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Women’s issues return to forefront of Clinton agenda

NEW YORK – Five years after a presidential campaign in which she rarely stressed the historic nature of her candidacy, and three years before a possible second shot at the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton this week put women’s issues back at the center of her agenda.

A day after tantalizingly calling for a female president – while stressing that she wasn’t talking about herself – Clinton on Wednesday announced that she will lead a worldwide review of the progress that has been made and not made in women’s equality over the last 20 years.

“I believe it’s time for a full and clear-eyed look at how far we have come, how far we still have to go and what we plan to do together about the unfinished business of the 21st century: the full and equal participation of women,” she said at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, her husband’s attempt to get the wealthy to commit to solving world problems.

It all seems to be of a piece. An outspoken leader on women’s rights throughout her career – but one who downplayed women’s issues during her 2008 presidential run – Clinton seems to be returning to her roots.

She has discussed women’s equality at many of her public appearances this year, and she’s doing the same from her new perch at the newly renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

For now, at least, the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state is playing down the possibility of becoming the first female president.

Appearing on a panel discussion here Tuesday, Clinton was asked: How important is it for there to be a woman president in the United States?

When the applause died down, Clinton replied: “That is a question that I will answer taking myself totally out of it.” But then she added: “The idea that our country has still some unfinished business of our own politically, I think we have to accept.”

Pointing out that women in America and around the world still face economic barriers, she then noted the symbolic weight of electing a woman as president.

“We have a lot of challenges. Electing one person, a woman, is not going to end those challenges, but it provides a kind of boost to the efforts that so many of us have been making for so long,” Clinton said. “I think it would be a very strong statement. And, someday, I hope it happens.”

Of course, every comment Clinton makes is viewed in the context of the 2016 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, in which she is widely regarded as an overwhelming favorite.

Then again, she was just that in 2008, too, before her cautious, dissension-wracked campaign fell behind a charismatic young Illinois senator named Barack Obama, who beat her with a well-organized grass-roots effort built on the twin themes of hope and change.

Now, it seems, Clinton is trying to be the inspirational one.

“When women participate in politics, the effects ripple out across society,” she said at a Clinton Global Initiative event in Chicago earlier this year.

And while urging women to get involved in civic life, she said this week: “One good idea, one person, can truly transform many lives for the better.”

Clinton’s work at the family foundation will go far beyond mere words, though. Her first project, called “Too Small to Fail,” is a partnership aimed at helping parents to raise healthy and well-educated children while encouraging businesses to become more family-friendly.

Noting that it has been nearly 20 years since the landmark 1995 U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing – where, as first lady, she famously said that “women’s rights are human rights” – Clinton said she now plans to track the progress, and lack of progress, that women have made since then.

What she has seen so far isn’t entirely encouraging, she said.

“Women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed and unpaid. They’re marginalized in so many ways,” she said Wednesday. “Yes, we have built an international architecture of laws and norms to protect women’s rights, but in many ways it remains a bare scaffold.”

While focusing on women’s rights, Clinton mostly avoided political topics during the first two days of the Clinton Global Initiative event this week, save for criticizing Republicans for threatening to shut down the government in their insistence to defund “Obamacare.”

Instead, both in the panel discussion on health and education for women and girls and in remarks in a session on “Women Decision-Makers in the Global Economy,” she remained largely focused on her once and current theme.

“Whether we are talking about empowering and connecting women in economics or health care or education or politics,” Clinton said Wednesday, “it all comes back to a question of the full and equal participation of women versus their marginalization.”