When she heads to Egypt and Tunisia next week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vows to “stand firmly for the proposition that women [in the region] deserve a voice and a vote,” she told an audience Friday night at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit at New York’s Hudson Theater. “More than that, they deserve to be able to run for office, to serve as leaders and legislators, even president.” At “president” the secretary received a standing ovation. With her smile, Clinton acknowledged the subtext: The women in the room—for they were mostly women—were egging the secretary on to another presidential run.
Photos: Women in the World Summit
As secretary of state, Clinton has made the rights of women and girls worldwide a central plank of her foreign policy. The absence of those rights, she said in her speech, is an abuse of power and principle equal to slavery or communism. But although women have been recent revolutionaries in people’s uprisings across the Middle East—helping to launch the protests in Tahrir Square via the Internet, for example, and then marching there in surprising numbers—they have largely been ignored as nascent governments are being established.
“In Tunisia,” Clinton said, “only two women have been appointed to the transitional government, far fewer than served in the cabinet of ousted president Ben Ali…. In Egypt, women are now shut out of the committees and councils deciding the shape of Egypt’s new democracy. The Constitutional Committee has not a single woman member.”
Clinton argued—backed by data from the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and Goldman Sachs—that countries with poor records on women’s rights suffer economically and politically. Educating women, she said, raises income levels in developing countries. Educated women have better health, lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and a greater likelihood of getting a job outside the home. When women earn and keep their own money, they spend more on their families and in their communities than men do, “creating a positive impact on future development.” Especially in the Arab world, she said, citing the 2005 Arab Human Development Report, empowering women is a “prerequisite for an Arab renaissance.”
That is why, Clinton said, she will support the efforts of women to have a voice as new governments are being founded in Tunisia and Egypt. She noted especially a petition launched by Egyptian women and already signed by 60 organizations, encouraging the Constitutional Committee “to add a female legal expert to help guide the formation of a new government.” In Tunisia, Clinton said, female business leaders marched last week “for greater economic opportunities and an end to political violence.”
Watch Secretary Clinton's full address on the "unfinished business" of human history: The full emancipation and equality of women.
Citing small successes since 2002 educating girls and women in Afghanistan, Clinton said democracy cannot thrive if it doesn’t include women equally: “Without involving women in peace, the peace will not be sustained.” Egypt and Tunisia are at a crossroads now. Though Egyptian women have made gains in recent years, with laws that grant them divorce rights and the ability to convey citizenship to their children, they have long had low literacy rates, high unemployment and low political engagement. “The ability,” Clinton added, “of Egyptian and Tunisian women to participate in the decisions that will shape their nations’ futures will go a long way toward determining whether democracy actually takes root in North Africa.”
Turning back to America, Clinton used her keynote address to unveil a new partnership between the State Department and the Seven Sisters colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley, her alma mater. The partnership will kick off this fall with a conference of “policymakers and innovative thinkers around the world,” said Secretary Clinton, with the intent to build new global partnerships among women activists and organizers. “A lot of these women may not be known to many of us,” said Clinton. “They are the ones making changes on the ground right now. They are the ones who need our help, and we will stand with them.”
Empowering women, Clinton said, is a “prerequisite for an Arab renaissance.”
Clinton closed by reminding her audience that democracies aren’t built overnight, and that we in the liberal democratic West take our rights for granted. Welcome to the revolution, where all of a woman’s rights are up for grabs.
Lisa Miller is a writer at Newsweek and winner of many journalism prizes including the 2010 Wilbur Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. She is the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife , to be published in paperback this spring. Find Lisa Miller on Facebook.