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Hillary Clinton: It’s Time to ‘Shape Our Destinies’

Taking on extremists both abroad and at home who would marginalize women, the secretary of state called for an 'audacious' fight.

Marc Bryan-Brown

“So how do you like my jacket?” Hillary Clinton asked, as she did a star turn on the stage to show off her green, white, and black jacket with sparkles threaded throughout. It was probably the least likely opening line for Clinton, who is known more for her policy prowess than for any kind of fashion displays. But Oscar-winning actress Meryl Streep had just introduced her, and Streep had twirled around to reveal the back of her red jacket, which was decorated with what looked like pink bow ties.

“I cannot believe what just happened,” Clinton exclaimed, saying she had no idea what Streep would do by way of introduction. Anticipating perhaps a reprise of the actress’s various roles, Clinton pronounced herself relieved that Streep hadn’t made “The Devil Wears Pantsuits,” a reference to Clinton’s tribute to the pantsuits that got her through the presidential race.

Acknowledging that her friends are right when they say she needs more sleep, Clinton stressed that for her what she does is “not so much work as a mission.” She talked about the various brave women she has met over the last 20 years, and when her energy flags, she thinks of all the obstacles they face. She spoke of the relationships she built with women in China, in Belarus, in Ireland, and in Pakistan, and asked, “What does it mean to be a woman in the world?”

“It means never giving up,” she said. “It means getting up, working hard and putting a country, or a community on your back.” She noted how “exquisitely appropriate” she found the picture on the front page of The New York Times that morning of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. “I know both of them, and I think they are worthy of our gratitude and admiration because, boy, do they have hard jobs. Chancellor Merkel is carrying Europe on her shoulders trying to navigate through this economic crisis,” she said.

Clinton noted the countries where women have been elected head of state, notably Liberia, where Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is in her second term, and Chile, which Michelle Bachelet led, the first woman to do so. “They carry an enormous load for the rest of us,” she said, noting that it’s hard for any leader, man or women, to govern in these tumultuous times, but it is “harder for women” because of the stereotypes and caricatures that are deeply embedded in psyches and in cultures.

She recalled asking various leaders who had been imprisoned, some for a long period of time, how they get beyond the anger of having been treated so unjustly. Nelson Mandela told her that he knew he had to overcome the anger because if he were filled with hatred, he would still be in prison.

She talked of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who at age 67 is out traveling in an open car through the heat of the countryside, greeting the people and “absorbing the hopes they are putting on to her.” Noting that she had crossed over from being an iconic figure to being a politician, and the risks that brings, Clinton noted wryly, “I know that route.” It was a subtle signal that Clinton understands the extraordinary popularity she enjoys now that she is out of politics might not endure if she made the decision to return to elective politics. She noted “how hard it is to balance one’s ideals and aspirations” with its demands.

As secretary of State, Clinton has made the issue of girls and women worldwide a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it is a strategic imperative,” she said. She wondered aloud “why extremists are always focusing on women—the reason is a mystery to me,” but it’s the same the world over, no matter what the ideology. “They all want to somehow control … the decisions we make about our own body. It’s hard to believe even here at home we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us.”

It was a rare jab at the political opposition at home as Clinton stressed that America must set an example for the world. She dubbed this the “age of participation,” and applauded the power that women have to “shape our destinies in ways previous generations couldn’t imagine.”

“Women with help from their friends can make a difference,” she declared, ending the conference on the note that there are big challenges ahead, and women need to be as “fearless … committed …. and audacious” as the leaders and activists who made presentations over the two-and-a-half day summit. “So let’s go for it, and make it happen,” Clinton exhorted to a standing ovation. Almost 20 years ago, when she declared “women’s rights are human rights,” Clinton laid down the foundation for what she has helped make a global movement. There is still very far to go but there is no turning back, and that in itself is progress.