Pundits sometimes struggle to describe the signature accomplishments of Hillary Clinton, as she begins to contemplate a second candidacy for the U.S. Presidency. While her tenure as Secretary of State is generally admired, analysts often point to a lack of headline-grabbing peace deals, historic treaties, or any kind of “Clinton Doctrine” as evidence of a kind of second tier status for her time as America’s top diplomat.
Yet they ignore what is — in my view — the greatest single accomplishment of any living U.S. public servant.
Over the last quarter century, Hillary Clinton has managed to put the interests of women and girls atop the global development agenda.
She didn’t do it alone — her partners ranged from her husband, to the United Nations, to a network of brave human rights leaders around the world, to global and regional NGOs, to the man who defeated her for the 2008 Democratic nomination for President.
But two aspects of this journey cannot be denied, even by those who dislike Clinton for political or personal reasons: she used every facet of every office and position she had to pursue this effort — from First Lady to U.S. Senator to the State Department—and her name is synonymous in the global movement for equal rights for women and girls with that ongoing fight for justice.
And a third aspect cannot be denied: impact.
Equality and economic opportunity for women and girls is a central goal for the United Nations and most civil society organizations working internationally. It is broadly supported by U.S. philanthropy and the major foundations who invest in international aid. It has gained strong support from the corporate sector and is a major theme in the realm of corporate social responsibility. And it is U.S. government policy, as well.
During her four years at State, Clinton made the advancement of women and girls a central focus for Administration policy, with the strong support of President Obama. Occasionally derided as a “small bore” initiative by commentators who tend to favor power politics and manly photo opps, Clinton’s push for women’s participation was in fact a signature accomplishment of her tenure — and it continued the work she began in the 90s when she first arrived in Washington.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s record at the State Department is deeply progressive, and the work of major feminist leader.
When she launched the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review in 2009, she made civil rights and economic justice for women and girls a central theme in the State Department’s planning efforts. Clinton appointed Melanne Verveer as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, a post she convinced President Obama to create when she joined the Administration. She linked USAID grants overseas to a progressive new Gender Equality and Female Empowerment Policy emphasizing the rights of women and girls. She continued to champion major international feminist leaders, including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. She launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to serve the three billion humans on the planet who eat food cooked over open fires — and the one billion women who do that cooking at serious risk to health and safety. Led by Secretary Clinton, the Obama Administration “embarked on the most concerted effort to advance women’s rights in the history of U.S. foreign politics,” according to the Center for American Progress, which called it among the most progressive acts by government in our lifetimes.
In her finely-detailed but too-often-overlooked on-the-plane memoir of covering the Clinton State Department — The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power—BBC correspondent Kim Ghattas captured the linkage between the Obama Administration’s diplomacy under Clinton and the global feminist movement:
Clinton particularly wanted to use her new position to advance the rights of women and children everywhere, a project that stemmed from her deep belief that the world would never be a better place until half the population was no longer neglected. No many how many wars, peace efforts, missile launches, or nuclear crises lay ahead, women’s rights had to be part of the agenda. There would be much eye rolling at the State Department for four years, but the men on the team would eventually buy into Hillary’s vision about American smart power.
During her fabled travels — nearly a million miles, as we’ve all heard, a journey filled with memorable story lines and images—Clinton used her considerable personal celebrity and clout to push frame on women’s rights, even in places where such a message was not culturally welcome, including the backyards of American allies whose state religions and cultures formally denied women basic human rights. She did it through town hall meetings, private dinners, social media, and a network of feminist activists and politicians she has come to know personally over the past two decades.
“If a country doesn’t recognize minority rights and human rights, including women’s rights, you will not have the kind of stability and prosperity that is possible,” she told an audience in Egypt after the uprisings.
And in an interview with feminist writer Gayle Tzemach Lemmon at the State Department in 2011, Clinton declared: “I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century. We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings.”
