January 8, 2008

Hillary Clinton is ideally positioned to run on women’s rights in 2008. (And not just because she’s female.)

In a previous post, I argued that Hillary Clinton’s primary opportunity for differentiation –- specifically, versus her two main rivals, who are also smart, liberal lawyer-senators — lies in being female and Bill Clinton’s wife. I further suggested that she’s extremely well-qualified to be an icon of 2008 women’s rights, which could let her pursue this strategy to great advantage. Here’s what I meant.

Classic women’s rights politics of the past 40 years have focused on two main issues – abortion, and blatant workplace discrimination. But Clinton avoids stressing those issues, and she’s wise to do so. Abortion is now a political issue that tends to favor conservatives, and the cruder forms of discrimination are now believed to be behind us.* Meanwhile, Clinton herself was one of the targets of a backlash against “women’s libbers,” including Rush Limbaugh’s memorable “feminazis” label.

*Nor is that belief absurd. #3 and #5 in the succession to the US Presidency are currently female, as are a much higher fraction of the senior executives I deal with in the software industry than 25 or even 10 years earlier.

Most American women today, unless they’re older and/or unusually successful, have never run into serious glass ceilings or overt discrimination. Rather, women’s continued disadvantages versus men are focused in two areas:

  1. Women –- married and single alike — are expected and often want to do a disproportionate share of the work in homemaking and child-rearing. But the resulting lack of experience or extra workplace effort puts them at a career disadvantage, with all the financial and status shortfalls such disadvantages produce.
  2. In a variety of subtle ways, men are often still “taken more seriously” or viewed as more “authoritative” than women. Classic anecdotal examples of this are differing reactions at a meeting when a woman or a man makes a suggestion, interrupts somebody, and/or shows a flash of temper.

Some people think these problems, to the extent they exist, are minor. But many others think they’re substantial. Indeed, many believe — or could be easily persuaded — that these (especially the first one) are the largest factors still disadvantaging women versus men in the United States today.

Hillary Clinton has spent her life experiencing and overcoming these disadvantages.* Of course, she was holding some aces. Not every woman gets to have a Yale Law Degree and a husband who is President of the United States. But using her own life story as a point of departure, Clinton should be explaining how she’s going to help other women overcome the same challenges she knows so well.

*Yes, I know she had a major legal career – certainly by Arkansas standards. And she was on the board of Wal-Mart, whose CEO told my father that she was their smartest board member. Even so, when her husband’s and her own career objectives conflicted, it’s pretty clear whose took priority. And while I doubt either parent spent a lot of time baking cookies for Chelsea in the governor’s mansion or White House, it’s a safe bet that one did more parenting than the other, and it wasn’t the male one who did more.

I’m not sure exactly what Clinton should be proposing: Child care as good as she enjoyed? A bit of assertiveness training? Beefed-up mid-career education, perhaps delivered online? Maybe she can’t propose much, and should just be giving vague, Obama-like pep talks on the subject. She’s good at those, when she lets herself be – I had a mid-20s employee who was inspired to tears by a Clinton speech in the 1990s.

But speaking as an expert on marketing and positioning, I’m convinced that this is the most powerful arrow Clinton can add to her marketing quiver — in the primaries and probably in the general election as well.


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