This week, former Secretary of State and Democrat Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at Bush House at the launch of the ‘World Questions’ lecture series.
Hosted by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL) and Policy Institute at King’s, Ms Clinton was interviewed by former Prime Minister of Australia and GIWL chair Julia Gillard.
The talk took place on Wednesday 13 November in Bush House and was part of a series addressing the causes of female under representation in leadership positions and the obstacles holding them back in society, with Ms Clinton discussing own her political and activist career in relation to the social and political changes that women have faced.
The event also aimed to promote The Book of Gutsy Women co-written by Ms Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton, the launch of which has recently led her to feature at various events in the UK.
Yet while Ms Clinton’s invitation was based on her record as a “pioneer for women’s rights”, many have critiqued the move given her record of contributing to the oppression of women around the world.
Many point to the Clinton Foundation, a non-profit which accepts money to fund its own projects, which has accepted donations from organisations and countries with terrible human rights records, particularly towards women, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar.
The event was also marred in controversy because of the lack of student invitations, with the packed audience consisting almost entirely of invitees not studying at the university.
While there was a live stream of the event put up on YouTube, many still believe that this decision to exclude students was wrong given the aim of the talk to inspire and encourage young women in their goals.
Many believe this decision was made as a security measure taken to prevent student disruption given the university’s long history of student protest.
The talk was structured as a standard interview rather than an open dialogue between the two former world leaders, with Ms Gillard asking Secretary Clinton a series of questions which she gave long, detailed answers to.
Set in the context of Ms Clinton’s 1995 United Nations speech in Beijing about the importance of women’s rights, she spoke about the progress made in gender equality and what is yet to still be achieved.
Ms Clinton began by stating that “a lot of progress had been made knocking down legal barriers” but that society was still struggling with the “continuing attitudes of what is appropriate or not, women’s roles, employment and the political system.”
Describing herself as “an activist,” she spoke about “deeply embedded attitudes that are internalised by girls and women that act as artificial barriers to society’s expectations” as being key to the problem.
When asked about how much political circumstances had changed since her speech, Ms Clinton said that “no one knew the internet would be a platform for hate and the worst kinds of human venality” and that it was a shame that events like the “explosion of terrorism” had “interrupted progress.”
In reference to terrorism, she went on to say that “we may have done more than we should have to protect ourselves” and that these rapid changes had left “our democracies very vulnerable.”
When asked how the US had dealt with these pressures, Ms Clinton said that her country was a “really divided nation” that stood for “acceptance or rejection of all kinds of cultural changes.”
Moving onto the issue of how women in public office are treated, she spoke about the legacy of former MP Jo Cox who was murdered for her political standing.
Referring to her own experiences of being “the target of a pipe bomb,” Ms Clinton was firm in saying that “if people are intimidated by these hate mongers, that undermines democracy, that is the path to authoritarianism.”
When asked whether online companies were facilitating a platform for extremists, she spoke strongly about the need for greater regulation of political speech online, describing how Facebook as a platform continues to “take money for adverts that are false” and supports the promotion of “deep fakes.”
She added: “They are going to collect data on you and present to you ads that make you vulnerable to being manipulated, that is what are moving towards.
“It is dangerous to democracy, it is going to take not just individuals but governments to change that.”
Speaking next about women in the workplace, Ms Clinton explained how she thought that “the pre-existing work related networks heavily favour men,” saying that if you are a working mother, “you’re going to miss out” and that there “needs to be a concerted effort to make them more suitable for women.”
When asked about her failure to win the most recent US Presidential race, she described how it had affected her: “Of course I was devastated, it was such a shock. It made no sense. I was trying to figure out what happened. It was not foreseen, it was unprecedented.”
She also spoke about the possibility of the election being rigged, saying that the intervention by the Russians was “not deniable,” adding that she was saddened to see “the role that the US was playing and refusing to play at the moment” and that the world was now “less predictable and less safe.”
She finished the talk by discussing her latest publication, Gutsy Women, which she had co-authored with her daughter Chelsea Clinton, giving her thoughts on the writing process and her favourite story from the book.
King’s Student Reaction
The reaction to Ms Clinton’s arrival at King’s has certainly been mixed.
