Remarks at the Women Foreign Policy Group 20th Anniversary Conference

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Ritz Carlton
Washington, DC
June 10, 2015

As prepared

Good morning, everyone. It’s wonderful to be here to celebrate 20 years of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group.

Looking around here at the Ritz Carlton, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way from Patricia Ellis’ kitchen table—the humble birthplace of a vital and vigorous organization. For twenty years the Women’s Foreign Policy Group has served women at all stages and phases of their careers—from the women posted as their country’s ambassadors to the United States, to the college graduates looking to get their foot in the door with an internship or a mentor. For several generations of women, this organization has been a help line, a source of information, and a support group. Its mere existence is testament not only to the dedication of women like Patricia and Julia Bloch, but also to the state of gender equality right here in Washington.

In my travels, I often meet people who think the United States has it all figured out when it comes to gender equality. But if you look at the issues facing women here—the issues that my fellow panelists will talk about—it’s clear that our priorities to advance women around the world are also priorities for women here at home.

Kathleen Matthews is a perfect example of what women have to offer the business world—even if, as was Kathleen’s case before she joined Marriott, they aren’t 100 percent certain that the business world is right for them. And honestly who can blame them? In every country around the globe there are stereotypes and cultural attitudes that send a message to women and girls about their “proper” roles. And those attitudes are often ingrained in laws and practices that make it harder for a woman to start her own business or make a fair wage, simply because of her gender.

But what we see over and over again is that these barriers don’t hold back only women. They hold back entire communities and economies as well. Experts have said that if women’s labor force participation rose to comparable male levels, GDP would rise too…by 5 percentage points in the United States…by 9 in Japan…and by 34 in Egypt. So we have to ask the question: Can we afford not to invest in women’s economic participation?

Pushing for more women in the workforce is just part of the solution. Pushing for women’s political participation is equally important. We need more women in politics—more women like Representative Debbie Dingell—who understand the challenges facing women and can get these issues on the table.

The last time I traveled to Japan, I met the mayor of Yokohama, who is the first woman to hold her job. And as mayor she’s made it a priority to increase access to child care so moms could go back to work. In a remarkably short period of time, she reduced the waiting list for daycare from several thousand families to zero, which is astounding. Her leadership did more than address concerns for women. It also addressed an issue that was holding back the local workforce, and the local economy. That’s what happens when a country’s politicians represent not just some but all its citizens.

I’m going to try and squeeze in two points with my final co-panelist Jamira, whose story is truly incredible. When she was just a teenager, Jamira’s brother was tragically shot and killed. And since that moment ten years ago, Jamira has been a dedicated advocate for young people and for gun violence prevention. We’ll hear more from her about her work, but to me, she illustrates both the power of young people—particularly young women—and the absolute necessity of civil society.

If you spend any time with children, you know that to underestimate young people is to do so at your own risk. They are full of potential. But it’s up to us to give them opportunities, to make sure they have the education and the support to pursue their dreams and raise their voices. I’m a firm believer that the United States government ca be one of the most powerful forces for good in the world. And we’re dedicated to supporting young women and girls like Jamira around the globe.

As many of you know, the President and the First Lady launched an initiative earlier this year called Let Girls Learn. It’s focused on helping adolescent girls attend and complete school, diploma in hand, ready to contribute to their economies. But governments cannot do this work alone. When you look at the challenges of the 21st century—from climate change to violent extremism—these issues demand solutions that will require all of us to pitch in.

At its best, civil society prods us to do better. They support us and challenge us. And they are a crucial partner in our work to advance women and girls—and in the process foster peace and prosperity for all. In the face of global challenges and a changing world, all of us must act together to achieve progress. That means we need everyone—not just women, but also men sitting around kitchen tables, thinking up big ideas to empower girls and women, and driving those ideas to fruition.

So if we take just one lesson from the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, it is the incredible power of big thinking coupled with commitment and perseverance. Thank you for all you have done over the last two decades to support women here in Washington and around the world. You have not only changed the conversation, you have truly changed women’s lives.