Why you should care
As she preps for a possible White House run, it’s worth revisiting the issue that, more than anything, has animated Clinton throughout her career.
When she started speaking, the crowd was silent, but hardly engaged. People ambled through the aisles, shuffled papers at their desks, spoke under their breath to the neighbor beside them.
But as Hillary Clinton—then known mostly as the controversial spouse of the world’s most powerful man—continued, an audible buzz started to fill the Beijing auditorium where the United Nation’s 1995 international conference on women was being held.
“Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70 percent of the world’s poor and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write,” Clinton declared in a slow, steady voice that was not at all angry, yet filled with condemnation. ”We are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly, yet most of the work we do is not valued—not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders.”
It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.
Women in the audience, bedecked in kangas and saris and hijabs, as well as Western garb, perked up.
Clinton continued to gather steam. When she called out China, declaring, ”Our goals for this conference, to strengthen families and societies by empowering women to take greater control over their own destinies cannot be fully achieved unless all governments here and around the world accept their responsibility to protect and promote internationally recognized human rights,” the audience began to interrupt with applause.
“I believe that now on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the silence,” the first lady, bedecked in a pale pink suit and pearls, crowed. “It is time for us to say here in Beijing and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.”
And then the crescendo: ”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!”
Pandemonium! Well, okay, not exactly… but by the standards of international conferences, which are normally sleepy, buttoned-down affairs, the cheers were deafening.
With Michelle Obama’s own first lady foray to China last week, it seems an apt time to look back on Clinton’s groundbreaking visit nearly 20 years ago, not just for the White House’s stand on Chinese rights violations but on attitudes toward women around the world.
Love her or hate her, there’s no denying Hillary laid a marker down that day when it comes to the global movement for women’s rights in a way that seems just as urgent and relevant today. The relatively undiplomatic decision by the former lawyer, senator and secretary of state to address the issues was a shock to the system at the time, but one it certainly needed.
As she noted in her remarks in Beijing, Clinton was no johnny-come-lately to the cause, even then, having worked on issues related to women and children for 25 years ahead of that seminal speech, and pretty much ever since.
During her four years at the State Department under President Obama, for example, she established the Office of Global Women’s Issues to drive more of a focus in U.S. foreign policy on the particular challenges women face. And she launched an alliance to improve the safety of women’s use of cookstoves, which the World Health Organization just found to be a major cause of millions of air pollution-related deaths.
There’s no doubt that, if Clinton does run for president in 2016, women will be at the forefront of both her campaign pitch—more so than 2008 where she didn’t really engage with the glass-ceiling element of her run until the very end—and her policies in office. But as she herself would tell you, we have a long way to go before November 2016.