Sep 23, 5:05 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton highlights gender as 2016 looms


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NEW YORK (AP) -- Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign emphasized her experience, competence and preparation to become president. Her 2016 pitch could be simpler: She'd be the first female president.

As Clinton considers a second White House bid in 2016, she is making a pronounced case for female empowerment and the role of women in the nation's economy and politics. From the stage of the annual Clinton Global Initiative to the campaign trail, the former secretary of state has emphasized breaking barriers and the need for female leadership - themes that could resonate in a future campaign in which women voters will be critical.

"Don't let anyone dismiss what you're doing today as women's work," Clinton told a women's leadership forum last week at the Democratic National Committee. "Don't let anyone send you back to the sidelines."

Along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the former first lady spent the week highlighting the role of women leaders this week at their family's annual conference. The ex-president spoke to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet about the challenges female leaders face. Other panels featured General Motors CEO Mary Barra and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, the first female heads at their respective companies.

Mrs. Clinton is raising money for Democratic women running in the 2014 elections and is expected to campaign for Democrats in the coming weeks. In Iowa, she praised Democratic congressional candidate Staci Appel, noting that the early presidential state has never elected a woman to Congress or governor.

During her DNC speech last week, Clinton rattled off the names of 10 Democratic women whom she said gave her hope, from candidates for governor like Mary Burke of Wisconsin and Wendy Davis of Texas to Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.

The former New York senator's remarks frequently touch on a number of policy issues important to woman. Clinton called for a "movement" to bring equal pay, access to child care and raising the minimum wage, reminding her audience that two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women.

Anytime she is introduced, speakers invariably mention Clinton's 1995 United Nations speech in Beijing, when she declared that "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

Her campaign message to women wasn't always so explicit; her advisers were concerned that being a woman could hurt her with male voters.

When Clinton sought the presidency in 2007 and 2008, her team presented her as a strong leader - in the mold of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - with the toughness and experience to lead the nation. One of her most memorable television ads involved a 3 a.m. phone call, which implied her Democratic primary opponent, Barack Obama, wasn't ready to respond to a crisis.

But when she ended her campaign amid praise for her tenacity, Clinton gave what might have been a preview of her approach to the gender question, noting she hadn't shattered the White House's glass ceiling, but had left 18 million cracks in it - a reference to the votes she won in the primaries.

Six years later, one of her main priorities at the Clinton Foundation is a project called, "No Ceilings," aimed at empowering women around the planet.

"There may be new attention to these issues, especially as we've plateaued in some important indicators, but she proposed universal (pre-kindergarten) and national paid leave in `07 and `08 and those issues have only gained in importance in the last few years," said Neera Tanden, a former Clinton policy adviser who leads the Center for American Progress.

In a nod to her past, Clinton's speeches now often include anecdotes emblematic of the barriers many women have faced in the work force.

When she was deciding between Yale and Harvard law schools, Clinton recalled attending a reception at Harvard, where she met a chauvinistic law professor who told her the school didn't need more women. Clinton enrolled at Yale.

At a speech last week to the Legal Services Corp., Clinton recalled meeting an Arkansas judge shortly after moving to the state to teach law and run a legal aid clinic in the 1970s. "I don't have much use for lady law professors and I have no use for legal aid," the judge told Clinton, who responded: "Well, it's great to meet you, judge!"

Before she makes any decisions on her future, Clinton will take on another role. The couple's daughter, Chelsea, is expecting her first child within days and the former first lady has been eagerly anticipating becoming a grandmother.

"When the big moment comes," Clinton said in Iowa, "you can bet that I will drop everything to be there in a flash."

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