In This Review

The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy
The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy
By Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl
Columbia University Press, 2015, 456 pp.

When Hillary Clinton’s career as a lawyer first drew media attention during the 1992 presidential campaign of her husband, Bill Clinton, she mused that she could have skipped law practice to stay at home and bake cookies. The comment led to a now-famous cookie bake-off between Clinton and Barbara Bush, which the upstart Arkansas governor’s wife handily won. Eighteen years later, as secretary of state in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, Clinton supported an ambitious effort to put energy-efficient, environmentally friendly cookstoves in the kitchens of 100 million poor women around the world. “By upgrading these dirty stoves, millions of lives could be saved and improved,” she proclaimed.

There are some women who surmount gender stereotypes but then do little to help others confront that challenge. Clinton is not one of them. Having faced sexism throughout her long career in public life, she has shown an uncommon determination to use her official positions and influence to promote opportunities for women in the United States and abroad.

The Hillary Doctrine is a painstaking examination of Clinton’s efforts to advance the status of women during her tenure as secretary of state, from 2009 to 2013. Its authors, Valerie Hudson, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University, and Patricia Leidl, a communications specialist, credit Clinton with bringing women from the periphery to the center of U.S. foreign-policy making by recognizing and institutionalizing the link between the status of women and the attainment of national security objectives.

Yet Clinton’s work remains unfinished. Although she managed to transform the way U.S. foreign-policy makers approach gender issues, measured in near hindsight, Clinton’s power, political acumen, and passion for the advancement of women yielded only modest tangible results abroad. Among the obstacles Clinton faced were the sclerosis of the U.S. policymaking bureaucracy and the opposition and indifference of foreign governments. Perhaps most difficult of all, however, was the challenge of determining in which cases to push for women’s rights, when doing so might risk angering U.S. allies and incurring significant political and economic costs. Faced with such challenges, Hudson and Leidl write, Clinton picked her battles, looking for openings to make progress and occasionally holding back from public advocacy to avoid derailing other U.S. interests. Yet they persuasively argue that Clinton deserves recognition for making such hard calls. Hudson and Leidl’s attempt to assess the impact of Clinton’s work to advance the status of women so soon after her time in office is premature, but their incisive analysis will nevertheless set a useful standard for other scholars measuring future progress in this relatively new area of U.S. foreign policy.


Beginning in the 1970s, as the feminist movement gained steam in the United States, the U.S. foreign policy establishment gradually began to put women’s concerns on its agenda. Hudson and Leidl give the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter passing credit for establishing the defense of human rights as a foreign policy pillar and for setting up an office dedicated to the role of women in development at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But the real turning point, they argue, came in 1995, when Clinton, then the first lady, traveled to Beijing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. In a speech intended as an implicit rebuke of the Chinese government and its notorious denial of women’s autonomy and reproductive freedom, Clinton declared that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” and called for a future in which “every woman is treated with respect and dignity.” Hudson and Leidl regard the speech as “a watershed event for the United States and arguably for the entire world.” In her address, they explain, Clinton set out principles—among them, a condemnation of rape as a weapon of war, a call to end gender discrimination, and a demand to stop violence against women—that in 2000 helped spur the passage of the UN Security Council’s landmark Resolution 1325, which recognized the essential role of women in matters of peace and security, realms from which they had historically been excluded. In addition to calling on countries to integrate women into foreign-policy making, Resolution 1325 prompted journalists and activists to scrutinize whether women were being invited to participate in major international meetings and negotiations.

Measured in hindsight, Clinton's power, political acumen, and passion for the advancement of women yielded only modest tangible results abroad.

During the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, with the support of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others, worked to publicize and punish sexual violence during the wars in the Balkans by drawing media attention to the brutal tactics of the Serbian military and by holding international symposiums. In 2001, based on groundwork laid by Albright, the State Department inaugurated its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, ranking countries based on their tolerance of a crime that disproportionately victimizes women.

Hillary Clinton claps with members at the conclusion of the Security Council Session on Women, Peace and Security
Hillary Clinton claps with members at the conclusion of the Security Council Session on Women, Peace, and Security at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 2009.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush maintained the Office of International Women’s Issues that Albright had opened at the State Department in 1994—an important illustration of how timely and reasonable policy initiatives can survive major political and ideological shifts. Indeed, by the beginning of Bush’s presidency, the notion that women’s well-being and interests could feature in U.S. national security policy had become entrenched. And in 2003, as U.S. officials planned for the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hudson and Leidl write, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly pounded on the table during a meeting when he learned that no one had consulted the Office of International Women’s Issues on postwar policy: he had personally called Charlotte Ponticelli, the head of the office, to offer the funding required for her group’s participation.

