world stage. Meanwhile, women’s issues were parked in the softer brief of international development.

It is these unspoken rules that US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been dismantling since becoming secretary of state two years ago. She is the most powerful politician to advance an explicitly feminist agenda. Even in that most delicate and crucial relationship with China — on which the world’s attention will be fixed this week for the Chinese president’s visit to the US — Clinton has gone out of her way to press feminist issues. In China’s case, she has highlighted the country’s -growing gender imbalance caused by the high abortion rate of female fetuses.

Inevitably, some see it as a recasting of US imperialism, others as a force for the progressive good. I’ll come on to what it stacks up to, but the first point is to marvel at how she has got away with it. On countless occasions since arriving at the State Department, Clinton has asserted that the rights of women and girls are now core to US foreign policy. It’s hard to imagine any British foreign secretary ever saying such a thing.

Many of her statements can be routed back to the idealistic internationalism of 1970s feminism. Astonishingly, she has managed to bring the feminism for which she was loathed in the early 1990s (as the first lady who didn’t stay home and bake cookies) into the heart of the state department and foreign policy and is still clocking high opinion poll ratings.

From the start Clinton left no one in any doubt where she stood: Women’s rights are “the signature issue” of this administration’s foreign policy, she said. She mentioned women 450 times in speeches in the first five months in office.

“Transformation of the role of women is the last great impediment to universal progress,” she said, and began to develop what is her standard line: Women’s issues are integral to the achievement of every goal of US foreign policy.

Or put more simply: The empowerment, participation and protection of women and girls is vital to the long-term security of the US. Last month this rhetoric was translated into policy in the long-awaited Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which aimed to redefine US foreign policy around civilian power.

“We are integrating women and girls into everything we do ... in all our diplomacy with other governments ... in our work on conflict and crisis,” the State Department’s briefing said.

For a security agenda traditionally dominated by weaponry and military expertise, this is radical stuff. It draws on a powerful consensus built up behind the overwhelming evidence that women are vital to a range of key global concerns. Links have been drawn between gross gender inequality and political extremism. Women are crucial on issues such as food security (women produce most of the food that feeds the world), health, education and democracy. The World Bank picked up this agenda long ago and a raft of unexpected allies have emerged, such as the economist Lawrence Summers, who said that the most effective investment in development is the education of girls. Clinton has been riding a wave of optimism that women hold the key to global development and peace.

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