In many ways, President Hillary Clinton has felt like an inevitability for a few years now. In 2013, Nate Silver, the man who called the '08 election in 49 states and the '12 election in all 50, confidently told Refinery29 that "it would be very hard to see her losing the nomination." Partially because she's the established candidate, and partially because she has more experience in public office than any other candidate currently in the field.
Yet she's also a polarizing figure who attracts what she's called a "cottage industry" of angry, vocal opposition. And while she's leading in most Democratic primary polls, she has less of a lead than when she first entered the race earlier this summer. In New Hampshire, where unaffiliated voters (i.e., voters who aren't registered Democrats) can vote in the primary, she's fighting an incredibly close race against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Then there's the unknown element of what will happen if Vice President Joe Biden enters the race, something that's looking more and more likely. Which means that a Clinton presidency no longer seems so much like a given as it does something to be earned — and won. Many of you seem to agree. When we asked 1,000 millennial women if they would vote for the former secretary of state, 34% said yes, but a larger 39% said they were undecided.
We recently sat down with Clinton to talk about what kind of leader she wants to be, why she's adding campus sexual assault to the list of vital issues all candidates should be talking about, and why women's issues aren't just for women — but, rather, for every American.
We met Clinton in Cedar Falls, IA, at the University of Northern Iowa, a place where the issue of campus assault is being addressed head-on, setting an example for schools across the country, according to Clinton. And because we know you're all wondering what the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state is really like in person, we're here to tell you: She was much less intimidating than you might imagine. She was warm, engaging, passionate about the issues — and totally game to take a Snapchat selfie with us. But, more importantly, she was extremely eloquent and eager to talk about women, millennials, and real change.
Ahead, the full transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity). Read it, watch the video above, and tell us what you think. Because "it's her turn" and "we need a woman in office" aren't good enough reasons to elect a world leader — but values and vision are.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, The Refinery29 Interview
Refinery29: Secretary Clinton, thank you so much for joining us today. Hillary Rodham Clinton: "Thank you, I’m delighted to be here with you."
R29: Can you tell us a little bit about where we are and why we're here? HRC: "Yes. We are on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, and I came here today to roll out a policy about sexual assault on campus. I chose to come here because they have actually been a leader in trying to figure out how to have a comprehensive system, a fair process, and increased education and prevention. I wanted to come to a place that is really trying to deal with the problem and not deny it, not push it under the rug. One in five women are affected by sexual assault on campuses and, as you know, throughout our society this is a serious problem for everyone. It’s something that I am personally committed to trying to address."
R29: It feels like a bold move to put this front-and-center in a presidential campaign. Why is it so important to you to talk about it? HRC: "That's a really fair question, because usually when you run for president you talk about the economy, you talk about national security, you talk about some additional issues like health care and education, all of which, of course, I’m talking about and have very specific ideas about. I want to be the president who takes on these big issues — whether it's climate change, or Syrian refugees, or ISIS, or anything else — but I also want to be the president who really helps people with the problems that they worry about in their own lives; the problems that keep you up at night.
"That might be a lack of child care; or a friend's mental-health issues; or your own substance-abuse issues; or certainly, in the case of so many young women, sexual assault, which is real and which affects them, if not them personally, then someone they know and care about. I think a president can do a lot and set an agenda that is both very big and global; let's combat climate change and clean energy, but also be personal and local so that we can do better together. I really want to see our country come together and helping everyone be more empowered to make the best decisions they can make in their lives."
HRC: "You know, first of all, there needs to be a decision in our country and on every college campus that any woman who reports an assault should be heard and believed, and there should be a process that is in place — not made up every time that something like this happens — to examine what she is saying, to begin to hear from people to make some kind of decision that is viewed as fair to everybody, because it does need to be fair to everybody. But many women like her feel that they are basically being asked to remain silent. That nobody wants to hear from them, that nobody wants to believe them, and nobody wants to have the comprehensive services that they need. We have colleges that don't even have services in their health clinics, or any cooperative agreement with nearby hospitals even to treat somebody who's come forth. So there's a checklist we're going through that every place should have to be able to comply with. And then, when it comes to the process, I have talked with survivors, and a lot of them don’t want to go into the criminal-justice system. They don't feel that they will be heard or believed there, and it's a difficult process for many.
"So they want to be able to trust their college or university process, but if they choose to go into the criminal-justice system they should be supported by their college or their university. And there are some good programs; there's just not enough of them, and I want to raise the visibility of them. And I want to also do more to emphasize prevention.
