Remarks at the National Partnership for Women and Families
Secretary of State
Oh, I am thrilled to see this ballroom packed on behalf of the National Partnership. I very much appreciated that stirring video and the reminder of all the hairstyles over so many years – (laughter) – a real walk down memory lane. (Laughter.) And there is nothing better than hearing from champions of freedom and human dignity like Ela Bhatt and John Lewis.
And there are so many people for me to thank. I guess I should start by thanking my friend and longtime colleague Judy Lichtman for her pioneering work. (Applause.) Judy and I have been at this a really long time. (Laughter.) What she has done for decades has really convinced me that she never gives up; she never stops fighting for what she believes in. She used to call me when I was still in Arkansas and, in that very persuasive voice of hers, say, “This is what we have to do, and this is what we have to do.” And she has gotten it done.
And she’s the one who called me many months ago and said, “Would you come to the National Partnership luncheon and let so many of your friends and the next generation of activists honor you?” And of course, I said yes. And then my schedule got a little upended. And I’m supposed to be in Brazil right now – (laughter) – at the Rio+20 event. And I said, “I’m really sorry. I will get there in the middle of the night. I will leave the lunch. I will go to the airport. I will fly 11 hours. But I cannot cancel on the National Partnership.” So here I am. (Applause.)
I want to thank Debra Ness for her leadership of this great organization. Debra has such a passion and commitment and is so convincing on the issues that she was just reviewing. And for me, it is truly about the next generation. And Sandra, congratulations. And I want to thank the middle school students from the Edmund Burke School, who we saw in the video. I want to thank my dear friend and colleague Lisa Caputo for her excellent narration, but more than that, for her years of work with me and on behalf of causes we care about.
And I want to thank all of you who are here today. I see longstanding champions for women and families like Pam Daley, the lunch co-chair from General Electric, along with Lisa (inaudible) our MC, and like my friend Ellen Malcolm, who has helped bring so many women’s voices into our political system, into the debates of our country.
And I particularly am pleased that the National Partnership has here today the next generation of women leaders and those brave men who know the partnership stands for a better America, not just for women and families but for all Americans and it is a model advocacy for groups like it around the world.
I remember so well, many years ago now, being pregnant with Chelsea, working at a law firm where there was no set policy for parental leave because there had never been a pregnant lawyer. (Laughter.) And I used to watch the men I was working with as I got more and more pregnant just kind of avert their eyes. (Laughter.) And they never really had a conversation with me about, well, what would happen. (Laughter.) And one of them, in the interest, I think, of trying to be funny and relate to me, called me the morning after I’d had my daughter and said, “Oh, when are you coming back to work?” And I said, “Oh, I don't know, about four months from now.” “Oh, okay,” he said. (Laughter.) Because they didn’t know any better. (Laughter.)
But I was aware then, as I have been every year since, that millions of other women didn’t have that opportunity. And fortunately for all of us, the National Partnership drafted the Family and Medical Leave Act, pushed it through Congress and onto my husband’s desk when he was President, ensuring that at least the first step toward recognizing the importance of providing parents the opportunity to balance work and family, would be enshrined in law.
Now, we have so much more work to be done. Debra gave you some of the unfinished business that lies ahead. But the Family and Medical Leave Act is just one example of what this organization has done over the last four decades of service. The work of advocacy can – and often is – incremental, maybe even glacial, but over years of effort it can carve out a world of difference.
And in nearly every country I visit I meet with civil society groups working on behalf of women and families and communities. And sometimes they are just learning about the power of advocacy. Many times, in many places, they’re facing barriers that we faced 50 years ago. And I give them the same advice that I would give my younger self or any young person hoping to make change in our world: get organized, get involved, and don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Because advocating for women, for children, for people with disabilities, for any marginalized group, needs to be a lifelong mission and hopefully a passion.
