Hillary Clinton at KCL: Gutsy Woman or ‘Limousine Liberal’?

Contributor Diya Nair is a Masters student at LSE, who is interested in post-colonial feminism and the intersection of culture and gender identity.

[Featured Image: Shows the stage set in the large lecture theatre in Bush House for the World Questions launch event. There are two empty chairs, and an orange screen behind reading ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton’.]

King’s College London recently launched their ‘World Questions’ event series with the inaugural session featuring the first US female presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, alongside Australia’s first Prime Minister Julia Gillard chairing the discussion. The ‘World Questions’ event series is co-hosted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, an institute that coalesces research, expert engagement and evidence based teaching to ‘better understand and address the causes of women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions’ and work to create a world in which ‘being a woman is not factor contributing to negative perceptions’, in conjunction with the Policy Institute at King’s. The choice to launch the World Questions event with Ms. Clinton, as the epitome of a modern day female leader, was attributed to her pioneering work for women’s rights, the ‘fight for equality’ and for being an inspirational female figurehead for aspiring politicos. The event also serendipitously coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Ms. Clinton’s speech on gender equality at the fourth United Nations conference on Women’s rights in Beijing and provided her with the opportunity to promote the publication of her work ‘The Book of Gutsy Women’. 

Social media reactions to the announcement of the event, however, reflected the more politically polarising viewpoints with which Ms. Clinton is regarded. While some lauded the fantastic opportunity to hear some ‘much needed sagacity and scepticism’ and ‘would die for the opportunity to attend (the event)’, others labeled her as a ‘war monger’ and a ‘shameful opportunist’. For many Ms. Clinton is viewed as a ‘limousine liberal’, emblematic of the neoliberal status quo in American politics that multiple voters railed against in the 2016 presidential election, instead choosing to elect a populist property magnate. London Student recently reported that the King’s College London Intersectional Feminist Society had signed an open letter ‘condemning Clinton’s history of racism, transphobia and her support for US intervention in Iraq and Syria’. The letter urged King’s College London to ‘include a broader range of speakers.. such as women of colour, disabled people and the economically marginalised’ in the World Questions event series. At the time of writing, the KCL Action Palestine, KCL LGBT+ Society and Decolonise KCL had co-signed the open letter. 

The event opened with an anecdote where Ms. Clinton described how her prominent invocation of ‘Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights’ in 1995 at the UN conference in Beijing was viewed as a controversial political act, with Chinese authorities turning off her microphone at the convention centre so that the slogan would not be broadcast to the general populace. She then went on to explain how in 2019, that very same slogan is now played in department stores in China attempting to illustrate how feminism, once seen as a radical, exclusionary agenda on the fringes of society, has now come to be an accepted mainstream ideology. Ms. Clinton spoke of how previous ‘blatant barriers to (women’s) autonomy and freedom’ in the form of legal and socio-economic hinderances have now transmuted into cultural impediments, demarcating what women should be like. Ms. Clinton referenced Japan noting that their culture placed a great emphasis on the appearance of female workers (high heels everyday and no eyeglasses) as validating their status as valued employees. 

The direction of the conversation then turned to a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of technology and globalisation over the past thirty years with Ms. Clinton contextualising her role in the important historical events that occurred over that time period. Whilst examining the role of the increasing effects of technological innovations in shaping political activities and the role of democracy in societies, Ms. Clinton made very relevant observations on the knock-on effects of the increasing vilification and hate-mongering that social media and the new phenomenon of ‘deep fakes’ has produced, with a particular target placed on the back of powerful women in society.

On the whole, the event was designed in such a manner as to portray a congratulatory approach to Ms. Clinton’s life work. No attempt was made to probe some of her more controversial positions, such as when she alluded to her positive stance towards military intervention in the past, with a cursory acknowledgement that overreactions may have occurred but they were ‘perfectly understandable’. Additionally, an event that was marketed as a feminist safe space, did not enquire into Ms. Clinton’s previous attacks on women who accused her husband of alleged misconduct. The event embodied a neatly packaged, sanitised version of feminism, digestible to many because it refused to interrogate the status quo or problematic aspects behind the acclaimed personality. 

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