"This starts at an early age, with the culture playing a role in this, the messages that are sent to young men, the kind of visual images seen all too often, the lyrics of music. We know there's a kind of pressure or expectation about behaviors that are hurtful. And so, we need to do more, starting in high school, I would argue, to begin to try to change those signals; to begin to try to change the culture.
"I’ve consulted with people who have been through this, are excellent leaders, really strong advocates for survivors, and places that are doing good work — but it's not knit together. The Obama administration has begun to shine a spotlight. I just want to make it a very broad and bright spotlight, and then really move forward very steadily and urgently to try to meet the needs that are out there."
R29: There are a lot of voters we hear from who say, "You know, social issues are not my thing — I don’t vote based on those, I vote on economic issues." But don’t you think that women's issues actually have a huge impact that people need to understand?
HRC: "I do, and economic issues in today's world are, of course, about how we get incomes rising again. That's the very center of my economic policy: how we get the deck to be stacked in favor of hardworking people, not just rigged in favor of those at the top — and I’m laying out a lot of those policies. However, here's what I want your [readers] to know, and that is if you want to grow the economy, if you want it to be fairer and have more people really benefitting from their hard work and their productivity, and sharing in the profits they hope to make, you have to focus on women. You have to focus on whether young women, middle-aged women, all women are being treated fairly in the workplace. Because when women aren't, that not only hurts them, it hurts their families, it hurts the economy.
"When I talk about affordable child care, it's not a social issue, it's an economic issue. When I talk about paid leave and I point out that we are one of the very few countries, the only advanced economy, that doesn’t take into account how much more difficult it is for most women to balance family and work, that's not just a personal issue, that's not just a social issue, that's an economic issue. And, certainly, when I talk about equal pay for equal work, it is long past time we finally got that fixed. As a young woman, or a woman of any age, you should be, as a right, entitled to equal pay for equal work.
"So these are economic issues, and they're family-income issues, and they're advancement issues. I don’t want to see young women who work hard, who get their education, who are really out there trying to make the most out of their own lives, to wake up — as so many have in the past — and realize they're doing the same job as a young man hired at the same time and they're not being paid the same. That's not America; that's just wrong in a lot of ways. Today, the economic issues and the social and personal issues have to be integrated; that's why, in my economic proposal, we talk a lot about how we need to make the workplace work for women."
R29: What do you want to say to those women who feel a little bit afraid to negotiate, afraid to ask for equal pay? HRC: "I understand that; I know that it's not easy. I remember very well: The first job I had out of law school, I didn’t negotiate; the second job out of law school, I didn’t negotiate. I was just so happy to have a job, and have a job that I thought would be purposeful and give me some real opportunity to grow. But the more I represented people, the more I was a lawyer for people, the more I saw what was happening out in the work world, the more convinced I became that young women need to follow Sheryl Sandberg's advice about leaning in. Doing it in a smart way, not in a way that's going to cause a lot of waves, but a way in which it's going to put your worth front and center.
"I've worked with a lot of young people in my various jobs over the years, and often when I come to a young woman and I say, 'I want to give you more responsibility' or 'We think you're ready for a bigger job,' she will say, 'Do you really believe that?' or 'Are you sure?' And that's kind of ingrained in us: 'Wait a minute — are you really talking to me?' When I go to a young man and I say, 'We're looking for greater responsibility for you, maybe a different job,' honestly, they will say, in not exactly these words, but the message will be, 'What took you so long? Of course, I am ready, I am able.' So part of my message to young women is, 'First and foremost, believe in yourself, believe in who you are. You have a unique contribution to make to the world; we all have gifts and they are all different gifts. And you have something that can make life better. Not just in your home, with your relationships, but in the broader world of work and society and politics.'
"So study what experts — people who have been very successful, like my friend Sheryl Sandberg and others — tell you about how to do this, and how to take that deep breath. It is scary, but go ahead and try it out with your friends, and just be specific, like, 'Here is what I've done, here is the feedback I've gotten. I really believe I am the best person to continue this project or this work plan, and I want to be sure that I am paid accordingly.'
"It's scary, but we need women supporting other women, too; we need to remove the mystery about pay. In some places, you can't even find out what somebody else doing the same job is getting. And so, we have to get more transparency and more information, so that young women are supported in the risk they feel they are taking in trying to get paid fairly and equally."