While there is no doubt that those in the audience seemed enamoured by her presence, many have pointed out her equally controversial history of corruption and female oppression.
PPE student Alexa Dewar, one of the few students allowed to attend the event, said: “Her presence was immediately humbling – the room fell silent during her interview in a way I’ve never experienced before.
“I found the whole experience inspirational. I am wholly aware that as former Secretary of State for the world’s superpower, she has had to make some questionable and ultimately regrettable decisions in her lifetime.
“But this event wasn’t about that. It was about hearing from and celebrating one of the most inspirational women on the planet.
“The only thing that saddened me was that I was one of the few students to get to witness the discussion.”
KCLSU President Shaswat Jain said: “The event mostly circled around empowering women in our society and how society has evolved with respect to women over the past few decades and what work is yet to be done
“She did not discuss about whether she will contend or not in the next elections.”
When asked about the issue of tickets being unavailable for students, he said: “I am not aware how the ticketing was done and would unfortunately not be able to comment.”
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who hosted the event said: “I’m delighted that Secretary Clinton came to launch the ‘World Questions’ series and I think that today’s conversation did canvas the biggest picture issues of our times.
“I thought she talked about that both in a very capable intellectual way, but also a very personal way, I thought it was a conversation with a lot of resonance on different emotional and intellectual levels so I’m delighted with her.”
KCL Intersectional Feminist Society exclusively gave Roar their thoughts on the event:
“We are deeply disappointed at the decision to host Hillary Clinton at King’s.
“This was a highly exclusive event that did not benefit students, which King’s now has a track record of doing.
“Furthermore, we were frustrated to see that a series of talks about ‘World Questions’ by a supposedly feminist Institute at King’s was opened by Hillary Clinton, who’s politics and policies have actively harmed people of colour, the LGBT+ community, and who has acted in the opposite way to her supposedly feminist label.
“We are calling on KCL to commit to hosting much more diverse speakers in the future and to be more transparent about how it funds events like this in order to bring them in line with student interests.”
The case of Hillary Clinton at King’s is a curious one, not least because of the complexity of her character and the ongoing controversy of her political career.
From the start it was apparent the event had the intention to completely flatter Ms Clinton and by extension her rightly positive message about female empowerment, but the reality is her career in politics and activism is far less clean-cut.
It is fair to say that even the strongest opponents of Ms Clinton cannot deny the significance and importance of her Beijing speech and many of the things she has done to contribute to the fight for female equality.
The warmth and clarity with which she spoke about the issues that affect women and how she could relate them to her personal experiences touched the audience and certainly there was no shortage of gleeful expressions as Julia Gillard lavished praise upon Ms Clinton in her questioning.
Unfortunately while many may wish to view her as all virtuous, her adherence to the principles she is so keen to preach has rarely been consistent, something that was not helped by an event that can be accused of being limited in its ambitions.
Almost no students were allowed to attend for reasons that have not been made clear, there was no opportunity to ask questions or challenge her record, all of which could be considered disappointing given that her speaking rate is in the £100,000s per hour.
Further eyebrows have been raised by many in the King’s community about whether she was even a suitable guest for the ‘World Questions’ series.
While certainly her invitation was a clear show of intent as she was heralded by the organisers of the event and her close friend Julia Gillard as a “pioneer for women’s rights,” it is a tag that certainly does not sit easy with everyone at King’s.
Her desire to stand by her husband Bill Clinton after his affair with the then intern Monica Lewinski, let alone the huge amount of money she has accepted on behalf of the Clinton Foundation from countries with terrible human rights records are examples that become difficult to ignore.
It was easy to be taken in by her charm so as to forgive and forget these realities as so many of the audience seemed to do, but those who do are choosing to ignore that she has also done much to contribute to the oppression of women around the world.
People need to make a careful and considered judgement of her time as a self-proclaimed “female rights activist” with this in mind, because otherwise we squander the truth for a reality that we favour.
Sadly the people who lose out in that scenario are not the immensely wealthy and powerful like Ms Clinton who wish to be seen as infallible, but rather those people, particularly women, who continue to suffer from discrimination, oppression and a lack of opportunity all over the world.