When Clinton returned to the executive branch as secretary of state in 2009, she elevated the State Department’s renamed Office of Global Women’s Issues so that it would report directly to her, increased its budget tenfold, and installed Melanne Verveer, a seasoned adviser and confidante of hers, as its chief, all with Obama’s support. The same year, Clinton initiated a strategic plan for the State Department and USAID known as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which wove women into almost all its policy proposals. “The status of the world’s women is not simply an issue of morality—it is a matter of national security,” the report stated. A long list of policy initiatives grew out of the review, related to health, nutrition, violence against women, data collection about women, and child marriage. By endorsing action on such issues, Clinton galvanized projects aimed at women’s advancement and strengthened the hand of foreign diplomats and women’s advocates; she had given them a model they could invoke in support of their work.


Clinton’s claim that women’s advancement is integral to U.S. and global security is not simply an attempt to frame women’s issues as matters of life and death to get the attention of otherwise indifferent policymakers. Hudson and Leidl present a number of studies demonstrating that increased economic participation among women leads to greater overall prosperity in most societies, that the oppression 
of women often accompanies broader authoritarianism and state violence, and even that population imbalances favoring males—often resulting from the abortion of female fetuses, as in China—tend to foster social instability.

Yet as Clinton would likely acknowledge, sexism and patriarchy are deeply embedded in some societies, making it difficult for local activists or foreign leaders to rapidly achieve lasting gains. It is when Hudson and Leidl assess the impact of Clinton’s efforts in societies like these that their book is most ambitious. Take the case of Guatemala, a country relatively close to the United States where women have long been subjected to disproportionate levels 
of gender-based violence, from sexual slavery under Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century to mass rapes committed during the 1960–96 civil war. In 2012, the country of just 15 million people had the world’s third-highest murder rate for women; since then, the rate of so-called femicide there has increased by around 20 percent per year.

Up against problems as entrenched and deadly as these, Clinton’s efforts to protect and elevate Guatemalan women brought limited successes rather than a broad transformation. USAID did help build a slick new government building in Guatemala City from which Claudia Paz y Paz, the country’s first female attorney general, investigated rape cases, prosecuted the murderers of women, and attempted to hold corrupt officials and drug lords accountable. Yet Paz y Paz was ousted by her political opponents in 2014, before the end of her term, and after dropping in 2012, crimes against women and girls in Guatemala rose again in 2013 (Paz y Paz’s last full year in office). One lasting innovation developed in Guatemala during Clinton’s tenure to which Hudson and Leidl give high marks was a USAID-funded 24-hour court that provides accessible medical and psychological assistance and a chance at justice to victims of domestic violence.

U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which Hudson and Leidl rightly describe as “among the worst countries in which to be born female,” also posed a difficult challenge for Clinton’s agenda: the country’s government enforces brutal laws that limit the economic, political, and social independence of women, often through violence, yet Saudi Arabia is an important U.S. economic and military partner. In Hard Choices, her memoir of her time at the State Department, Clinton describes Saudi Arabia as a place where embarrassing officials “with public condemnation can backfire, making them dig their heels in deeper.” That tactical judgment was reflected in Clinton’s quiet intervention to press the kingdom to prevent the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a 50-year-old man and in her reluctance to endorse a campaign by Saudi women to protest a government ban on women driving. Hudson and Leidl offer a nuanced explanation for Clinton’s reticence to speak out publicly about such issues, noting that at a time when Saudi Arabia was making incremental progress on women’s rights (for example, by slowly offering women greater educational and professional opportunities), public pressure from Washington might have caused a backlash, halting further reform. Their conclusion is that Clinton’s selective approach to women’s rights advocacy in Saudi Arabia reflected not a lack of conviction but rather a strategic appraisal of just how much could be accomplished in the country and what might be put at risk by pressing too hard for change.

Advancing the status of women will require giving the issue a permanent place in the U.S. foreign policy agenda, one that will long outlast Clinton.

