NEW YORK – Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage here Thursday with her daughter, Chelsea, and actress America Ferrera to begin what the former secretary of state calls a series of “No Ceilings” conversations aimed at encouraging women and girls to aim high.
Yet as the political world waits for word on whether Clinton will once again aim for the highest office in the land, it seems as if she’s been having these sorts of conversations for months now.
Ever since leaving the State Department in early 2013, Clinton has been traveling the country, delivering paid speeches and pushing the projects she’s working on at the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
And at many of those stops, the former first lady and Democratic senator from New York put her focus on erasing the often-hidden discrimination that frequently leaves women rungs below men on the professional ladder.
That’s just what she did here Thursday, detailing her “No Ceilings” project, which aims to measure the progress of women’s rights worldwide.
Acknowledging that “old-fashioned discrimination” still exists in the United States, Clinton said: “There should be no artificial barriers, so that individual women can always prove their worth and demonstrate they can fit into whatever role or job they’re seeking.”
Clinton’s allies say such comments and her “No Ceilings” effort are simply the latest manifestation of her lifelong fight for women’s rights. But Republican leaders see it as a less-than-subtle effort to engage women in a presidential campaign that is not likely to begin in earnest until early next year.
“We all agree girls and women should have equal opportunity but the truth is Hillary has been a follower on this issue: She made a political calculation not to speak about opportunity in 2008, and she’s making a political calculation to talk about it now,” said Kirsten Kukowski, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Who knows what she will really stand for if she were to ever make it back to the White House.”
Whatever her motivations, Clinton’s effort to place women at the center of her agenda contrasts sharply with what voters saw in the 2008 Democratic primaries.
Facing off against a barrier-breaking African-American candidate named Barack Obama, Clinton waged a hyper-cautious campaign that never strongly stressed that she, too, could be a ground-breaker: the first female president.
In fact, her top strategist, Mark Penn, seemed to discourage such talk.
In a December 2006 memo in which he urged Clinton to emulate the strong-willed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Penn said voters were looking for a father figure as president.
“They do not want someone who would be the first mama,” Penn wrote in the memo, which was unearthed by the Atlantic magazine. “But there is a yearning for a kind of tough, single parent.”
Now, though, Clinton finds herself dodging the inevitable questions about a 2016 presidential race while embracing the notion that women should rise to the top.
“It is the work of this century to complete the unfinished business of making sure that every girl and boy, every woman and man lives in societies that respect their rights, no matter who they are, respects their potential and their talents, gives them the opportunities that every human being deserves no matter where you were born, no matter the color of your skin, no matter your religion, your ethnicity or whom you love,” Clinton said at the University of Miami in February.
Continuing along that same theme, she told students at San Jose State University earlier this month: “Too many women face ceilings that block them.”
And on Thursday, she detailed her current effort to knock those ceilings down.
The “No Ceilings” project aims to measure the progress women have made across the globe since Clinton’s 1995 declaration, while visiting China during her tenure as first lady, that “women’s rights are human rights.”
“We’re looking at all the information we can gather to try to figure out how much progress we’ve made since 1995,” Clinton said. “What have we done right that we should celebrate and what are the big gaps that we still have to fill?”
Answering questions posed by girls at the Lower Eastside Girls Club and others at schools dialing in via Skype from Ohio, Virginia, Arkansas and Washington State, Clinton said some of the gaps remain obvious. In America, she said, women still often don’t receive equal pay for equal work. And all around the world, women find themselves as victims of sex trafficking.
Combining quantitative research with anecdotes gleaned from monthly “conversations” such as the one that Clinton joined Thursday, the “No Ceilings” effort aims to produce a report early next year.
Given that those conversations will be unscripted dialogues with the general public, surprises are sure to happen – such as what happened Thursday, when a tearful 19-year-old college student detailed the barriers she had faced in getting work and the best education because her parents brought her to the country illegally from Croatia when she was 5.
“This is an extreme glass ceiling for me,” the student said.
Clinton responded by praising the girl’s courage and by diving deep into the most controversial political issue to surface during Thursday’s session: immigration reform.
“I believe strongly we are missing a great opportunity by not welcoming people like you and 11 million others who have made contributions to our country into a legal status,” Clinton said, adding that she favored the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed, which has stalled in the House.
But that was as overtly political as Thursday’s discussion got. None of the questioners asked Clinton about a 2016 race, focusing instead on the women’s rights issues that the panelists were stressing.
Nevertheless, other signs also seem to indicate that Clinton will embrace her role as a path-breaking female candidate this time around if she makes a widely expected second run for the presidency. Ready for Hillary, a Super PAC with strong ties to longtime Clinton advisers, has made a special effort to appeal to women, hiring a director for women’s outreach, producing a video highlighting Clinton’s work for equal rights and sponsoring women’s house parties around the country.
“Hillary is the most qualified candidate – period – to be our next president,” said Seth Bringman, spokesman for Ready for Hillary, which is encouraging Clinton to run and building the groundwork for a potential campaign. “But on top of that, she would make history if she runs and wins, and that has a whole lot of people excited.”
Ready for Hillary raised $1.7 million in the first quarter and a grand total of nearly $6 million since its inception last year, and nearly half of that money has come from women. That fact is highly unusual: In fact, a Rutgers University study found that of all the Super PAC money in the 2012 election, less than 20 percent came from women.
Kelly Dittmar, the Rutgers professor who did that study, noted that Clinton received strong support from women in 2008, although younger women tended to be more split between her and Obama.
Dittmar, an assistant research professor at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics, notices a change in tone from Clinton’s 2008 campaign appearances and what she is saying now.
Citing Penn’s 2006 memo saying Clinton should be aware that the public doesn’t want a “mama president,” Dittmar said: “I think she will have different advisers and a different campaign this time which will allow her to be more true to her passion.”
Clinton seemed true enough to it Thursday, leaving the 100 or so girls in the room and a worldwide Web audience with a lesson she may have learned herself the hard way.
“If you feel strongly about something, don’t stifle it,” Clinton said. “Don’t swallow it. Speak out about it.”