Hillary Rodham Clinton is not only changing the face of American politics, her influence is quickly being felt on the world stage as well. From Europe to Asia, Mrs. Clinton has achieved star status. In recent months, she’s appeared on the covers of both Germany’s Stern Magazine and Spain’s El Pais, each with the same headline — “Hillary Clinton: The Most Powerful Woman in the World.”
Just as the American press is growing accustomed to a non-traditional First Lady, the world press is shining the spotlight on Mrs. Clinton’s role as a policy maker and advisor to the president.
“For the very first time, women are telling us they’re more interested in what the first lady is doing, rather than what she’s wearing,” says Massimo Borgnis, Senior Editor of the Italian magazine, Gente. “No first lady, including Jackie Kennedy, has gotten more press coverage here,” he says. “These are not your typical stories about White House parties and the Washington social scene. The focus is definitely on the issues and her political impact. In fact, Italians prefer reading about Hillary Clinton than Bill Clinton.”
Borgnis says that while women in his country describe Hillary Clinton as a “refreshing change” from traditional American first ladies, Italian men are not as enthusiastic. “They’re not completely comfortable with her,” he explains. “Men are staying at the window, so to speak, looking out to see what she does. They’re curious, but also a little suspicious of how powerful she is.”
Nuria Ribo, a Television of Spain reporter who is also working on a book about Mrs. Clinton, believes that Spaniards are more interested in America’s first lady than in their own. “Hillary Clinton is a phenomenon in our country,” she says. “Women’s groups see her as an example, an icon.” Even though Spanish women legally have the same rights as men, “in everyday life that’s not true,” she contends. “Hillary Clinton is a turning point for us. Before her, every other first lady was just the president’s wife. We really didn’t care that much about Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan.”
According to Ribo, opinion articles in the Spanish press about Mrs. Clinton are “very positive and applaud her role.” Her country’s fascination with the first lady actually began during the presidential campaign, she says. “There’s the impression among Spaniards that Hillary saved the campaign, though we were surprised at how Americans reacted to her initially. We always thought of America as a place where women were treated the same as men. A lot of Americans didn’t like her at first because she was so outspoken.”
She says that publicity during the campaign about the Clinton’s marital problems also caught many Spaniards by surprise. “In our country we just don’t care about those things,” she explains. She points out that Alfonso Guerra, who served as vice president of Spain for seven years, was married but also publicly courted a girl-friend who eventually bore his son. The media, according to Ribo, barely mentioned it. “We wash our clothes inside,” she says.
England is perhaps the one country in Europe that knows something about strong, politically powerful women. In fact, Hillary Clinton is frequently compared to former English prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
“People here are less shocked by a woman in a position of executive power,” says Ben Macintyre, New York Bureau Chief for the London Times. According to Macintyre, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the English are totally infatuated with Mrs. Clinton.
“There’s a disquiet in England about her being an unelected official,” he explains. “If she does a bad job, she can’t be sacked. We do worry somewhat about her influence.”
Compared to other American first ladies, Mrs. Clinton comes across as “pretty strident.” Macintyre says. “We got used to seeing the grandmotherly Barbara Bush.” As for similarities to Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady that Mrs. Clinton most admires, he contends that “Hillary Clinton ain’t no Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt had a defter touch. Mrs. Clinton is more of a ‘put it in your face’ type.”
Sharon Krum, who frequently writes for The Australian, notes that Mrs. Clinton has practically vanished from traditional Australian women’s magazines, which used to write detailed articles about Nancy Reagan’s dresses and china. Instead, Mrs. Clinton is often found in the political pages of newspapers, alongside her husband.
“There’s some sense here of Hillary being like Maggie Thatcher,” she says. “People also wonder if she’s dominating her husband.” Explaining that the women’s movement in Australia is “five to ten years behind the U.S.,” she believes that many Australian men are “very happy Hillary is in the U.S. and not here.”
Krum nevertheless expects Mrs. Clinton to have an impact on Australian politics. “She’s being talked about by women who are thinking of going into politics, and by political wives who would like to enlarge their profiles and not just be their husband’s hand-bag,” she says.
In Japan, where women frequently play a subservient role to men, media stories about Hillary Clinton only underscore the vast differences between American and Japanese cultures. “Women here are treated differently than in the States. Most don’t equate themselves with what Mrs. Clinton is doing,” explains Madoka Murakami, a correspondent for TV-Asahi. While few in number, Japanese women who are interested in politics and women’s rights believe Hillary Clinton is “very inspiring,” Murakami says. “She’ll help bring some dreams closer to reality.”
Kenzo Hashimoto, a producer for TV-Ashai, notes that some Japanese have questioned Mrs. Clinton’s involvement in political issues. “They point out that she’s never been elected and ask, ‘how can she do that?’ when they see her visiting Congress. It bothers some people.”
In a strange turn of events, it appears that Japan will soon have its own version of Hillary Clinton. Masako Owada, a 29 year old career woman who was educated at Harvard, is engaged to Japan’s prince and heir to the Imperial throne. The fact that Owada has had a successful career in Japan’s foreign ministry, is intelligent, well-educated, and is taller than her fiance has created something of a controversy in this traditionally-minded country. At one point it was uncertain if the Imperial House would even approve the marriage.
Hillary Clinton has evidently helped sway some Japanese to accept the would-be princess. One Tokyo magazine recently ran a feature story comparing Ms. Owada to Mrs. Clinton. “Some people see Hillary Clinton as an example of what the new princess’ role might be,” says Madoka Murakami. “They point to Mrs. Clinton and say ‘what’s wrong with that?’ Maybe it’s time to change the old establishment ways,” suggests Murakami.
Somehow, we suspect that Hillary Clinton would agree.