Despite their ardor for women’s rights, Hudson and Leidl recognize that the issue will never be the sole consideration in policy decisions and that advocates who cannot see beyond their own cause will soon find themselves shut out of decision-making. Indeed, had Clinton not been occasionally willing to subordinate women’s rights to other diplomatic and security interests, she would not have been considered a credible candidate for secretary of state, a position that allowed her to wield more power than perhaps any other women’s rights advocate in the world.

The Hillary Doctrine is filled with similarly thoughtful explorations of some of the other difficult questions surrounding the eradication of sexism abroad, such as whether ousting autocrats leaves women worse off and whether military interventions are necessarily bad for women. Hudson and Leidl rightly reject contentions that the United States’ mixed foreign policy record renders the country an unfit standard-bearer for human rights, recognizing that the United States is singularly powerful and that no country is free of mistakes when it comes to international development and human rights policy.

Hillary Clinton at the "Women's Political Participation - Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality" event at the UN
Hillary Clinton, UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the "Women's Political Participation - Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality" event at the UN in New York, September 2011.  
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

In their discussions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States attempted to advance the status of women as part of its broader state-building policies, Hudson and Leidl sharply criticize USAID, which they claim has withered into a contracting agency that funnels billions of dollars to greedy private firms that ineptly manage absurd made-in-Washington programs. USAID staff members, Hudson and Leidl write, face intense pressure to spend immense sums of money to avoid future budget cuts and to rapidly deliver results that can be monitored by their skeptical congressional overseers. In Iraq, for example, this dysfunction resulted in a manic effort to recruit local widows to fill a beekeeping program so that U.S. officials could create a related PowerPoint presentation to impress their supervisors. Filtered through inexpert organizations, pumped up with more money than anyone knew how to spend, and pressed with demands for immediate results, Clinton’s drive to help women sometimes produced meaningless make-work with few long-term results. The most impressive sparks of progress that Hudson and Leidl cite, such as the introduction of the U.S. military’s so-called female engagement teams 
in Afghanistan and Colombia, were achieved by capable and foresighted individuals who used their knowledge of local conditions to translate broad mandates into effective action.

Although Hudson and Leidl fault USAID bureaucrats for insisting on measurable, rapid results from development programs that are designed 
to work over decades, they commit a similar mistake by searching for demonstrable results from Clinton’s work only a few years after she first made women’s rights a U.S. priority. It is sensible to ask how the lofty speechmaking, presidential directives, and bureaucratic attention that resulted from Clinton’s leadership translated into concrete results abroad, but the real answers to such questions will emerge only over time. What is more, Hudson and Leidl’s term for Clinton’s prioritization of women’s rights, “the Hillary Doctrine,” seems inimical to the type of long-term change the authors hope for. For starters, it associates the advancement of women abroad with a single (and not universally popular) individual. And if the fate of other recent “doctrines” (such as the Powell Doctrine, which calls for the use of overwhelming force in pursuit of clear military objectives) is any indication, it also suggests that Clinton’s drive to advance the status of women was tailored to particular circumstances and so has only fleeting utility.

Hudson and Leidl nevertheless make the case that advancing the status of women will require giving the issue a permanent place on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, one that will long outlast Clinton. Just as environmental policy, human rights, and nuclear nonproliferation have by now become fixed features of the U.S. policy landscape, with State Department bureaus of their own befitting that status, so, too, should women’s advancement take its place as an open-ended, ever-evolving quest. Women’s issues are worth permanent prioritization for all the reasons that Clinton has cited: women’s fates are inextricably intertwined with those of their societies, the mistreatment of women is often a harbinger of authoritarianism and militancy, and the United States’ national security is enhanced when women’s well-being is secured and their economic and social potential are unleashed.

None of this is to suggest that Clinton doesn’t deserve primary credit for raising women’s rights from a pet initiative to a policy issue that is taken seriously across the U.S. government. But even as she seeks the presidency and pursues the power to build on her earlier efforts, we should remember that it will fall to her successors to determine whether the slow and steady work of reshaping the position of the world’s women is sustained long enough—and executed well enough—to achieve Clinton’s lofty goals.

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  • SUZANNE NOSSEL is Executive Director of PEN American Center and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organizations. She is a volunteer adviser on human rights issues to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneNossel.
  • More By Suzanne Nossel