Hillary Clinton tells women to 'grow skin like a rhinoceros.' Good advice?

That's advice the former first lady and secretary of State offered this week to women aspiring to high-profile positions, borrowing from Eleanor Roosevelt. It's a hide that didn't come naturally to Hillary Clinton.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in New Orleans, Jan. 27, 2014.

Hillary Clinton said Thursday that women who want to get ahead in politics or other high-profile jobs should “grow skin like a rhinoceros.”

This is a bit of wisdom the former secretary of State may have learned the hard way. We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, the background: Mrs. Clinton was speaking at an event for the No Ceilings project, a joint initiative of the Clinton Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to empower women in the 21st century.

No Ceilings is launching a review of global data to see how far women have progressed in education, income, political participation, and other measures since the mid-1990s, Clinton said. It picked that parameter because Clinton had addressed a big UN World Conference on Women in 1995, when she was first lady.

Flanked by her daughter, Chelsea, and Melinda Gates onstage at New York University, Clinton gave no hint of her future political plans. But she did give interesting counsel to other women who might want to follow in her footsteps.

“One of the best pieces of advice that I have ever heard from anyone is from Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1920s, who said that women in politics or in public roles should grow skin like a rhinoceros,” Clinton said. “I think there is some truth to that.”

That’s true, of course. But it’s not just true for women. Men in politics have to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of rhetorical abuse, as well. Remember how Texas Gov. Ann Richards mocked George H.W. Bush in 1988? “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” she told the Democratic National Convention that year, to riotous applause.


But women may face particular kinds of insults. For instance, political qualities that in men might be seen as admirably slick, in women are deemed “ruthless.” That’s what Bill Clinton’s pollsters said of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s public image back in 1992, according to the trove of documents from friend Diane Blair published this week by the Washington Free Beacon.

“Ruthless,” of course, is pretty close to a word that rhymes with “witch,” which is a slash men don’t usually suffer. Women complain that they have to be tougher than men to get ahead, but then they get slapped with the “witch” word, so in the public eye they can’t win.

The need to gird against such attacks is something to which Hillary Clinton did not come naturally. That’s also apparent in the “The Hillary Papers” of Ms. Blair. Blair, a political scientist who had planned to write a book about the Clintons, took copious notes of private talks with the then-first lady. One of the emotions that comes through from this record is the bubbling anger Mrs. Clinton had toward critics. She thought D.C. “superficial,” for one thing. In 1994 she said that “bonding with creeps” was the story of her year.

She particularly disliked the baying beagles of the press. She thought them “hypocrites” with “big egos and no brains.”

At one point, Blair noted, Clinton was “trying to work through her anger so she can talk calmly to the press.”

Does that sound like someone who has a thick skin? No, it doesn’t, as Clinton critics are pointing out.

“What a relief to know that the woman who felt persecuted by the world in her husband’s administration has learned an important life lesson,” writes the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin on her conservative “Right Turn” blog.

Clinton went through quite a bit in those years, though. There was the administration’s failed health-care reform, led by her. There was her husband’s dalliance with an intern and his impeachment. And so on.

Then she became a US senator, and then secretary of State. That latter job in particular is one you’ve got to have a thick hide to endure. So she’s obviously toughened up in this regard along the way.

But inuring yourself to the chattering class does not mean making yourself into something different, Clinton added at Thursday’s appearance.

Women should be true to themselves in public life “without it making you less authentic or undermining your confidence, and that is not an easy task,” she said.

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