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Hillary Clinton Is Talking More About Women. Here's Why It Matters.

Hillary Clinton is highlighting issues like abortion rights and the role of women in society, previewing a different kind of presidential run.
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In 2008, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign famously asked Democratic voters who they trusted to answer the White House phone amid a crisis at 3 a.m. -- her bid to highlight experience over an untested challenger.

Now, as she campaigns around the country for Democratic candidates, Clinton is increasingly highlighting issues like child care, abortion rights and the role of women in society, potentially previewing a different kind of presidential run than in 2008.

“Why are we one of only a few countries left in the world that don’t provide paid family leave?” she said at a rally earlier this month in Pennsylvania. “Why is it women that still get paid less than men for doing the same work?” she asked at event in Michigan a few days later. Then, campaigning in Colorado last week for Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, who has been criticized for speaking about abortion rights too much in his campaign, Clinton gave a strong, unprompted defense of Udall, saying “when’s he’s fighting for women’s rights, he is fighting on the frontier of freedom.”

Clinton’s shift, say both scholars and political operatives, is part of a larger movement in politics, as the importance of the female vote and women’s issues have vaulted to the top of American’s political conversation over the last few years. And that heightened attention on gender, these experts say, will likely make it easier than in 2008 for Clinton or another female candidate to campaign on issues like child care and to combat criticism they face that might be rooted in sexism.

We never talk about John McCain’s cleavage, or what he does with his hair, or his wrinkles

“It’s a very different cultural environment. You have a rise in the prominence of figures like [New York Senator Kirstin] Gillibrand, a growth in feminist media, you have more people who are writing as feminists. This is a far friendlier environment to be talking about women-friendly social policy,” said Rebecca Traister, a liberal writer who wrote a 2011 book called “Big Girls Don’t Cry” that examined some of the challenges female politicians, including Clinton, have faced.

Not only has the number of female senators increased from 16 to 20 since 2008, but politicians such as Gillibrand have emerged as leaders in Washington, speaking frequently and frankly about gender and the challenges women face in American society. Issues of balancing work and family, which Clinton wrote about during the 1990’s, were not a major feature of her last presidential campaign. Now, they're so prominent that male politicians in both parties are talking about them.

A group of unabashedly feminist and mostly liberal media figures like Traister are using both traditional publications and social media, which was in its infancy in 2008, to attack media coverage they view as sexist, a development that could help Clinton.

Demographics are shifting as well, as women are voting at higher percentages than men and unmarried women have become an increasingly key electoral bloc. With those unmarried women in mind, the Democratic Party, in 2012 and 2014, has put women’s pay and abortion rights at the forefront of its policy agenda.

Neera Tanden, who was a top adviser to Clinton in 2008 and now is president of the Center for American Progress, a D.C. think tank that works closely with the Obama administration, said, “Essentially, there was no movement for women before… there's much more in the culture making it a plus, rather than a minus.”

This shift should not be overstated. In a country where women are about 51 percent of the population, they make up only 20 percent of senators and 0 percent of the hosts of the major network Sunday morning talk shows and evening newscasts. Polling done in 2012 by Gallup showed about 5 percent of Americans would be uncomfortable with a female president, though that number has steadily declined since the 1970’s, when about a quarter of Americans expressed doubts about voting for a woman.

“We’re not there yet. We are still seeing stories about Hillary Clinton, can she be a grandmother and a president, the sort of craziness around her brain damage [Clinton had a concussion in 2012] and the glasses she was wearing. We are not at a point where we have total gender equality,” said Elizabeth Plank, a Clinton supporter who works as a senior editor at Mic, a politics and policy website aimed at people under 35.

She added, “We never talk about John McCain’s cleavage, or what he does with his hair, or his wrinkles.”

Much of this activism around women’s issues is driven by Democrats, and some conservative women view it simply as a way to boost liberal candidates, including Clinton. Obama won in 2012 in part because of a big advantage among female voters (they favored him by 11 points), and Democrats are struggling in this fall’s elections in part because that gap has narrowed. To win in 2016, Clinton will need a sizable advantage among women.

The policy objectives proposed by many feminist activists, such as requiring employers to give parents paid leave after their children are born, are opposed by many Republicans.

