In 1995, I was barely two years out of graduate school and working for the Administrator of USAID, the foreign aid agency of the U.S. government. With tenacity and a bit of luck I angled myself onto the United States Delegation to the UN Women's Conference in Beijing, China, the last major global meeting dedicated to developing an agenda to advance half the world's population. Nearly two decades later, I remember too little about the ten day-long meeting, except the choking smog, the Chinese government's efforts to muzzle all protest by locating the nongovernmental delegates 20 miles away from the main conference, and of course a twenty-minute speech that made history.
As a policy newbie, I was on the second tier of the 44-member U.S. delegation, with the first tier being political and policy heavyweights like Donna Shalala, Melanne Verveer and Madeleine Albright. Though delegates hammered out language for the final conference declaration, I'd argue the most significant part of the conference took place in just twenty minutes: the time the head of the U.S. delegation, Hillary Clinton, had the floor.
After her name was announced, she graciously greeted the dignitaries on the stage, and the large auditorium fell into a hushed nervous silence, with a few awkward coughs in the audience as Hillary Clinton took over the podium. Only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the sole remaining super power; Hillary Clinton's remarks were possibly the most anticipated of the conference.
Clad in a gentle pink suit, cream blouse and pearls, she could have been the wife of a Methodist Minister or Headmistress at a conservative girls' school. But the demur package was only a veneer. After she thanked the hosts and participants, she gathered steam. While citing ways that women's lives across cultures and continents had similar challenges, she then proceeded to address a litany of abuses, framing them each not simply as "women's problems," but as profound violations of human rights.
In the final moments of the speech, when she and her remarks became an unstoppable cadence to rally the world, she labeled domestic abuse, sex slavery and the lack of ability to plan and space children as the human rights abuses they are. She was dazzling. She was forceful. Most of all, she was brave. On display was the strength of an unwavering soul there to tell the world what she and the United States believed. In the capital of a brutal communist regime, known for too often turning a blind eye to female infanticide, forced abortions and other assaults on women's rights, Hillary Clinton stood there and proclaimed eleven earth shaking words: "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." The normally staid crowd erupted in applause. That simple powerful phrase became the battle cry of a global movement.
As Clinton left the stage, the American delegation, where I was seated, overflowed with exuberant pride. There were high-fives. There were tears. There were hugs. I looked out over the audience with delegates representing virtually every nation on earth to hear a thunderous applause and many taking to their feet, a sea of women and men giving Hillary one big "you go, girl." I wished I had an American flag to drape on my shoulders when I walked out of that room. It was like beating the Russians in the 1980 Olympic Gold medal Hockey game, only much better -- those of you under 35 can only image what that felt like! Olympics are about an athletic best, and as unifying as that is, this was about taking on arguably evil forces that oppress half of humanity. This was American power at its best. Call it 'soft power' if you will... A rose by any other name...
As I type this, remembering the sheer thrill and joy of being in the hall that day still gives me a lump in my throat. I was watching history and felt I was somehow a tiny part of it. I knew then what I know now -- that I'll take the memory of that glorious moment to my grave.
There are two precious patriotic memories that share space in my heart with the one of Hillary Clinton in Beijing. The first was in July 1969. I was young, but because the Dad I adored worked at NASA it felt like it was as much him as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. As our black and white TV showed shots from London, Moscow and Hong Kong, I realized that the whole world was watching us -- amazed and exhilarated by what the U.S. had accomplished. Fast forward forty years later, and I'm standing on the Mall in Washington shivering with my then 8-year-old son, amongst 1.8 million Americans at a secular service -- the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. On the river of humanity lining a street on our way out, a woman near us in a crowd of strangers, channeling Sly Stone, started singing "We are Family -- America, Obama and me." The tune traveled as people around her sang along, us included, in a made-up anthem for a nearly unbelievable day.
On both of those occasions I felt much the same way I did in that auditorium in Beijing, an immutable, deeply rooted pride in what this country accomplishes and represents, against the odds.
Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador Melanne Verveer -- her partner in Beijing and the dogged and tenacious efforts over the decades since -- have been our Generals. They've inspired me and people like to me put our shoulder against the great grindstone of history to help create a world where women's rights truly are human rights, a world where women are empowered to contribute to their families, communities and countries to the same extent as men. Many thanks, Secretary Clinton, for those 20 minutes in Beijing and everything since!