Remarks at the 10th Annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women's Mentoring Partnership

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
April 29, 2015

Thank you very, very much, Evan. Thank you very, very much, Pattie. Thanks so much for doing this and for Fortune’s commitment to all of this. And thank you, all of you, good evening. And I apologize profusely; I gather you’ve been sitting here waiting to eat, right? Anyway, I am sorry. I was held up in the place where Tina works, called the White House – (laughter) – where we were having a long discussion about one of our trouble spots in the world. And I’m really happy to be here. This is not a trouble spot. (Laughter.)

I want to thank the members of Congress who are here. I guess they’re spread around. I don’t see them all sitting at one table. I see Nita over here. But Representatives Debbie Dingell, Nita Lowey who’s here, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Maxine Walters, I want to thank – Waters – I want to thank them for their tremendous contribution. They are powerful women, let me tell you, especially Nita’s got my budget. (Laughter and applause.)

But thank you for the hard work that you do every single day. Honestly, we really appreciate it. And thank you to the Treasurer of the United States Rosie Rios. I mentioned to her she’s got her name on every dollar around the country. She said, “I’m watching that money really carefully.”

And Tina Tchen, what a great job you do. Thank you, you’re a delight to work with and we really appreciate everything that you and the First Lady are accomplishing. Thank you very much. We’re excited to have all of you with us on this extraordinary floor of the State Department. This is, I think you know, the Ben Franklin Room. It’s a special room. That’s Ben over there above the fireplace, and the other Ben, my dog, who is the diplo-mutt, is downstairs waiting for me to take him home so he can eat, too. So I’ve held everybody up tonight. (Laughter.) He’s not talking to me.

The most powerful women. We’re in the Ben Franklin Room, as I mentioned. All these rooms are named after men. They didn’t listen to Abigail Adams, who told her husband, “If particular attention is not paid to the ladies, we will mount a rebellion.” (Laughter.) Well, there’s been a number of rebellions since that period of time. One of them is that Ben Franklin led a pretty interesting life and he particularly led an interesting life when he was the ambassador to Paris with Jefferson, and John Adams was there – a period of time when they were all there together. If you’ve read about him, you would all know that when he said wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, he knew what he was talking about. (Laughter.) And you also would understand that he would clearly not get confirmed by the United States Senate today. (Laughter.)

This is supposed to be a fun evening and it is a fun evening. Evan Ryan is, as you know, our assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. And she has it all, as you see. She’s got energy, creativity, eloquence, dynamic, and I am very, very grateful to have her on our team. She’s doing a great job of reaching out across all the international boundaries to bring us closer together, and I appreciate enormously what she is doing.

And Pattie Sellers has been a champion for women for many, many years, a driving force behind Fortune’s Most Powerful Women’s partnership with the State Department. And so I’m happy to celebrate the fact that this partnership is now in its 10th year and frankly is generating more energy and more excitement than ever. So Pattie, thank you for tremendous leadership. We appreciate it. (Applause.)

Now sadly, there was a time – and it was not so long ago – when U.S. foreign policy was pretty much a male-only club, like a lot of places in our country and in the world. Until the early 1970s, a woman Foreign Service officer had to literally choose between keeping her job and getting married because she wasn’t allowed to do both. It wasn’t until 1997, more than two centuries after our nation’s birth that we celebrate here in this building so much, that a woman was finally permitted to take the oath of office as secretary of state.

And today, I am proud to say the President’s national security advisor is a woman, our ambassador to the United Nations is a woman. My predecessor was a woman, and so was her predecessor. We have one woman out of two positions as deputy secretary a woman – that’s 50 percent. And we have four under secretaries of state out of six who are women. And I believe that is what happens when brains and talent determine who does what instead of bigotry bringing down the ceiling. (Applause.)

And literally preventing half the population of a nation from taking part – I will tell you, in the course of my travels I am thunderstruck all the time. Cathy Russell knows this. She’s helping to build on this – the amount of energy in country after country today that is embracing this notion that you cannot survive, you can’t make it, you can’t build in today’s world with half your population on the bench. It’s impossible. No team in anything can survive that way. And I think we’ve broken through here; there’s no question in my mind about that. It’s forever. And the levels of – we have some things we can still do better. We all know that, and we’re working at it constantly. But I’m proud to say that I had, I think, more women serve as my chief of staff in the Senate, my campaign for President, any number of major efforts – Stephanie Cutter’s over here. She was my spokesperson in the campaign. (Applause.) And countless numbers of people have made the difference.

But whether it’s in the United States or in any country – and you all know this. I know I’m obviously stating the obvious, but it’s important to say it, and again and again and again, because we have a lot of places which haven’t broken through. But pushing women back, shoving them aside, holding them down, beating them up are simply not parts of an argument of any kind. Those actions are always wrong, they’re always dumb, and in some cases they’re actually criminal.

