Wednesday November 13th saw the much-anticipated meeting of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Julia Gillard, launching the ‘World Questions’ series with a candid discussion on equality, technology and the reality of pressure. Strand magazine attended this exceptional event at Bush House.
The talk was hosted jointly by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, which Gillard chairs, and the Policy Institute at King’s, against a backdrop of their recent global survey into perceptions of women. The discussion also featured Clinton’s new book The Book of Gutsy Women, written in collaboration with daughter Chelsea, and the upcoming anniversary of her famous 1995 speech on gender equality in Beijing. The two political figureheads discussed the state of women’s rights through past, present and future: from Clinton’s beginnings in activism, to the effect on female politicians as we continue to adapt to the rise of technology.
Controversies surrounding the 2016 election, the Trump administration and Brexit each made an inevitable appearance. The shared sorry state of both the British and American political landscapes were the subject of many jokes, Gillard quipping “People in the UK who are trying to distract themselves from Brexit watch the car crash that is US politics and think to themselves “it’s not just us!”" —but for each comic reference, there was an equally serious undertone.
Image Credit: Global Institute for Women's Leadership (2019)
In reviewing Clinton’s visit to King’s, her extensive history with criticism on both her political career and private life deserve to be mentioned. Mainly, the perception that she is an untrustworthy, calculating political figure, unable to connect to the ‘regular voter,’ is something that has followed her throughout her entire career, not to mention during the 2016 elections. What contributed to further damage her image for a large group of the American population was of course her involvement or relation to multiple political scandals and conspiracy theories—to name a few, the Podesta emails, Jeffrey Epstein's death, and Pizzagate. Additionally, with her conservative statements about transgender women just the day before the event, Strand Magazine wants to acknowledge its awareness that Clinton is a deeply flawed, widely contested political personality.
That being said, Clinton's presence in and influence on (US) politics over the years is undeniable. During the World Questions event, Gillard managed to address the criticism Clinton faced throughout her career with a brilliant preciseness, and together they strived to contextualize their experiences into a wider discourse on women in positions of power. When discussing digital political violence, Clinton referenced the 2016 murder of Labour MP Jo Cox as an example of just how dangerous the threats against women in politics can be. She takes the recent news of many women opting not to run for office again, often citing online abuse, “very seriously”: “that is not only a threat to individuals, that is a threat to our democracies”, she said.
In this regard, the former Secretary of State condemned digital and social media, in particular Facebook. The network’s recent refusal to ban political ads, as Twitter had done so, garnered heated discussion from across the world. Clinton cited a Trump campaign advert with “demonstrably false” claims against Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden to demonstrate how “[Facebook] will make it increasingly difficult for people running for office to persuade voters to vote for them based on accurate information, as opposed to falsified information.”
Looking back on her political career, Clinton noted, “No one in 1995 or 1996 thought… ‘[The Internet]’s going to do this wonderful job of connecting us globally, but it’s also going to be a platform for hate and disinformation and the worst kinds of human venality. […] We thought it was all good news.”
Clinton gave further examples of when the journey to gender equality had been stifled, or even gone back on itself, one concerning recent laws passed in Japan that allow employers to mandate high heels as uniform for their employees, or to prevent them from wearing glasses. However, the talk ended on an empowering note. Clinton spoke highly of young activists Greta Thurnberg and Malala Yousafzai, but when asked to pick just one of the ‘gutsy women’ featured in her new book she instead noted Somalian activist and medical doctor Hawa Abdi. Dr Abdi housed over 90,000 in the land surrounding her hospital during the 2011 drought. She twice faced Islamist militants laying siege to the compound—but Abdi would not be moved and survived both instances in what Clinton deemed “an act of grace”.
“There are a lot of women in this book who faced all kinds of terrible experiences and had to find an enormous amount of resilience and courage to keep going. We highlight a lot of their stories because they didn’t just try to achieve something on behalf of themselves, they wanted to make a positive difference in other people’s lives as well. I think we could all use a big dose of that right now.”
Image Credit: Isabel Veninga
For every topic discussed, Clinton provided an extensive contextualization. What disappointed a bit, however, was that where Gillard paved distinct opportunities for an answer that could evoke a motivational symbolism, Clinton tended to get too caught up in her descriptions, which slightly weakened the emotional expectations of the audience. However, this was something that Gillard managed to add in an optimistic, natural humourism, which elicited enthusiastic responses from the crowd. And, with her answers regarding criticism and digital violence, Clinton managed to analyze the consequences and dangers of being a woman in a political position in informed, coherent explanations. Considering Clinton’s history, as well as Gillard’s experience as PM, which is something Gillard commented on with that same confident humor, it was powerfully clear that this event had a symbolic motive more than anything. By creating a conversation between these two women, who both have been—and still are—in extraordinary positions of power, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership shows its dedication to exactly what it was founded for: the fight for women in leadership. Although the conversation lacked an inclusion of intersectionality, Clinton and Gillard were well-quipped to fit the symbolism of the 'traditional' struggle.
The full conversation is available to watch on King’s College London’s YouTube channel.
Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor, and Isabel Veninga, Editor-in-Chief