U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced a new Women and Public Service Initiative, which will combine the efforts of the U.S. State Department and several leading all-female colleges in hopes of increasing women’s participation in public service and political leadership.
Clinton gave a speech March 11 at the Women in the World: Stories and Solutions Summit in New York, where she explained that the initiative will “seek to promote the next generation of women leaders who will invest in their countries and communities, provide leadership for their governments and societies, and help change the way global solutions are developed.”
The all-female colleges involved will include Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and the Pioneer Valley’s own Mount Holyoke and Smith.
The first step in carrying out the initiative will be a conference held this fall at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. The conference will bring “policy makers, public officials, academics, innovative thinkers together from around the world,” Clinton said in a release detailing the inception of the program. Among other matters, the conference will aim to bring attention to the issues the initiative will seek to tackle and gather support and resources.
The main goal of the conference is to develop a public service and political leadership institute for young women. When asked what this might look like, Smith College President Carol Christ responded that “we [at Smith College] anticipate that the program will be a summer institute or executive education-type program for young women who have already graduated from college.”
Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella said in a press release that “public service will never truly be public until women are equitable partners in shaping policies that serve the needs of humanity. We [at Mount Holyoke] are thrilled to be convening a forum with our sister institutions who are committed to liberal learning as a powerful foundation for promoting sustained leadership in public service.”
Clinton responded to the notion that sometimes people question whether women are already equitable partners in public service in her speech by saying she is “struck when people question whether it [women’s equality] is a challenge that is equivalent to the fight against slavery in the 19th century… it is. I believe that women’s roles and rights are at the forefront of everything we should care about and need to be doing in our own lives and certainly in the life of our country.”
And many women are seemingly ready to take a bigger role in political leadership. Christ remarked that “this initiative reflects the very strong interest in public service that Smith sees among its students.”
Clinton also pointed out in her speech the benefits of involving women in politics. Referencing a 2008 report commissioned by the financial firm Goldman Sachs, Clinton brought to attention “that educating girls and women leads to higher wages, a greater likelihood of working outside the home and therefore having lower fertility, reduced maternal and child mortality, better health and education outcomes.”
The initiative will not be limited to the United States. Clinton emphasized the necessity of making the initiative global, namely that “narrowing the gap in employment between men and women in emerging economies could raise incomes as much as 14 percent by 2020, and 20 percent by 2030.”
Also, Clinton discussed the historic stagnation of women’s rights in the Arab world but noted that there are hopes for improvement under emerging democracies in the Middle East. Clinton said that “we have seen women on the front lines of progress in Egypt and Tunisia.”
Pasquerella echoed Clinton’s emphasis on the importance of recent events for women’s rights.
“At this particular moment in global discussions of democracy and representation, it is fitting that we should convene a long-term forum for the development of women in public service,” she said in the press release.
Clinton also brought up potential dangers that lie in the governmental transition process in Middle Eastern countries, noting that “all of these gains [for women] are fragile and reversible.”
For example, Clinton said that “in Tunisia, only two women have been appointed to the transitional government…And there is even talk of rolling back the country’s historic Personal Status Code that has protected women’s rights for half a century.”
“In Egypt, the women who marched for freedom in Tahrir Square are now shut out of the committees and the councils deciding the shape of Egypt’s new democracy,” she continued. “And when women marched on Tuesday to celebrate International Women’s Day in their new democracy, they were met by harassment and abuse.”
Clinton added: “I am often asked, ‘Why on earth do I believe that women and girls are a national security issue?’ Well, I believe it because I know that where girls and women are oppressed, where their rights are ignored or violated, we are likely to see societies that are not only unstable, but hostile to our own interests.”
Kara Clifford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.