“I think this notion of women as a group of victims has become in vogue on the left and in Democratic circles. I’m not sure most women feel that way,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Republican strategist who was deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

But Republican candidates are increasingly speaking frankly about gender as well. In a congressional race in northern Virginia, the campaign of Republican hopeful Barbara Comstock, a longtime political operative and congressional staffer, has blasted her Democratic opponent John Foust as being “sexist” for suggesting Comstock had never held a “real job.”

“One of things we are doing is we call it out when someone is boorish,” said Kellyanne Conway, a GOP strategist who has worked with top party officials on closing the gender gap.

I think this notion of women as a group of victims has become in vogue on the left and in Democratic circles. I’m not sure most women feel that way

The groundswell of attention on gender and the rise of new female voices could have a major impact on the 2016 campaign. If she runs, Clinton (or another female Democrat like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren) will in effect have a defense team outside of her official campaign apparatus, one that will be more concerned that she is treated, in their minds, fairly by the male-dominated political establishment than if she wins in Iowa. (These activists say they would like to stop sexism no matter who the candidate, bemoaning how Sarah Palin was treated in 2008 as well.)

Plank referred to a group that organizes on Twitter using the hashtag “NotBuyingIt” that finds examples of sexism and highlights it, looking to force corporations and the press to change their behavior. She noted she belongs to a list serve of influential women who communicate about challenges of gender and look for ways to influence public debate.

Officials at Emily’s List, the liberal group that promotes female candidates, say there are now a number of influential writers and commentators they can turn to highlight coverage they view as sexist, such as stories earlier this year about Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis that raised questions about her parenting.

“There is a generation of women, not necessarily that are even going to vote for her [Clinton], who might be more diligent in paying attention to that treatment, and that gender does matter,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the non-partisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which gives trainings to female candidates of both parties.

Feminist activists point to a number of successes in changing the public narrative on gender issues, from the sharp criticism Republicans in Congress faced in 2012 when a hearing on contraception was dominated by men to the attention they drew earlier this year to the firing of Jill Abramson, who had been the first female editor of the New York Times.

“We’ve moved into this social media age, and women are more social than men,” said Plank. “Women are driving conversation online and that is having a huge impact at the level of politics. Politicians are being held accountable. If Todd Akin made his comments now, it would have been even worse for him than a couple of years ago. Before news drove social media. Now social media drives news.”

Male politicians are responding to this changed dynamic as well. Looking to boost his popularity among female voters for his reelection campaign, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo help create a Women’s Equality Party in the state, and he will appear on the ballot this fall as the candidate of that party, in addition to being the candidate for the Democratic, Working Families and Independence parties.

At his “Summit on Working Families” in June, President Obama said “there’s no such thing as a women’s issue,” arguing inadequate or overly expensive day care, the lack of paid family leave and the gender pay gap were problems for all of America. Wary of Democrats casting them as opposed to contraceptive use, a number of congressional Republican candidates, such as North Carolina Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, have called for the sale of birth control pills over the counter, without a prescription.

“I don’t think the environment necessarily is enabling this as much as the demographics are forcing it. There’s a confluence of a demographic shift with a political shift. Every election more and more women are entering the electorate as active voters. Given that trend, people want to appeal to them,” said Phil Singer, who was a communications strategist for Clinton’s 2008 campaign and now advises Cuomo.

Clinton herself may be the biggest beneficiary of this new politics around gender. The author of the 1996 book “It Takes a Village,” which spoke of the importance entire communities play in children’s well-being, was in many ways well ahead of the political curve. Her former campaign advisers now view the approach in 2008 as a mistake, both suppressing some of Clinton’s true passions around issues of gender and equality and downplaying the significance of her candidacy as the first potential female president.

Now, Clinton is not only speaking about these issues on the campaign trail, but highlighting them in other forums as well. She spoke at event last month at Tanden’s group that was dubbed “Why Women’s Economic Security Matters for All” last month and will appear at a meeting in Washington on Thursday for the International Council for Women’s Business Leadership.

The emphasis on these issues is “a much more natural fit way for her to campaign than she did in 2008,” said Dittmar.