The Washington Post

In Hillary Rodham Clinton speech, a 2016 pep talk?

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her Simmons College Leadership Conference keynote address Wednesday in Boston. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

It sounded as though Hillary Rodham Clinton were giving herself a pep talk.

“There are times in all of our lives when we’re either given an opportunity or we see one we could seize and we get nervous, we worry . . .

“Don’t get tied into knots about what others say . . .

“You have to be willing to compete, to get into the arena.”

On the surface, Clinton’s remarks on Wednesday afternoon had little to do with herself or any future opportunity she may seize. She was addressing a women’s leadership forum in Boston, trying to inspire a mostly female crowd of 3,500 business leaders to take professional leaps.

Yet as Clinton paced the lecture stage dispensing career advice from a lapel microphone — her stage manner was a cross between televangelist Joel Osteen and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg — you couldn’t help but consider her speech a kind of internal monologue.

There was a reason to run for president in 2016: “Too many women trying to build a life and a family in our country don’t just face ceilings on their aspirations and opportunities. They feel as though the floor is shaky, even collapsing beneath them. That’s not only their problem. It’s our problem.”

And another reason: “Our long race to a more perfect union has been a struggle to expand the circle of citizenship and opportunity to more and more people. . . . Advancing the rights, opportunities and full participation of women and girls here at home and around the world is the great unfinished business of the 21st century.”

And another: “Let’s get serious about inequality in our own society. This is the place for us to start.”

Clinton, 66, spoke of the untapped potential of older women. Now a grandmother-to-be, she has become the subject of political speculation about how her daughter’s pregnancy might affect her deliberations about a 2016 campaign. (By contrast, it was never an issue for Republican Mitt Romney, who had 16 grandchildren when he began his 2012 campaign and 18 by Election Day.)

Republicans have sought to paint Clinton as a has-been — too old for the White House. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quipped last year that a Clinton-led 2016 Democratic field would be “a re-run of ‘The Golden Girls.’ ”

In a question-and-answer session after her Boston speech, Clinton said the country could better recover from the long recession by getting more women to fully participate in the economy — and not just young women. Many women dropped out of the workforce to raise children, Clinton said, but their “brains have not atrophied.”

Where men in their 50s and 60s get “tired of the race” and want to play golf and coast, women at that age are “raring to go,” she said.

These are messages Clinton has carried nationwide in recent months as she speaks to a variety of audiences about her work at the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation to empower women and girls around the world.

Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, are leading a “No Ceilings” initiative to review the progress of women heading into next year’s 20th anniversary of the landmark U.N. World Conference on Women, in Beijing. Clinton, who was first lady at the time, famously declared at the conference, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

Last week in New York, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton sat on stage together at the Lower Eastside Girls Club and answered questions from teenage girls, some in the audience and others tuning in via Skype from schools in Arkansas, Ohio, Virginia and Washington state. (It was at the end of this event that Chelsea announced that she and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, are expecting their first child later this year.)

The mother and daughter offered advice on navigating the social difficulties of high school. When an eighth-grader who plays competitive chess sought advice on succeeding in a field dominated by boys, Hillary Clinton chimed in.

“Too many young women get stopped by the perfectionist gene,” she said. “You think you have to be perfect instead of good enough. And believe me, there are so many young women who artificially stop themselves from progressing because they’re not perfect. And I have rarely met a young man who doesn’t think he already is — if not perfect, darn close to it.”

Clinton continued that theme this week in Boston, acknowledging that she has had a “lifelong struggle” with the “perfectionist gene.”

Simmons College President Helen G. Drinan asked Clinton how she learned to become so resilient in her public life. Clinton recalled a scene in New Hampshire before the 2008 presidential primary. She was at a campaign event and a couple of young men held up a sign that said, “Iron my shirt.”

Clinton said she thought, “Iron it yourself.”

“It was clearly a sexist attack,” she said. “It was like — really?”

Then Clinton ruminated aloud about why she ran for president in 2008.

“If you really want to do something, if you believe you’re the right person to do it, if you think that it could make a difference, then you have to be willing to compete, to get into the arena — knowing full well that it’s going to be challenging, to say the least,” she said.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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