From my early years as a young lawyer with the Children’s Defense Fund, from my time in Arkansas, to the White House, to my service in New York in the Senate, and now as Secretary of State, I see the results of persistent, passionate advocacy. Nothing replaces it. And very often, there is that moment when hope and history rhyme and results actually happen. I am more convinced than ever that this is not just simply a matter of human rights or women’s rights, but it is essential to prosperity and security, to build a more inclusive world, to bring people off the sidelines into the arena who before had been relegated to the back. We won’t be able to move forward on any of our larger strategic goals or improve our own national security at home unless we take on one of the most basic sources of instability and strife in our world.
In too many places, a gathering like this would not even be possible. All over the world, women and children still face antiquated legal and cultural obstacles. Extremists of all stripes still try to constrain and control women: how we dress, how we act, what we believe, even the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. So it’s no coincidence that many of the places where we see the most instability and conflict are also places where women are abused and denied their rights, young people are ignored, minorities are persecuted, and civil society is curtailed. And those are not just symptoms of instability. They actually undermine societies, regional and global stability as well.
By the same token, it’s also no coincidence that many of our closest allies and most important trading partners are countries that embrace pluralism and tolerance, equal rights, and equal opportunities. Because these are not Western values; they are universal values. So it is profoundly in our interests to help those who have been historically excluded become full participants in the economic, social, and political lives of their countries. Otherwise, we can look into a future of the same cycles of conflict and volatility.
Now, this is not just me talking, and it’s not just because I came to the position of Secretary of State having spent a lot of my adult life advocating on behalf of women and children. The evidence to support what I’m saying is clear. Data show that investing in women’s employment, health, and education drives better outcomes for entire societies. Economists tell us that when more women participate in the economy there is a ripple effect; businesses have more consumers, families both spend and save more, farmers produce and sell more food, education improves, and so does political stability. So this is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing.
Women have skills and practical knowledge that enrich discussions about peace and security. In one of my favorite examples of this in recent times, there was a recent negotiation over how to end part of the long, terrible conflict in Darfur, and the men in the room spent days arguing over who would get territory around a certain river. Finally, a woman outside the door said, “That river’s been dry for years.” (Laughter.) Because, after all, it wasn’t men that went looking for water every day, it was women. (Laughter.) So we have to find more ways to tap the vast talents and resources of half the population in the world. We need governments and people in every country to commit to improving the rights and opportunities of women.
That’s why, at the State Department, I’ve instructed our leadership in Washington and at embassies around the world to prioritize advancing rights and opportunities for women. We are working to increase women’s political participation, strengthen their economic position, ensure that women have a seat at every table, including tables that discuss peace and security. We’re also taking on entrenched discrimination and cultural attitudes that class women as less than men. And we are taking steps to institutionalize this progress so that future Secretaries of State can keep it going and growing and encourage other nations to follow suit.
For example, last September, I joined leaders from across the Asia Pacific for the first ever APEC – that’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation – ministerial for women and the economy. Following this meeting, every participating economy agreed to support what we were calling the San Francisco Declaration, which commits us to increase women’s access to capital and markets and to support new women entrepreneurs and business leaders.
I was also proud to announce the Obama Administration’s landmark National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which will guide our government-wide efforts to increase women’s participation in both preventing and resolving conflicts.
And just last week, I was at my alma matter, Wellesley College, to open the inaugural session of the Women in Public Service Institute, which will help train women from around the world to become the leaders that many of their countries so desperately need.
Our embassies are also working to advance the status of women as part of achieving our larger foreign policy goals. For example, in Kenya, we’re training women activists and journalists to monitor early-warning systems for violence. In Bosnia, we’re helping teach aspiring women politicians the basics about communications, economic research, advocacy, and leadership. And we’re helping women in Kyrgyzstan learn about starting businesses and organizing in their communities.
In all of our efforts, we are looking for partners in advocacy and consulting with local experts, because we know governments cannot do this work alone. At home and abroad, we need civil society organizations, religious communities, business leaders, and strong voices to speak out for the rights and opportunities of women and children. And we need groups of dedicated and concerned citizens to fill the gaps between governments and the people they are supposed to serve. And it is only through these robust partnerships and honest discussions that we can help deliver the kind of change we want to see in the world, and that’s a fact that the National Partnership has proven over and over again here at home.
