What Hillary Clinton Did for Women (and Men) Everywhere

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29:  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answers questions from people from around the world dur
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answers questions from people from around the world during a 'Global Townterview' at the Newseum January 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Clinton took questions from youths from around the world via satellite and social media including Twitter, Facebook and Skype in advance of her last day at the State Department Friday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Hillary Clinton packs up her office and contemplates her next move, one thing is clear: as secretary of state she changed the narrative on women by championing their social, political and economic rights over the world.

Clinton's long-term commitment to the cause of women led her to create the position of United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues in the beginning of her term in 2009. The aim of the office is to "ensure that women's issues are fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy."

"Hillary Clinton has been superb in shining a global spotlight on women's rights and empowerment," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof told The Story Exchange.

Clinton visited more countries than any other secretary of state -- clocking in close to a million miles of travel to 112 countries -- and on most trips, visiting women's projects, businesses and activists was a priority for her.

Kristof, who is co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, recalls Clinton meeting sex trafficking survivors in Cambodia, a girl who had escaped a child marriage in Yemen, and anti-trafficking activists in India.

Although such visits weren't widely covered by the media, Kristof says they clearly made a difference. "[The visits] galvanized those organizations and brought them to the attention of the US Embassy and local leaders," he said.

It's the Economy ... Stupid

In her 2011 speech for the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women and the Economy Summit, Clinton made the global business case for women calling them a "vital source of growth that can power our economies in the decades to come."

"When it comes to the enormous challenge of our time -- to systematically and relentlessly pursue more economic opportunity in our lands -- we don't have a person to waste and we certainly don't have a gender to waste," Clinton said.

She went on to urge policymakers to take concrete steps to "successfully eliminate barriers and bring women into all our economic sectors." Clinton seemed to be adding to her infamous "women's rights are human rights" argument, this time, attempting to educate the world that empowering women economically will benefit everyone, including men.

Elizabeth A. Vazquez, CEO and co-founder of WEConnect International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to connect women's businesses globally with commercial opportunities, says she witnessed first hand Clinton's commitment to women's issues on trips abroad, in countries including Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Peru and Russia.

Vazquez recalls one trip where local meeting organizers were annoyed that Clinton's first priority upon landing in a Latin American country was to meet with women leaders and then meet with government officials.

"She was making a statement to all of us that meeting with local women is a policy priority for her and that it should be a priority for everyone else committed to inclusive prosperity," Vazquez says.

Vazquez adds that she has seen situations where Clinton, as well as Melanne Verveer, Ambassador for Global Women's Issues, would engage with policymakers who either do not understand or care about issues surrounding women and girls.

Instead of these issues being swept under the table, Clinton and Verveer would ensure that by the end of the negotiations they were back on the agenda.

"I doubt most people understand the degree to which these two champions and the dedicated staff who support them have fundamentally changed the way the world talks about the role of women and girls," Vazquez says. [Verveer is leaving her post when Clinton steps down.]

Clinton Detractors

But others, like Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, harshly criticize Hillary Clinton for her handling of women's issues in one of the most prominent positions on the global stage.

In an op-ed in Commentary magazine Rubin blasts Clinton saying she will not be remembered for empowering women globally but rather for betraying them.

He criticizes Clinton, for example, for pursuing peace talks with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan. "Reinstalling the Taliban -- who remain as ferociously opposed to women's rights as ever -- is nothing other than embracing defeat." he wrote.

Bloomberg reported that "Afghan women activists and some in the U.S. government have expressed concern that the Afghan government, in its desire to take insurgents off the battlefield and end the war, might bend to Taliban demands to curtail women's advances."

When the U.S. was exploring peace talks last March, Clinton said any deal reached from talks with insurgents must abide by the Afghan constitution, which enshrines rights for women.

Madam President?

Clinton has not only championed women's issues globally, but also broken down barriers when it comes to women and leadership here at home, according to Nichola Gutgold, Associate Professor of Politics at Penn State University and author of Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton "Won" in 2008.

Gutgold says Clinton has been a "spectacular role model" for women both in her position as secretary of the state and in her bid for the White House in 2008.

"One of our big problems in the United States is that we haven't elected a woman president ... Our daughters look at their social studies books that list the pictures of presidents of the country since George Washington and they determine at the tender age of 12 that 'it's not going to happen,'" Gutgold says.

She calls Clinton the first non-symbolic female candidate that helped us picture a woman in the White House.

"Clinton helped change the psyche of the American public to believe that a woman can be effective as president of the U.S.," she says. "She gave us not only an image of a woman president but the imagination that a woman can do it."

President Obama's praise of Clinton as one of his closest advisers in a side by side interview on 60 Minutes this week helped add to that image.

Gutgold also says Hillary Clinton helped women's leadership in the U.S. by being out there in public life, in her 60s, with a face that appears to be free of plastic surgery, botox, etc. and looking "appropriate" for her age.

"She does not look like a woman in her 60s who has been redone to look 40. I think many women in public life do not walk, they run to the nearest facial surgeon to get adapted to the TV screen," she says. Clinton showed us that looking your age is something to be proud of.

So will Clinton run for president? Who knows. But if she does she will certainly have a lot of women in the world cheering her on.