By Sophie Lubin
Hillary Rodham Clinton finds herself today in a unique position to affect political and social change for the status of women worldwide. Yet, while she leads, there are a number of lessons she and her American counterparts may take from many countries that are leagues ahead of the United States when it comes to gender parity.
In celebration of International Women’s Day last week, the World Policy Institute, together with the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Demos and the American-Scandinavian Foundation, hosted a panel to consider these questions at the Scandinavia House in midtown Manhattan. The discussion focused on women in leadership roles around the world, as well as the specific ways in which Clinton represents the complex issues that face women in American politics.
The panel consisted of four distinguished women, three of whom exemplified leadership roles women have held in countries outside the United States: Ambassador Kirsti Lintonen, Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations; Senator Pilar Cayetano, member of the Philippine Senate and president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians; Professor Rounaq Jahan, senior research scholar at Columbia School of International and Public Affairs and former Bangladeshi representative to the UN; and Dr. Blanche Wiesen Cook, bestselling biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, and distinguished professor of history and women’s studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.
The event’s moderator, World Policy Institute senior fellow and New York Times science writer Claudia Dreifus, opened the panel by calling attention to the complex political career path that has brought Hillary Rodham Clinton from community activist to first lady to presidential candidate, and now to President Obama’s cabinet as secretary of state.
Yet, as Dreifus pointed out, the United States lags far behind the rest of the world in having women leaders in our political system. Indeed, while Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy for president was the first serious bid of its kind, other countries around the world have had women active at the highest level of politics for almost 100 years—Finland, for instance, has allowed women to vote and run for political office since 1906, the first country to do so; and in all Nordic countries combined, there are currently 40 female cabinet ministers, one female president, one female prime minister, and one queen (though not, of course, elected).
Finland is known for the strong presence of women in the political sphere: women make up 42 percent of the members of Parliament and 12 of the 20 ministers in government. Even in some developing countries, women have been active in politics for decades, as Senator Cayetano emphasized in citing the case of the Philippines, where the first female president was elected in 1986.
Cayetano, the youngest woman ever to be elected to a Senate seat in her country, found the U.S. disparity upsetting. “For a country that is looked up to by nations across the world,” she said, “it doesn’t seem that the U.S. has advanced in the way many other countries have advanced.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, however, has “historically put women’s issues at the forefront,” continued the senator. “She has furthered women’s issues, not just in other countries, but in her own country as well.”
Similarly, Bangladeshi women have held powerful roles for a significant part of the last century. As a former Bangladesh representative to the United Nations, Professor Jahan noted that her country has had two consecutive female prime ministers, governing for a combined 18 years. In fact, both women had control of their political parties prior to taking office, so in effect, Bangladesh has been run by women for over 30 years. Women’s participation is trickling down to the local level there, too. In the most recent elections, new reforms effectively marginalized the usual clientism and corruption, and women prevailed in what was regarded as an open election. There are currently five women in the cabinet, and more women turned out to vote last year than in any previous election in the country’s history.
So how can Clinton bring change to women worldwide? Ambassador Lintonen stressed the importance of bringing women into preventive work and conflict resolution so that, as she put it, “women become part of the solution, not just the victims.” Senator Cayetano’s wish list fell along similar lines: what she hopes for most is that Clinton will work towards the inclusion of women in positions of decision-making, particularly in countries where women are not regularly a part of the political sphere. “In countries where they are not known to participate in the democratic process,” said Cayetano, “Hillary Rodham Clinton can, and should insist that women be a part of it, and…that they then become a formal part of democratic institutions.”
But the issue of women in politics is about more than merely who is able to reach the top of governments’ power structures. Professor Jahan warned against considering only women who are strong enough to become politically powerful. She cautioned that we must remember those who are most affected by gender issue, saying, “It is all very well and good when we talk about the ‘glass ceiling’ issues. But the important issue should be about the rights of the majority of working class women.”
The conversation moved onto Clinton’s immense role, both as a woman in American politics and as a harbinger for change for women around the globe. Cayetano observed that while the United States lags behind the rest of the world, Clinton has the opportunity to change much of that. “She is in a distinct position of being one of the few female politicians that has name recognition world wide,” she said. Dr. Cook agreed, noting that Clinton has global fame: “I think that in terms of her international influence, the possibilities…are really hopeful.”
In response to how Clinton is different from previous female secretaries of state, Cayetano pointed out that Clinton became known “first and foremost as a wife and a mother.” Yet she is also known for having an agenda of her own. As first lady, the panelists agreed, Clinton advocated for women’s issues and gender equality—even when her husband was not always on board. “This sent a very strong signal…which her female predecessors at the State Department could not have sent because of their particular backgrounds,” said Cayetano.
As an example, Dreifus cited Clinton’s decision to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, to much opposition, where she forcefully articulated that “human rights is women’s rights.” Today, now outside the sphere of her husband’s political leadership, the panelists agreed that Clinton still maintains this message as the core of her values and aspirations as the new secretary of state.
While the United States did not ratify covenants of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights until 1992, Dr. Cook and other panelists, as well as many of the audience members, were hopeful that with Clinton at the forefront, the Economic and Social Rights covenant will once again be on the agenda. As Dr. Cook said, “Human rights and women’s rights really are Hillary Rodham Clinton’s issues.”
Indeed, Clinton’s own words on the subject carry great force: our country, she said, cannot allow the “dark region of the human soul that permits one group to demonize another” to sanction the infringement of the rights that belong to every person on our planet.
Let us hope Clinton continues to feel that way, and that she pushes her message forward. She has her work cut out for her, and the world’s expectations are high enough already.
Sophie Lubin is a graduating senior at Columbia University where she is majoring in English Literature and working towards a concentration in Sustainable Development. She is a contributor to the Natural Resource Defense Council blog Greenlight, and Columbia’s online publication, Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development.