In the same article, Theresa Loar, who served as director of the President’s Interagency Council on Women and senior coordinator for International Women’s Issues (both positions created by Clinton) and founding president of the Vital Voices Global Partnership (also created by Clinton) voiced a sentiment that you often hear in the mostly hard-boiled world of global development policy: “I honestly think Hillary Clinton wakes up every day thinking about how to improve the lives of women and girls. And I don’t know another world leader who is doing that.”
We were sitting on the mini-bus in a soft Tuscan rain, rattling through the streets of Florence en route to a panel discussion on women’s economic development. I sat next to Mu Sochoa, who has worked for many years for women’s rights in Cambodia’s post-conflict society, returning to confront an oppressive regime as an opposition Member of Parliament after 18 years in exile.
During our conversation a couple of years ago, I couldn’t help but be impressed by her focus on practical political objectives — by an intense determination to affect political change as an elected politician, to channel symbolism and soaring rhetoric into a movement at the polls and — eventually — in policy. Later, she spoke from the dais during a panel discussion hosted by Mayor Matteo Renzi (now the Italian Prime Minister) in Florence’s soaring Palazzo Vecchio.
“The absence of war,” she said. “Does not the mean the presence of rights and safety for women and girls if society continues to condone gender based-violence and if equal opportunities are not present for all.”
The conference Mu Sochoa and I were attending, organized by Vital Voices, was directly inspired by a signature event in Hillary Clinton’s public life that is often cited as the beginning of her work on behalf of women and girls. On September 5, 1995, Clinton traveled to Beijing to deliver remarks at the UN’s fourth World Conference on Women Plenary Session. Arguing forcefully that economic injustice, gender-based violence, and a lack of civil rights were too often ignored by both governments and the global development community, Clinton came to the point — and her rallying cry:
“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”
As the story is told, some Clinton White House suits and State Department courtiers opposed the trip. There were tensions with China over human rights at the time; a pro-democracy dissident had been arrested. Calling out non-democratic governments on their own soil wasn’t a First Lady’s job. Yet Clinton went, and she spoke. And leaders like Mu Sochoa heard.
“That was the day I decided to enter politics,” she recalled. “Watching her I had the sense that I could do it, that other women could do it, if we really spoke from the bottom of our hearts and reflected the voices of women.”
There is a temptation to attach too much action to words in public life. “Fear itself!” didn’t rescue a nation in poverty. “Never surrender!” didn’t end the war in Europe. “Yes we can!” didn’t really bring structural change to American politics. Yet they all stood for vital moments of public consideration and leadership, a point in time when someone stood up to represent courage and commitment. “We shall overcome!” mattered deeply, because it was a phrase rooted in a century-old struggle that touched on real cultural significance — and because it was used by the recognized leader of a major movement.
Words do matter, especially when they become platforms for action, when they’re part of a movement of many other actors, and not just the work of a speechwriter. In the global feminist movement — the most important global civil rights struggle of the next century, in my view — Hillary Clinton’s words from 1995 carry real weight. They matter, and they echo still almost two decades on.
Next year, “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” turns 20, perhaps just in time to kick off a new national campaign for the woman who spoke those words in China — a woman who is now the senior female U.S. statesperson and even more than she was then, one of the world’s most prominent citizens. I was reading the Beijing speech again this week for the first time in several years, and one passage struck me as the kind of rhetoric today’s Hillary Clinton might use — almost verbatim—if she chooses to once again enter the cauldron:
As an American, I want to speak for those women in my own country, women who are raising children on the minimum wage, women who can’t afford health care or child care, women whose lives are threatened by violence, including violence in their own homes.
I want to speak up for mothers who are fighting for good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean air, and clean airwaves; for older women, some of them widows, who find that, after raising their families, their skills and life experiences are not valued in the marketplace; for women who are working all night as nurses, hotel clerks, or fast food chefs so that they can be at home during the day with their children; and for women everywhere who simply don’t have time to do everything they are called upon to do each and every day.
Against the fairly lame and disingenuous cherry-picking of quotes that purportedly shows that Clinton doesn’t know how to discuss her own wealth, that she’s out of touch, that she doesn’t understand the middle class and those struggling against economic injustice in her own country, this passage provides the easy rebuttal — and it connects to everything that has defined her public career.