R29: One of the resonant things that we hear from our audience all the time is this idea of hope and optimism, that no matter how daunting stats are, no matter how scary the news is, they believe that they can change the world, they believe they're going to live in a better world. What is it about this generation that makes you most hopeful? HRC: "Well, I am thrilled to meet so many young women who believe exactly as you are describing. That they are hopeful, they are optimistic, because there has never been a better time in history or a better place in history to be a young woman than in the United States of America in 2015. And I feel that so strongly. So, yes, do we have some challenges? Of course, we do. We're human beings; we're going to have challenges. But we have to keep working to make our country the place it should be, the place we know it can be.
"But what really excites me about a lot of millennials is that there is a great devotion to public service. I hear it, I see they get involved in all kinds of service activities and projects in their community, at their workplace, on their campus if they're still in school. So they really do feel the urge to try to improve somebody's life, to try to deal with both small problems here at home, like trying to clean up a park, and giant problems around the world, like combating climate change.
"So I’m thrilled that is the ethos that I am seeing when I go to campuses, when I speak with young women in particular. I would just like to connect that with the very real need to be active politically. Because I often hear from young women that I speak with about these issues. They love public service, they love to be involved in good causes and charities, and all kind of actions that give them a lot of satisfaction, but they are not so enthusiastic about being involved in politics. And what I try to explain is how whatever individual commitment you have, whether it's tutoring a child or working at a food bank, whatever it might be, I applaud you and I thank you. I am very grateful.
"But it's really hard to meet all the needs we have for all the kids who need to be tutored, all the people who might need extra nutrition — particularly children or pregnant women — without having political change, without having political leaders who will work hand-in-hand with the not-for-profit sector and the private sector to try to meet the very human needs that our fellow Americans have, and certainly many people around the world have.
"So don’t give up on politics; don't turn away from politics. Look for ways to become educated, to become involved, to feel that you can see a linkage between an issue or a cause you care about and what could be done by someone you support, work for, or vote for."
R29: Running for office is something that requires a tremendous amount of confidence, but also competitiveness — to say, "I am going to win this; I can do this," which we see less among women. We see women less likely to run once and then not get the seat, then run a second time. You’ve done it. You’ve done it as a senator, you're doing it again in the race for president. Have you always had that confidence, or have you cultivated it?
HRC: "I have not. I have not. Like every other woman that I've grown up with, any one of my friends, this has been a journey. And I was coming of age just at the beginning of the women's movement, just when all of the options were being discussed. Now, I was fortunate — I had parents and teachers who never made distinctions, at least that I can recall, between the boys and the girls. They expected us to work hard and do well, which gave me a good foundation to believe that I could be successful if I tried.
"But I didn’t have any smooth path and, in fact, the first time I was seriously thinking about running for office I was an adult. It was 1998. I had never thought about doing this before, and I really was reluctant — in fact, resistant. People were approaching me about running for the Senate in New York, and I kept saying, 'No, I'm not going to do that, I'm sorry, thank you very much.' And they wouldn't give up, and they kept pushing me, and they wanted me to run. And clearly, they saw something in me that I was not yet convinced of — and I kept saying no. I’ll tell you what changed my mind, because there was a moment and that moment happened at a high school in New York City.
"I was there as first lady to help highlight a documentary about American women in sports — American women athletes who had gone to the Olympics, who had won tennis and golf tournaments and swimming competitions, all kinds of athletic achievements going back 100-plus years. And so, we were at this high school and there were some great women athletes — Billie Jean King and others were there. And I was asked to say a few words because I really support equal rights for women, and I supported equal participation in school programs under Title IX, so it was a good event for me to be at.
"A young woman who was the captain of the volleyball team introduced me. She was a very impressive, tall young woman. And there had been all this speculation in the press, like, would I run for the Senate, would I say yes; all these people wanted me to. And as I came up, I wanted to shake her hand and thank her because she did a nice job. And I said, 'Thank you so much,' and she bent over to me; the name of the documentary was Dare to Compete, and she whispered in my ear, 'Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete.'
"I was momentarily speechless because she had really kind of called me out, to be honest. I mean, I had been a very strong supporter of women running for office, women serving in office. I had actively helped to recruit women to make those elections, then certainly help them raise money and all the rest of it that you do.
"Then, all of a sudden, this young woman is basically saying, 'Hey, don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.' And it was from that moment in mid-spring of 1999 that I really began seriously to think about it. I said to myself, Gosh, I don’t want to be hypocritical about this. I go around telling women to be in politics, and now people are asking me. I care deeply about all the issues that affect our country, and I’m saying, 'No-no-no-no-no,' and this young woman is saying, 'Hey, dare to compete.' And a few months later, I said okay and literally just stuck my toe in the water for the first time. It was really a big challenge. I had supported everybody else — I had never done it for me. And I had to learn."