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Rutgers course examining Hillary Clinton places upcoming presidential election into wider context

 – Photo by © Rick Wilking / Reuters

With the 2016 presidential election fast approaching, Rutgers University is offering a course on one of the key players currently seeking nomination: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The first-year Byrne seminar offered during the spring semester, entitled "A Woman for President?," focuses not only on the possible presidency of Clinton, but a history of women in politics, the role of gender in candidacies and how the media reacts to women in politics.

Ruth Mandel, professor of the seminar, said it is important for people to notice the question mark at the end of the course's title.

"The question mark at the end of my course is about the fact (that) we have a history in America of male leadership on all levels," said Mandel, founder and director of Eagleton's Center for American Women and Politics. "(America has had) a changing landscape over the last 40 years that includes more women, more people of color and more diversity in making this democracy more inclusive with its leadership."

The class covers a spectrum of women in politics that paved the way for Clinton, Mandel said. A few female politicians who made efforts for party nominations were discussed in the course, including Margaret Chase Smith, who made a speech in 1964 at the republican national convention, and Shirley Chisholm, who was an African American female Congresswoman for the state of New York.

When you fast forward to 2008, Hillary Clinton seeking the presidential nomination was the first time in United States history that a woman was taken seriously as a major party candidate, Mandel said. For this reason, the course is focused mainly on Hillary Clinton.

"It wasn’t a symbolic race or brief exploratory effort," she said.

Karen Kominsky, director of the 2008 Hillary Clinton for President Campaign in New Jersey, was a guest speaker during one of the classes, Mandel said. Kominsky told students the ins and outs of what goes into building a campaign.

Students enrolled in the course also took a field trip on March 9 to New York City, where they went backstage at a programming event for Clinton's "No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project" to take photos with Clinton in person.

After pulling out of the nomination in 2008, Clinton famously said that the 8 million voters that year had made 8 million cracks in the glass ceiling. Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton soon launched the Clinton Foundation's "No Ceilings" Project, which collects data from around the world about the status and advances of women globally, Mandel said.

"(The project) released some early data from their year-old project and brought women from different countries to New York Best Buy Theater to share the results of their work," Mandel said. "I did have a contact with someone who works for the (project) who brought us backstage before the program started."

Skyler Bolkin, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, said her experiences with the course have taught her the importance of having women representatives.

"Women only hold 19% of the seats in Congress. Last time I checked, women made up more than 19% of our general population," Bolkin said.

Damilola Onifade, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said that through the course, she heard the perspectives of other students who, like her, were relatively young when Clinton made her first presidential campaign.

An assignment for the course was reading Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book, “Living History," which Damilola said helped students understand the factors that shaped Clinton into a leader. Although Clinton grew up during a time with few female political figures, Damilola said she was able to carve her own path.

"I believe it is extremely important to have a women in politics, because women can provide a perspective that men cannot bring to certain issues," she said. "I often feel like that question itself, 'why should we have women in politics?' is the reason why we should. No one questions why should we have men in politics, we just assume that a man is capable of leadership."

Bolkin said she learned some surprising facts about Clinton's life from reading "Living History," such as the fact that Clinton was president of Republican organizations at Wellesey College, but stepped down from her positions because she believed the party was drifting from its original ideals.

The course also examined the challenges that Clinton will face while seeking nomination for the 2016 election, Mandel said. There is an intense interest in everything Clinton does, even her recent trip to Chipotle in which she wore sunglasses and received media backlash.

"Most women running for office will tell you they are viewed differently, whether it's their clothes or their hair or their image," she said. "Clinton is the most scrutinized and intensely examined and the woman with the most history in our era. All of that comes from her being a woman and a path breaker."

A group of Mandel's Aresty students, Prama Verma, Nicholas Hansen, Rachel Moon and Kira Kaur, conducted a small survey in student centers that gauged the knowledge that college students have on Clinton.

"The findings suggested that students did not know much," Mandel said.

Sixty-six randomly selected Rutgers students filled out questionnaires, and only half knew Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas, 10 percent believed she was the governor of New York and one-third thought she was the speaker of the House of Representatives, according to Rutgers Today.

To further educate students, Mandel said she is hoping to offer courses in the coming semesters that will examine the national elections, without focusing on gender. The course would look at the primaries, voting behavior, the registration process and public opinion.

"I think these courses are helpful for people in this country who want to learn about our political system and government in an up-close manner," she said. "I think it would be great for every student to learn how to get involved simply as a voter."

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