Africa, Women's Rights and Hillary Clinton

If there is a miracle that could happen in Africa today that would go furthest in bringing this beleaguered continent into the twenty-first century it would be a spontaneous recognition of the inherent and inalienable rights of women. Of course, this is not going to happen.  If the rights of women are to be recognized in Africa then the process must be the same that it has been in every nation and culture on earth that does so recognize…it must be fought for.

Cultures that do recognize an equal status for women with men, even where such status is unevenly applied, experience great benefits.  Birth rates decline allowing for healthier women and children.  Women become a dominant force in the marketplace, strengthening the economy.  Politics is enriched by the perspectives of increasing numbers of women in office. The arts and letters blossom with new found energy and creativity.

This is no small matter for Africa where, in many cultures, the second class status of women is not only reinforced through culture and tradition, but also by societies in which the devaluation of most men can only be countenanced by deeper devaluations of women. In places like the Congo, as analyzed on this blog, the social position of women is an effective weapon against rival groups.  Though there is a nascent women’s movement in Africa, and global networks directing their energies to that end, the rights of women are a long way from being realized.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Africa she vouched the kind of example of encouragement and possibility for every woman she met.  Here was a woman who was the primary diplomatic voice for the most powerful nation on earth.  Regardless of how one feels about Clinton’s politics, imagine the impact she must have made on women who must struggle every day just to survive and to ensure the survival of their children.  She may have been the very epitome of hope…

…and fear…

…for men who are used to women confined to very acutely defined social spaces.  When the male student insulted the Secretary of State by asking her husband’s opinion, or the opinion of a male star athlete who was present it was likely that this was an attempt to remind Hillary and her audience of the proper woman’s place in society.  It may very well be that the young man was so institutionalized by a socially constructed reality of women that he did not even realize that his question was insulting. Such is the nature of reified social knowledge. He was quickly educated by an indignant Clinton.

What I thought was interesting was the response in the room.  There was a smattering of laughter and even some applause (by whom it was impossible to tell), but the most prominent response was the collective gasp.  There was a tension and uncertainty in that room at that moment that was palpable.  And it happened after Hillary’s response.  Had the student asked such a question of a male politician the response would have elicited nothing more than a joke, but to ask such a question of a woman was most likely considered reasonable.  What was not reasonable was the bombshell that landed when Clinton responded out of anger and, in essence, put the man in his place.  This must have been socially awkward. Here was a man being confronted with anger and sarcasm by a woman.  What’s more, there was nothing he could do about it.  This was an example of reinforced deference to authority, which was in this case a woman. And the assembly did not know exactly how to respond to such an alien presentation of roles. Awesome!

There is debate as to whether or not Secretary Clinton was justified in such a response.  Hillary was in Africa as a representative of the United States and, as an envoy between our culture and the many cultures of Africa.  She was also there as an emissary for the rights of women not just in the United States (where there’s still work to be done) but for women all over the world.  Had she backed down from the question, or even worse, answered the question, she would have demonstrated that even the most powerful diplomat from the most powerful nation on earth can be put in her deferential place if she happens to be a woman.  Instead she attacked the notion of second class status head on and demonstrated that she, as a political figure as well as a woman, did not have to submit to insult.

New York Post Picture of Hilary

Of course, there can be different interpretations and speculation as to the kind of example she provided.  Regardless, it would have been helpful if she received support from her own nation. Instead, Hillary’s response was often represented in the media as, yes, female hysterics.  Complaints abound about Clinton’s “undiplomatic” response, and some commentators to the Lede post suggested that she was just trying to act like a man, one suggesting that when a woman tries to act like a man it undercuts her message.  Wow! There’s also the suggestion that Hillary is frustrated (frustration is another emotion often applied to women who respond with anger) by living in the shadow of her husband.  Apparently Africa is not the only place that expects women to know their place.


I have one su-bnote here, and it’s purely speculative (I’ve not looked at any data). During the Clinton Administration, however, it was often rumored that Hillary was the really the secret president and Bill just a happy figure head.  Interesting how the paradigm shifts, but doesn’t really change.

Also, notice the misplaced modifier in the New York Post line above. It should read …she, not Bill, runs state.


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