In the span of a few weeks, Hillary Rodham Clinton has found herself the target of insinuations about her husband’s liaison with a White House intern and has watched her private confidences as first lady spill into public view after a conservative website wrote about the papers of her close friend.
So it seemed fitting that during an event on empowering women and girls at New York University on Thursday Clinton might have been thinking about how to deal with criticism headed her way should she decide to run for president in 2016.
When an audience member asked Clinton for her best piece of advice for “aspiring female change-makers,” Clinton turned to what she described as one of the best pieces of advice she’d ever heard: a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, “who said that women in politics or in public roles should grow skin like a rhinoceros. I think there’s some truth to that,” Clinton said.
As someone willing to buck the establishment, Clinton said, “it’s important to learn how to take criticism seriously, but not personally.”
“You have to be willing to hear what others, who are your critics, are saying,” Clinton said. “Some you will dismiss because there’s another agenda that has nothing to do with you, or promoting the cause you’re attached to. But some will be giving you good advice. There’s that old saying that your critics can be your best friends if you listen to them and learn from them – but don’t get dragged down by them.”
It was a revealing moment for the former secretary of State, who is weighing another bid for the White House — and all the scrutiny that would entail. In the recently published 1990s-era notes from her late friend Diane Blair, Clinton bridled at how opponents were targeting her and then-President Clinton. (She has had no public response to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's indictment of Bill Clinton's behavior, nor his insinuation that the two Clintons were one and the same.)
Clinton said Thursday that while differing leadership styles of men are celebrated, “we’re still developing what are acceptable styles of leadership for women.”
In her early days as a litigator, she said, there was a great deal of discussion in legal circles about how young women lawyers should present themselves — down to the sartorial details like those “ridiculous suits with the ribbon tied around your neck,” she said with a smile.
“You have to be intentionally thoughtful about this as you assume a role in the public arena, without it making you less authentic or undermining your confidence – and that is not an easy task," she said. "I tell you that from many years of experience, and, you know, a lot of missteps along the way.”
Clinton also offered this advice: “Start with a passion for what you want to do, what you want to change. Become as well educated as you possibly can. Get all the evidence. Practice your arguments. Don’t assume just because it’s the right thing to do that people will do it.… And then work on your own confidence and your own ability to withstand the inevitable criticism that will come your way.”
Clinton’s remarks Thursday were part of the “No Ceilings” project – a collaboration between the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The former first lady appeared with her daughter, Chelsea, and philanthropist Melinda Gates.
The two foundations announced Thursday that they were embarking on a global review to track the progress of women and girls since the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Clinton attended that 1995 conference, along with representatives of 189 countries who debated how to encourage greater participation by women in fields including politics and economics.
The idea for the new study, Clinton said, came in part from her experience at the State Department, where she wanted to work on “translating women’s rights into human rights” – which she called “one of the great causes of my life” – but realized that she needed better data.
As secretary of State, her pleas to heads of state about improving the status of women were met with “a little bit of, ‘There she goes again,’” she said. “I needed to be making arguments that were rooted in evidence that disbelievers and skeptics would respond to.
“There wasn’t a recognition that it’s really important whether your women are educated, whether they have healthcare, whether they are participating in the economy,” Clinton said. “We now have data about what a difference it would make for the gross domestic product of every nation if women could participate equally in their economies…. We need to be valuing work that women do, and we need to be opening doors so that more women are able to participate in the so-called formal economy.”