So if we’re going to sit down and compose an agenda, all of us; if you were to say, “Here are the things we need to do to try to move forward globally, country after country,” whether it’s five years from now or 25 years from now, I think you’d probably end up with a list that looks something like this. You’d talk about an economy that generates opportunity for all. You’d talk about better access to quality education from pre-K all the way up. You’d talk about urgent action on saving the planet and having enough food and having enough security, being able to avoid refugee challenges and lack of water and children dying and disease being spread, and we’d avoid it by taking action on clean energy and climate change. You’d talk for sure about healthier babies and improved child nutrition and less maternal mortality in the course of childbirth. And you would talk about lower rates of disease, crime, violence, and civil strife, and finally, a stronger sense of community, of belonging, of sharing.

So if you wanted to save time, you could just draw a line on a page and write underneath it, “Empower women,” because every single one of those things sees progress if women are in fact empowered and able to address those concerns. They’re all part of it. It’s why the State/Fortune magazine partnership actually is so meaningful, and it’s why it is helping to bring about a larger transformation that is so vital to our future.

One of my predecessors, Madeleine Albright, said there is a special place in Hell reserved for women who don’t help other women. (Applause.) But let me just build on that for a minute. The actual – the truth is we all need to help each other. And a mentoring program in which one generation gives a hand up to the next is a vital way to be able to expand leadership networks. And what we know today is that in today’s world – Rick and a group of young Foreign Service officers articulately brought this to my attention when we met to just talk about the changes in the world that we’re living in today – and they commented on how today power is not served up so much in hierarchies as it is served up in networks. Think about that: everybody connected all the time, 24/7, everywhere, but many of them powerless to be able to do anything about those connections, to be able to move on them.

So something like the Fortune Most Powerful Women Network is a critical way to pay homage to that notion of how power is in fact created. And so far, this women’s network has helped 250 emerging leaders from more than 50 countries – leaders such as Sarika Bhattacharyya, who went through the program in 2012 and is now running a nonprofit mentoring initiative for women entrepreneurs in her home country of India; or leaders such as one of last year’s participants, Florence Ozor, who returned to Nigeria to join a flourishing civil society movement to advocate for voting rights and for the safe return of girls kidnapped by terrorists.

As for the emerging women leaders who are gathered here tonight, all I can say is this is an amazingly impressive group – and I’m not sure that “emerging” is quite the right word. I think you’ve already emerged, taken off. (Laughter.) From as near as Mexico to as far away as East Asia and Africa, every single one of you are making a mark in just about every sector: trade, investment, engineering, fashion, finance, travel, human resources, the selling of cars and trucks, and the use of advanced technology to prevent that scourge of the modern world – cattle rustling. (Laughter.) That’s actually happening.

Now I don’t have to tell any of you here that – in this audience – we got a lot of work still to do to eliminate those barriers completely. I can remember when I first started in politics after I came back from Vietnam, early 1970s, one of the things we threw ourselves into was the Equal Rights Amendment. And it was pre-Roe v. Wade and pre-other things that advanced the interests of women, and we learned then how difficult it was to eliminate the barriers of bigotry and condescension and tokenism, and let’s be honest, in some cases just jealousy, that unjustly impeded the progress of women. And it look a lot of folks ready to break down those barriers and stand up and take risks – sometimes risks of livelihood – to be able to bring about those changes. We’d have to be pretty dim, though, not to recognize a trend. With us tonight are 19 very good reasons to be optimistic in a world that may at times seem broken and hurting, but which is also full – amazingly full – of exciting new opportunities and grounds for hope.

So my concluding note to you tonight is a very a simple and indeed even a personal one. As the father of two daughters, both very independent and out there in the world carving out their own careers – one a doctor and one a filmmaker; as the husband of a wife who is a powerhouse in her own right and defined her own course, I want to say thank you to every advocate, every person who is an activist, all of you, and those who are here in spirit tonight. I thank you for not accepting injustice. I thank you for not waiting when people suggested you should. I thank you for not settling for half-measures. I thank you for working so hard and for so long with such determination to bring about the day that will surely come, the day when we are able to say with confidence to any girl anywhere that she can truly expect to rise as high and go as far as her energy and her skills will take her.

Because when that day comes, there’s no question in my mind – I’ve seen it in community after community – women help make peace. Women help resolve conflict. Women usually are picking up the pieces. And if we will simply give more power in places where it should’ve been put a long time ago, then we are going to make this world reach a place it has dreamed of and needs to. Thank you. God bless. (Applause.) It’s time to eat. Thank you. (Applause.)