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18 December 2019

A Podcast of One's Own: Hillary Rodham Clinton on political leadership

Julia Gillard talks to the former US Secretary of State about her time in politics and the fight for women’s equality

Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard

The latest episode of A Podcast of One’s Own is a special live recording of Julia Gillard’s conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton, former US Secretary of State and the first female presidential candidate of a major US political party.

Recorded at the launch of the World Questions event series at King’s College London, which was hosted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Policy Institute, the discussion focuses on the barriers to women’s career progression, the current toxic culture for women in politics and The Book of Gutsy Women, Clinton’s new book written with her daughter, Chelsea.

Gillard kicked off the discussion by taking Clinton back 25 years, to her speech as the then First Lady at the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she famously said: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.

Clinton recalled the reaction in the room to her speech:

“I thought, Woah they don’t like me talking about the one-child policy, or…that women can’t inherit property, and the whole list of problems I was discussing. But in the end, they did turn out to like the speech and like the message.”

At one point during the speech, the Chinese authorities turned off the sound, so people outside wouldn’t hear its message. However, 22 years later a friend of Clinton’s from Beijing heard the speech playing over the tannoy in a shopping mall: “That’s progress,” said Clinton.

While both leaders acknowledge advances made on political and legal rights, Clinton stresses the multiple barriers still faced by women in the workplace and at home:

“We still are struggling with continuing attitudes about what’s appropriate or not for women and what people think about women’s lives or women’s roles…These deeply embedded attitudes…are then internalised by girls and women, which often act as artificial barriers for…women’s aspirations and larger society’s expectations.”

Clinton also talks about her journey from First Lady to standing for office as a senator in her own right. It was never her plan to become a politician, until people started encouraging her to consider it, including a 17-year-old student at a high-school where she’d given a speech, who challenged her: “Dare to compete, Mrs Clinton. Dare to compete".

This spurred her on:

“I go around telling women: ‘Get out there, do your best’, 'knock down the barriers’. And here I am being encouraged to run for the Senate…Is it that I don’t want to do it or is that I’m afraid of doing it?...And that forced me to take a deep breath and think about it, and three months later I decided to give it a try.”

Hillary quote 2 graphic twitter

The discussion, which was recorded during the UK general election campaign, touches on how politics has become increasingly toxic, particularly for women, and the way social media is used to bully and threaten MPs.

Clinton shared her concerns about the number of female MPs, many at the height of their careers, who stood down at the election attributing their decisions to the abuse and threats directed towards them and their families:

“If people are intimidated out of running for office in a democracy because of these hatemongers…that is the path to authoritarianism, that is the path to fascism.” 

She also emphasised that the threat isn’t just online – sometimes it breaks into the real world, as it did for her when she recently became the target of a unsuccessful pipe-bomb attack by someone seeking to bring down the “president’s enemies”.

Now three years on from the 2016 US presidential election, Gillard asked Clinton how, as a “gutsy woman”, she got through the defeat. Clinton said that although she was “shocked” and “devastated”, it was never primarily just about her:

“It was about what we would do and how we would do it…I like to bring people together, to convene people, to solve problems.”

But she did feel the burden of “having disappointed so many women and little girls”, which is why, in her concession speech, she “addressed all the little girls out there, telling them not to give up on their dreams.”

The discussion ends with a look at Secretary Clinton’s new book, a collection of favourite stories of women’s courage and resilience, which was co-authored with her daughter, Chelsea. The book developed from some of the stories she had told Chelsea from a young age:

“I wanted her to see women doing different things and the choices they had to make, and the trade-offs and sacrifices they had to make.”

But she also saw it as a way to provide hope and encouragement to people during a difficult time:

“I was well aware that there was a big let-down and a lot of disappointment and I didn’t want people to give up or be discouraged. I wanted them to be courageous and resilient.”

“There are a lot of women in this book who...had to find an enormous amount of courage and resilience to keep going…they wanted to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, and I think we can all use a big dose of that right now.”

You can find this episode and previous episodes of A Podcast of One’s Own, on all the main podcast platforms.