So today, what I want to say to you more than anything else is this: Keep going. For more than 40 years, you’ve been protecting the most vulnerable among us and holding us all to account when we are not living up to our own American values. And in the process, you improve the lives of countless women and help make that future a better place for them and their children. We need that same dedication as we work to improve the status of women around the world, which does come back to us in promoting our values, our interests, and our security.
There are so many brave women and men who are on the frontlines of this struggle for equality and rights and opportunity. I meet them all over. Sometimes I meet them because I’m told if I take a picture with them they may not be killed. Sometimes I’m asked to go somewhere with them to demonstrate that the United States believes what they are doing is important. Sometimes I find myself marveling as I meet with those who have been imprisoned and tortured, beaten and abused for saying the most obvious things; that girls and women have a right to an education, a right to healthcare, a right to exercise their full God-given potential, that children are not chattels, that they, in and of themselves, have dignity that must be recognized.
I have a lot of heroes and heroines around the world. You saw one of them, Ela Bhatt, in the video. She started an organization called the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India many years ago. She was a very well-educated woman who had the options available to those in her class with her intellectual ability, but she chose to devote her life to organizing the poorest of the poor, women who worked in fields, who sold vegetables, who were domestics, who struggled to eke out a living for themselves and their families, women who were considered the last to eat, the least important.
When I first visited her, as First Lady, in India, she took me to a big gathering where women had come from all over the region. Some of them had walked for 24 hours. And these were such beautiful women, brightly colored saris, beautiful chiseled features. And they were part of SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. And that gave them strength that empowered them to stand up to abusive mothers-in-law, to stand up to abusive husbands, because all of a sudden, they were bringing in money. They’d been given a small micro-credit loan and they were working to enhance the quality of life for their own families.
When I was back in India as Secretary of State, I once again met with a large group of SEWA, and this time learned they had more than a million members, they had just conducted an election to elect their leadership, they had moved into small businesses, not just the most basic kinds of subsistence income production, and they were a force, and they were being looked at by those around the world who saw what they had accomplished. And I saw that firsthand, because when I first went to South Africa and went to Cape Town, I was taken out to a housing project, scrap land that women from the townships had claimed as their own after learning about SEWA and began building a village, again, the poorest of the poor living in tarpaper shacks who wanted something better. When I went back to Cape Town as Secretary of State, I visited the second such settlement that they were building and helped to plant the flowers that were in the yards of those who lived there.
This didn’t happen overnight, but it could not have happened without determined, dedicated, persistent, meddling, bothersome, annoying women leaders. (Laughter and applause.) And we have to be not only willing to continue our own efforts here at home, to try to finish the unfinished business, but to also remember that civil society, non-governmental organizations, volunteerism is one of America’s great exports. I see the results everywhere, and this National Partnership has set a very high standard.
So we need to keep pushing on those closed doors, keep chiseling away at those barriers, keep working together toward a world where every little girl and boy grows up believing that there is a future for them, that if they work hard, if they do their part, they too can make a difference in their own lives and the lives of their larger communities.
I’ve had such an extraordinary experience over the course of my adult life. None of it could have been predicted. Young women ask me all the time, “Well, what did you do to prepare for all these different roles?” (Laughter.) And I always say, “Look, I got a good education, and I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been very lucky – after all that hard work – to have opportunities that I really appreciated, to make my own contributions, to give back to my own country, and then increasingly to try to spread that message globally.” But I know very well that a lot of what I have benefitted from came about because of the advocates and the organizations like the one we honor here today. Nobody does it alone. Nobody should want to do it alone. The collaboration, the excitement, the adventure, the fun of working with the National Partnership, working with so many of you represented here, has been a great joy to me.
And I hope that in the next 40 years we will be able to look back and see all that has been accomplished here in our country. A lot of the loudest voices are last gasps. The world is changing. It’s too open. There’s too much information. People anywhere now know what’s happening everywhere. That is both a great burden but also a tremendous opportunity. So let us not grow weary in doing what we believe is right and smart here at home and around the world for women and families.
Thank you all very much. (Applause.)