Hillary Clinton Thinks a White House Gender Council Is a Crucial ‘First Step’

— Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state


It seemed like a fairly innocuous request.

In 1997, when Hillary Clinton was the first lady, she organized a conference on child care to discuss its challenges, and to request increased federal funding for programs like Head Start or tax incentives for businesses. She asked the treasury secretary at the time, Robert Rubin, to start the panel.

He was puzzled by the invitation. “I think he was taken somewhat aback in being asked,” Mrs. Clinton recalled in a phone interview with The New York Times. “It was a little bit outside his comfort zone.”

In the end, Mr. Rubin agreed to speak on the panel. But the broader issue of convincing men that they should prioritize and care about so-called women’s issues never went away — not even for Mrs. Clinton.

She kept pushing the agenda anyway: In an attempt to make women’s rights a priority, the Clinton administration created the country’s first-ever presidential body focused on gender issues — the Interagency Council on Women — and the then-first lady served as its honorary chair.

That council didn’t just shine a powerful spotlight on women’s issues that had not had much attention at the time, it also set up something of a precedent for future administrations.

The Obama administration took that council a step further, expanding its power and plans, under the leadership of Tina Tchen and Valerie Jarrett, who both also faced their fair share of eye-rolls and glazed looks.

“We got a little bit of pushback externally, with things like ‘Gee, where’s the council on men and boys?’” said Ms. Tchen, who now serves as the president and chief executive of the anti-sexual harassment movement Time’s Up. “I was like, ‘I think that’s every other council.’”

And now, President Biden has announced the creation of a new White House Gender Policy Council, with two full-time chairwomen: Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso. Its goal is to ensure that every government agency considers how all of its policies, whether it’s curbing climate change or building new infrastructure, may intersect with the lives of women and L.G.B.T.Q.+ people.

Whether the council will have an easier time bringing high-level agency heads and lawmakers aboard remains to be seen. But the structure of the council, against a backdrop of the twin crises of the pandemic and an economic downturn that have disproportionately upended women’s lives, suggests it might have more power than anything that had existed before.

In Her Words caught up with Mrs. Clinton to discuss how effective she thinks this new council can be, compared with the one that was created when she was first lady, and what had — or had not — changed in the past quarter century.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

What are your thoughts on how the Gender Policy Council is structured? Does it have the power and tools to really help women in this time of crisis?

The council is an absolutely critical first step. It sends a very clear message to the rest of government that there is going to be constant attention paid to how important it is to integrate the concerns that women are facing, especially post-pandemic, in every walk of life, and that the administration is expecting to highlight a governmentwide focus on uplifting the rights of girls and women, not only in our country but across the globe.

But clearly the work is making it a reality by coordinating among all of the agencies of the federal government who have a seat at the table and actually bringing forward legislative and regulatory changes that will fulfill the mission of the council.

Is a council in the White House the best way to help women right now? Or is there a better way to approach it?

I’ll answer your question by saying it’s necessary, but not sufficient. If you don’t have a council in the White House, you don’t signal the importance of these issues to the incoming president and vice president. If you don’t staff it with really smart, experienced people, then you’re setting it up for failure.

Part of the challenge for the council is to get very specific, and then set up both a structure and a timeline for involving the rest of the government.

I know how effective both Jen and Julissa are, having worked with both of them. They know that you’ve got to drive a bureaucracy. You can’t just say, “OK, we care about everybody, go out and do good.” You have to implement it. You have to have measures of accountability. You have to be absolutely on it every day.

ImageTina Tchen, left, and Valerie Jarrett.
Credit…From left: Erin Schaff and Mike Cohen for The New York Times

We’ve seen how easy it is to disband these gender-focused councils, as has been done under multiple Republican presidents. So how can the American government institutionalize something like this?

What you really want is to institutionalize the legislative and regulatory changes. Setting up a council is not, by itself, going to move us toward paid family leave. It’s not going to improve child care quality. Those things require the kind of hard legislative and regulatory work that can lead to lasting changes that cannot be so easily eliminated.

Should the U.S. have a dedicated gender department, like the Office for Women in Australia or similar setups that other countries have adopted?

There are different approaches that are certainly worth looking at. But in this country right now, where we have so many incredible challenges, I think what we want to do is focus on getting results for people and not letting a bureaucracy become the goal. Because I don’t think most women would care about that. I think they would rightly say, “Well, how does that help me get better access to quality child care?”

Twenty-five years after your speech in Beijing with your now iconic statement — “women’s rights are human rights” — the world still talks about women’s rights in a condescending way, as if it’s something that is granted to women — not something they inherently deserve — and that can be easily taken away. Should the discussion around women’s rights be reframed?

I wrote an article in The Atlantic to commemorate the Beijing speech in September, and I made the case that we needed to shift our attention and certainly our rhetoric from a rights-based framework to a power-based one. You cannot continue to argue about whether women deserve certain rights or not. Why are we still having to demand our rights? Isn’t there an equity agenda that treats mothers and fathers equally? The power imbalance that still exists is what I think has to be the basis for the debate going forward.

If you just call for equal pay, for example, and you don’t look at the disparities as to where women are working, which we’ve now seen painfully exposed because of the pandemic with all of the essential workers in health care and other frontline businesses, then you’re missing the bigger picture.

Robert Rubin was puzzled when you invited him to participate in a conference on child care. Is this kind of interaction — men’s befuddlement, their eyes glazing over — commonplace for you when you’re advocating rights for women and girls?

All the time. In fact, I wrote in my book “Hard Choices” about my four years as secretary of state, that I’ve grown somewhat tired of watching otherwise thoughtful people smile and nod when I brought up the concerns of women and girls. Even some of the men who worked with me in the State Department at high levels — I would say, “OK, we’re going to India and we’re going to obviously do all the official meetings, but then we’re going to a place called the Self-employed Women’s Association because it’s the largest collective of women in the world.” And you could just see, it was like, “Oh, here she goes again.”


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That council didn’t just shine a powerful spotlight on women’s issues that had not had much attention at the time, it also set up something of a precedent for future administrations.

The Obama administration took that council a step further, expanding its power and plans, under the leadership of Tina Tchen and Valerie Jarrett, who both also faced their fair share of eye-rolls and glazed looks.

“We got a little bit of pushback externally, with things like ‘Gee, where’s the council on men and boys?’” said Ms. Tchen, who now serves as the president and chief executive of the anti-sexual harassment movement Time’s Up. “I was like, ‘I think that’s every other council.’”

And now, President Biden has announced the creation of a new White House Gender Policy Council, with two full-time chairwomen: Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso. Its goal is to ensure that every government agency considers how all of its policies, whether it’s curbing climate change or building new infrastructure, may intersect with the lives of women and L.G.B.T.Q.+ people.

But clearly the work is making it a reality by coordinating among all of the agencies of the federal government who have a seat at the table and actually bringing forward legislative and regulatory changes that will fulfill the mission of the council.

Is a council in the White House the best way to help women right now? Or is there a better way to approach it?

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