It was hard not to read double meanings into most of Hillary Clinton’s speech at this year’s Women of the World summit. When she told the audience, composed primarily of young women, that we were “so close, closer than we’ve ever been,” she could have been talking about women’s rights and the fact that it’s better to be born female today than it has ever been in history. Or she could have been alluding to her finally official second attempt at the presidency, and her massive lead in the polls. When Clinton said “this work is far from finished,” she could have been talking about giving women equal pay and prosperity, or she could have been referring to the fact that she has yet to win any primaries, and her victory is far from assured.
Regardless of her intent in such phrasing or how it was interpreted by her whooping audience, this speech — her first big one since announcing — made it clear that the two could become inseparable. Fighting for women is going to be a big part of her campaign, which makes sense given that First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1995 speech about women’s rights at the Fourth World Conference on Women was one of the first moments we realized she might make a great politician. Tina Brown, the former magazine editor who keeps inviting Clinton to come back to speak to the Women in the World summit every year, wrote that it was “the speech that launched a movement.”
“It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights,” Clinton said as First Lady, and now she seems to have learned that keeping her advocacy for women separate from her presidential ambitions didn’t make sense either, as much as it seems she tried in 2008.
In Thursday’s speech she said it was “unthinkable” that mothers in the United States weren’t entitled to paid leave, that child-care benefits were nearly nonexistent, and that women and men alike are forced to work inflexible hours that make being a parent impossible. She mentioned a path for citizenship for immigrants, and last week’s strike for a living wage for fast-food workers. She slammed Hobby Lobby for not paying for its employees’ contraception, and Senate Republicans for delaying Loretta Lynch’s ascendancy to the top of the Justice Department. In a brief Shakespearian aside, she called the World Economic Forum “hardly a hotbed of feminist thought.”
The speech was an intricately quilted assemblage of campaign policies and anecdotes, which Clinton got to audition before what was likely the most receptive audience she’ll face for the next two years. It probably wouldn’t have mattered what Clinton said — the crowd was primed to hear someone tell them about a future where women rule, or at least don’t have to fight so hard. Moments before Clinton walked onstage to an instantaneous standing ovation, her opening lines buffered by a constant hum of dozens of iPhone cameras beeping, the audience had been sniffing en masse after hearing Yeonmi Park tell her horrifying story about defecting from North Korea. Before that, Ashley Judd and Anita Sarkeesian had talked about how tiring it can be to be harassed on the internet. Who wouldn’t cheer to someone who followed up that depressing fare with a promise that tomorrow might be better?
However, the speech had other double meanings that show fiery rhetoric geared toward a group of mostly progressive women is no cheat code that will Clinton skip ahead to a victory speech. The event took place at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, which happens to share a name with one of the political donors prepared to spend millions of dollars to make sure she doesn’t win. Elections don’t take place in a vacuum, and neither do crowd-pleasing speeches.
Clinton gave another well-received speech scored with hollers from excited women last month at a United Nations conference on women, which no one will ever remember because most reporters only covered what she said moments after the speech in a press conference about her private email account. On the morning of Clinton’s speech at the Women in the World summit, a handful of unflattering stories about the Clinton Foundation’s donors and bookkeeping appeared on the websites of half a dozen reputable news organizations, upstaging Clinton’s remarks on women once again.
She can keep trying to pivot her election toward the future, but the Clintons’ past, which keeps accruing more fascinating layers, has proved far too entertaining for people to move past it so soon in the election cycle.
And so Clinton keeps trying to think of new ways to overpower the news cycle until the primaries arrive, such as appending her granddaughter’s name with a combination of adjectives so adorable that voters’ memories of computers and complex finance dealings will be obliterated — by the end of Thursday’s speech, Clinton was referring to Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky as her “most amazing, fabulous granddaughter.”
After the speech and the standing ovations, a well-mannered mosh pit formed around the stage, bathing Clinton in phone flashes as she shook hands.
A young woman exiting the theater’s balcony scanned through her photos of the event as she told her friend, “I am so glad I saw that.” Clinton, who was cheered one last time as she exited stage right to return to a world where the receptions were far less fawning, was probably thinking the same thing.