This has been a long battle in a long public life — and Hillary Clinton’s leadership at the front of the global civil rights movement for women and girls cannot be separated from her work as a public figure on behalf of public healthcare, education, and the struggle of women in the United States.
Clinton can clearly make the case she made in Beijing, as she builds an intellectual basis for running. As feminist writer Rebecca Traister noted in her vital Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women, which chronicled sexism in the 2008 campaign, “the notion that we live in a world in which gender equality has been satisfactorily redressed is about as persuasive as the proposition that Barack Obama’s election proved that racism was a stage through which the country had successfully passed.”
There are no perfect candidates, no pure politicians. For many who seek a more peaceful planet and a world in which the rights of women are equal to the rights of men, the vast military might of a global superpower may seem entirely counter to that vision.
And Hillary Clinton is clearly a major political figure who believes in the continued role of the United States throughout the world, up to and including military involvement. On foreign policy and security, she is a mainstream Democrat, and doesn’t shy from American involvement overseas. Much of her work as Secretary of State was geared toward repairing U.S. relations with the world after the Bush years, and using “smart power” to pursue American foreign policy goals.
Yet I’m convinced her role in tying U.S. foreign policy to the international movement to free women and girls from oppressive gender tyranny is the vital accomplishment of her tenure — and another chapter in her long-standing effort to help build and support that movement.
On the left side of American politics, some may decry Democratic-liberal hawkishness and that’s understandable. But when they ignore the international civil rights movement Clinton’s such a major figure in — and leader of—it says a lot more about them than it does about her.
Last fall, Clinton launched No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project with two distinct goals. First, the project examines the progress over the last two decades and identifies where gaps remain, around the world and in the U.S. Secondly, it aims to create a vision for the 21st century, starting with the next two decades. In an interview for my piece in Forbes, Jennifer Klein, senior advisor to Clinton, said that “women’s stories are a big part of this. We want to talk about how women’s lives have changed, as well as to verify the facts on the ground. It will be a look at how data is born out of people’s lives.”
The process is aimed at the 20th anniversary of the Beijing meeting and the Clinton Foundation will partner with other institutions on data, including foundations, civil society organizations, and governments. There will also be a major U.S. component on the lives of women here — and key domestic issues — as well as international data. These include child care, paid leave, equal pay for women, and raising the minimum wage — those issues that some claim Clinton is out of touch with. It was also fascinating to note that the Clinton Global Initiative launched a full girls and women program this spring with a mandate to tie its efforts to all the CGI commitments. The new track, noted its director Penny Abeywardena, “reinforces our belief that girls’ and women’s issues are not independent, but central to every global challenge, from energy efficiency to disaster response.”
Of course, the Clinton Foundation team is aware of the parallel political process leading to 2016 — and how Hillary Clinton’s public words will undoubtedly be dissected syllable by syllable for the next two years. But they also see this as a serious piece of research and public advocacy that can place a big stake in the ground on women’s rights, however the presidential race develops.
The project’s DNA is strongly linked to the kind of rhetoric Clinton has used since her days as First Lady. “It’s law, it’s customs, it’s all kinds of attitudes that limit access to markets and to justice and to security,” she said. “I am more convinced than ever we are right on the cusp … We have our work cut out for us. No ceilings can deny the God-given potential of half the world’s population.”
In this silly season of American politics, well in advance of actual presidential campaigning, there is a lot of free advice floating around for Hillary Clinton and I hesitate to add my own. I’m weary of “Hillary must do this” and “Clinton has to do that” talk. Enough.
I would, however, offer one observation on behalf of our consensus Democratic nominee: the movement you lead continues, it gathers strength, it’s bringing new generations of women (and men) to the cause. The networks are growing.
Building and supporting and leading that movement is the greatest accomplishment of your public life, and breaking the barrier at the top of U.S. politics would matter deeply to its future.
Women’s rights are human rights. And that’s a message that never gets old.