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  |   Insights & Views


Dreams from their mothers: Hillary and Obama bending history again

Hillary Clinton, the first woman presidential nominee of any major party, has a lifetime of experience in fighting for the rights of children and families. She draws on the inspiration from her mother’s Dickensian childhood.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared on the campaign trail together at a rally in North Carolina, exactly eight years after she endorsed him in Unity, New Hampshire. Now he has endorsed her as the most qualified person to carry on his legacy.

A landmark transition seems to be underway. We might be witness to a rare succession from the first black president to potentially the first woman president, representing inclusiveness and opportunity. These are the values American democracy might inspire in the age of globalization – the age of growing inequality and populist rage.

Women’s political power seems to be entering a new era. In Obama’s inner circle, women have had direct influence on his decision-making – and in the projects to uplift girls and women worldwide, something Hillary has championed.

Women who shaped Obama

The women who shaped Obama’s life narrative have been principally three: his mother, Ann Dunham; grandmother, Madelyn Dunham; and wife, Michelle Robinson Obama. The struggles of these women have shaped Obama’s self and identity.

The three women in Obama’s personal narrative all came from the Midwest. Thus, Obama established his roots in the Midwest. While Obama’s autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” is principally concerned with father loss and his identity before he became a politician, the later book, “The Audacity of Hope,” is dedicated to the key women in his life. It is an overtly political book focused on the fundamentals of the American dream and the values of hard work and responsibility he acquired from his mother and grandmother.

There is strong evidence to suggest that the president has effectively relied on female advisers: Valerie Jarrett in the White House, Hillary Clinton as the former secretary of state, Kathleen Sebelius in the Department of Health and Human Services, Janet Napolitano as the homeland secretary, Janet Yelin at the Federal Reserve, and Susan Rice and Samantha Powers at the U.N. Obama’s two Supreme Court appointments were also women, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Obama has strongly supported women’s leadership in politics and government.

This may partly reflect his mother’s early socialization. Ann Dunham was, by all accounts, a professional anthropologist who mostly worked overseas. She planned to attend the United Nations conference on women in Beijing in 1995. She was a passionate supporter of women’s education and literacy development. She had conducted many projects that raised women’s status in the developing world, especially in Southeast Asia, where for almost 20 years she did her dissertation research. As a young man, Obama traveled with her on many occasions to villages in Indonesia.

Two parallel lives

As journalist Elizabeth Moore revealed in Newsday and Janny Scott has reported in her book, “A Singular Woman,” starting in 1993 to the end of 1994, Ann Dunham was working in New York City preparing for a major U.N. conference in Beijing. She planned to speak about microcredits and microlending to poor women. This is the same conference at which Hillary Clinton, then first lady, electrified the audience with her now well-known statement, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights…”

Hillary Clinton at 1995 U.N. conference on women in Beijing. UN/DPI Yao Da Wei


Ann Dunham’s colleagues wondered what impact she might have had at the Beijing conference, where Clinton ultimately advocated for women’s rights. Ann Dunham never made it to the event because she was suffering from the last stages of cancer.

“But Clinton did speak at the panel co-sponsored by the International Coalition on Women and Credit that Dunham-Soetoro had brought together at the U.N.’s initiative. Two years later, Clinton helped launch a campaign to extend microfinance to 100 million families, a goal the coalition pushed at Beijing - and attained two years ago,” Moore reported.

The political is deeply personal. Obama’s mother and Hillary Clinton were “generational sisters,” separated only by five years (Hillary being younger). Both were Midwesterners by birth and socialization, Methodist by faith, ardent feminists who championed women’s liberation, and staunch supporters of the civil rights movement and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.; both traveled the world empowering women and girls.

Friends remember Ann Dunham as an earthy person, grounded in real-life experiences, but a woman with a passion for making a difference. She wrote a 1,000-page doctoral dissertation on village economy in Indonesia, the insights from which were used to design savings and credit products for low-income rural clients at the People’s Bank of Indonesia. She convinced bankers to see how small-scale women entrepreneurs can be reliable in building businesses.

Ann Dunham wanted to move families out of poverty, yet all the while she was looking to achieve a major change in the way women were perceived in the developing world, according to her colleague Nina Nayar. She worked on an effort to convince the U.N. to convene an expert panel on lending to women. The report from the experts became the foundation for the Beijing policy platform and for standards on lending that emerged later.

The professional efforts made by Ann Dunham were in a separate but parallel track with the initiatives made by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, who launched a project backed by Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh. Both women viewed the Beijing conference as an opportunity to further microcredit projects. Microcredit “was mentioned in probably every other speech she made as first lady,” according to Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s former chief of staff.

At the conference, Clinton chaired the panel and gave a passionate speech. “It’s called micro, but its impact on people is gigantic. … When we help these women to sow, we all reap,” Clinton told the audience. While Clinton may not have heard of Ann Dunham’s work, she was influenced by it.

Later, as secretary of state, Clinton placed a special emphasis on the progress of women, creating linkages between development, democracy and diplomacy – the so called “Hillary Doctrine.”

Dreams from their mothers

The night Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination, I was in the audience at Brooklyn Navy Pier. She said:

My mother believed that life is about serving others. And she taught me never to back down from a bully — which it turns out was pretty good advice. …I wish she could see her daughter become the Democratic Party’s nominee.

Women and young girls were watching with tears in their eyes.

When Hillary Clinton receives the democratic nomination in Philadelphia, birthplace of American democracy, it will ring in a historical transition at the start of the 21st century. It seems plausible that the heads of Western powers in Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. will all be women.

In my recent book, I suggest Clinton’s candidacy represents the culmination of postwar liberalism championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and a long-awaited recognition of the historical importance of mothers and daughters in the American founding.

As Clinton wrote in her autobiography, “My mother and my grandmothers could never have lived my life.”

The Conversation

Dinesh Sharma does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Dinesh Sharma, Associate Research Professor, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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