Unfinished Business: Hillary Clinton's Report on Women in the World
At last week's Women in the World Summit, world leaders and activists gathered to discuss the issues facing women and girls around the globe. Watch the full event on video, then read on for a recap of Hillary Clinton's keynote address.
The lobby of the Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center had all the makings of a true mob scene. Hundreds of women (and a few men) of all ages were packed cheek-by-jowl into the foyer, clutching their handbags and oversized winter coats to make room for all the eager attendees of the 4th Annual Women in the World Summit last Friday. By the time the organizers started allowing the audience into the theater, the room seemed primed for a stampede.
As they took their seats in the theater, eager attendees tittered with excitement about the morning’s keynote speaker. “I love Hillary Clinton so much, I can’t stand it!” exclaimed the woman in the row ahead of me. “I can’t wait for her to run [for president] in 2016,” announced another. The other women in their row nodded in agreement.
By the time the former Secretary of State came out on stage, arm-in-arm with Summit organizer Tina Brown, the crowd erupted into a preemptive standing ovation.
Technology is the Solution
In her opening remarks, Clinton addressed everything from the rape of refugees in the Congo to prescription drug abuse in the United States. But a key takeaway was the role of technology in catalyzing the advancement of women and girls around the globe.
Citing the woman in a blue bra beaten in Tahrir Square and the 6-year-old girl in Afghanistan sold into marriage to settle a family debt, Clinton said, “There is a powerful new current of grassroots activism stirring, galvanized by events too outrageous to ignore and enabled by new technologies that give women and girls voices like never before.” Specifically, she honored Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai, a pre-teen education activist who blogged under a pseudonym for the BBC.
Clinton stressed that much of our advocacy is still rooted in what she called “a 20th century top-down frame,” perpetuated by those who have fought for women and girls for decades. Instead, she encouraged activists and advocates to embrace technology and a 21st century approach to advancing the rights of women and girls, which she described as the ground-up empowerment of women’s voices everywhere. (For a great example of this movement, I highly recommend checking out World Pulse, a digital platform for women’s voices around the world.)
In the marquis quote from her keynote, later re-quoted for emphasis by Brown, Clinton named names: “…technology from satellite television to cell phones, from Twitter to Tumblr, is helping to bring abuses out of the shadows and into the center of global consciousness.”
Obviously, advancements in communications hardware and social media garnered Clinton’s attention, but what was more interesting was what she didn’t say. Whether the exclusion was purposeful or not, a tech-savvy crowd couldn’t help but notice Clinton’s glaring omission of Facebook. How could any discussion of the role of social media in human rights movements like the Arab Spring not acknowledge the world’s largest social network? Perhaps that sound bite was specially crafted to employ alliteration, but it’s worth noting when a world leader puts Twitter in the top spot for new media communications.
Drawing on the optimism inspired by the power of technology, Clinton called securing equal rights for women the unfinished business of the 21st century. This fight is “not just for people in the developing world,” Clinton highlighted, asserting that Americans need to address our own barriers to the advancement of women if we want to continue to lead.
Microaggressions: A Barrier That’s Alive and Well
Even sitting just four rows from Clinton’s podium, it didn’t take long for examples of our “unfinished business” to manifest. I’ve written here before about the prevalence of microaggressions—seemingly insignificant comments made, often with no malicious intent, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages. A particularly common form of microaggression manifests in the assessment of women’s appearance before the quality of their work. The message: How you look is more important than what you say or do.
The accidental role women play in the perpetuation of microaggressions against each other, particularly in the form of gendered compliments, was apparent. The woman to my right told me repeatedly how excited she was to hear Clinton’s talk. As Clinton took the stage, my neighbor leaned over and whispered, “She looks so skinny, doesn't she?" After Clinton finished delivering her address, covering topics from foreign policy to international human rights, the woman in front of me announced to her row, “Well, I’ll say this: I loved that blazer!”
Like many in the audience, these women would undoubtedly call themselves champions of equality for women and girls, however, even they unknowingly contribute to some of the unconscious social norms that hold women back. So, it turns out, Clinton was right when she said that as we fight for the advancement of women and girls around the world, we still have unfinished business here at home.
But the good news is that the momentum behind the movement is strong. No line got more applause than Clinton’s closing charge to “keep telling the world over and over again that women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights—once and for all.”
Photo courtesy of aphrodite-in-nyc.
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