Women are not just victims of conflict. They are leaders, and often unsung heroes. Seeking Peace, a podcast produced by Georgetown’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security, brings you their stories—and in an exclusive partner series with Ms., you get a glimpse into their conversations with GIWPS Executive Director and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took a trip down memory lane with friend and former chief of staff Melanne Verveer on a new episode of Seeking Peace—and explained why gender matters in politics, on the global stage and in foreign policy decisions.
You can listen to the full interview to hear the story behind Clinton’s famous line “women’s rights are human’s rights” and learn why Clinton thinks this moment in our country’s history is deeply concerning.
Where did your commitment to women’s equality start? Was that always part of who you are?
I was one of those little girls who was always saying it wasn’t fair that the boys got to do certain things and we didn’t. I didn’t have any reason to be worried or concerned about my family’s attitude because my parents were very keen on urging me to do everything I wanted to do. But society still had some of these barriers, and I don’t think I ever thought of it in terms of women’s equality. I just did not think it was fair.
But as I got older, and starting certainly in college and then law school, I began to encounter some of the structural barriers. There were schools that young women couldn’t apply to. There were jobs you might as well have just forgotten because they were never going to be available to women, or so we thought at the time. There were places you were not welcome. And there were a lot of attitudes toward young women that really did put you down.
And so I became very focused on speaking up for myself, speaking up for other women. We didn’t have very many [women] in our class at Yale but we kind of bound ourselves together. And from that point on, as I got out into the world of work, I was primarily concerned about children and children’s rights. But there was always this other strong theme about women and girls, and our rights, and our place in society and the economy.
Jumping forward, you become the Secretary of State. Why did you choose to integrate women’s issues into US foreign policy?
I think going into the State Department was a tremendous opportunity to try to integrate various aspects of American foreign policy so that the whole really was bigger than the sum of the parts. And I was convinced then—I’m equally, if not more, convinced now—that women’s rights had to be a central part of American foreign policy.
You will find in places that deny women their rights more of a likelihood that those places will take actions against the United States and our interests. So, it wasn’t some kind of nice thing to do that would be really very wonderful for women… It was because I saw it and believed that it was connected with not only our national security but our own values and our ideals.
You’ve said this isn’t just the right thing to do––it’s the smart thing to do.
I just knew that if we didn’t focus on peace and security and the role that women can and should play, we would be missing opportunities that would make a big difference to ending conflict, saving lives and creating more peaceful situations that would be good for the United States.
Women know things about their daily lives that are important for people trying to hammer out the end of conflicts and peace agreements. Remember that great story—I think it came out of Darfur—where these men were meeting for days trying to set some new boundaries? And they were arguing over this line on the map that was designated a river. And one of the women that was serving them, she was not certainly at the table, finally spoke up and said: “There is no more river. It has dried up.” And nobody knew that until this woman interjected, because she knew that area. Women would go to rivers to wash clothes, and you could no longer go to that river because it was no longer there. There are so many examples like that.
One of the areas that is the most difficult to close the gap on is women in positions of elected office. Why is that?
I think there are certain cultural and structural answers to that question in different parts of the world. For example, people always ask me, “How come there’s been women prime ministers and chancellors in places like the UK and Germany and India and all these other countries?” And a parliamentary system is to some extent more susceptible to women rising, because you have a small constituency that you can work hard to serve and your colleagues are the group that you convince to anoint you leader. And then if you get enough seats you can become the governmental leader.
Presidential systems are just harder. They’re harder because you start from a blank slate, and you have to, in our system, certainly, raise a lot of money, which women have historically been shut out of, disadvantaged in doing.
But there are still a lot of attitudinal obstacles to women. I think that there remains a double standard and there remains a deep anxiety about women in power. And there’s a lot of evidence of that, academic research certainly bears that out, and then there’s anecdotal real life experience. It’ll take time to try to persuade people when it comes not to legislative positions as much as executive positions that women should be given the chance to lead.
Why is it so important today to be engaged?
There is a retrenchment against democracy going on. It seems somewhat at odds with the fact that in the West particularly people’s standard of living is higher. It may not be as high as desired, or it may not be free from the inequality and the discrimination that exists against many people in our society as well as others.
But there’s been a turn toward nationalism, and in some instances, a kind of tribalism, that substitutes for the messy work of democracy, a desire to submit to authoritarian leadership. Certainly we’ve seen that over the years in Russia. We’re seeing it in Hungary, we’re watching it in real time in Poland, where authoritarian leaders play on the insecurities and the fears and the resentments and the biases of people to make the promise that they are going to be on their side, however that’s interpreted.
It’s economic, but it’s deeper than that. It’s psychological and cultural. And here in our country—in the afterword I’ve written, in my book What Happened, I make several points about our democracy being in crisis, and I don’t use the word lightly because I am not someone who likes to foment hysteria and paranoia.
The point is that you have a moment in our country’s history that should be deeply concerning—and I don’t care what your politics are about—what kinds of values are being undermined and attacked and what we will end up with. Because if we keep going nobody is safe. It’s not just your political enemies; it’s anybody who crosses an authoritarian, and that could be somebody different tomorrow than it is today.
And can I ask: Do you remain optimistic, in spite of this?
I do. I do because I think the strength of the sort of American DNA is being summoned up. The amount of activity that we’ve seen since the 2016 election and that we continue to see—in marches, demonstrations, the remarkable advocacy by the Parkland students, which I think has impressed so many of us because it is cutting through the nonsense, going right to the heart of the debate over how are we going to care for each other or not.