Hillary's Challenge

On March 27, at a ceremony in Houston, Texas, Hillary Clinton accepted the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood. In her speech, she expressed her "awe" for the family-planning pioneer and then laid out the connections between reproductive rights and global security. Calling the reproductive-rights movement "one of the most transformational in the entire history of the human race," she argued that Sanger's work isn't done, in the United States or abroad.

"Too many women are denied even the opportunity to know about how to plan and space their families," she said. "And the derivative inequities that result from all of that are evident in the fact that women and girls are still the majority of the world's poor, unschooled, unhealthy, and underfed. This is and has been for many years a matter of personal and professional importance to me, and I want to assure you that reproductive rights and the umbrella issue of women's rights and empowerment will be a key to the foreign policy of this administration."

Chris Smith, a Republican member of Congress from New Jersey, was livid. Smith, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has devoted much of his career to fighting reproductive rights worldwide, personally prevailing on foreign politicians not to liberalize their abortion laws and, during the Bush years, leading the charge to freeze the American contribution to the United Nations Population Fund. On April 22, when Clinton appeared before the committee to discuss the administration's foreign-policy priorities, he lectured her about the evils he believes Sanger unleashed around the world.

Then he asked, "Is the Obama administration seeking in any way to weaken or overturn pro-life laws and policies in African and Latin American countries," either directly or through multilateral organizations? He continued, "Does the United States' definition of the term ‘reproductive health' or ‘reproductive services' or ‘reproductive rights' include abortion?"

This was the part where most officials would get defensive and squirm and insist that the United States would never promote abortion. Instead, Clinton was unequivocal: "When I think about the suffering that I have seen, of women around the world -- I've been in hospitals in Brazil, where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies, and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. ... We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women's health, and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal, and rare."

Hillary Clinton is not our first female secretary of state, but she is our first explicitly feminist one. She's been an iconic figure in the movement for women's rights globally ever since she gave her historic 1995 speech at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing. Denouncing a litany of the abuses to which women worldwide are subject, the then-first lady declared, "Women's rights are human rights, once and for all." The New York Times said it "may have been her finest moment in public life."

Clinton's confirmation hearings offered a clear sign that she intended to prioritize women's issues. "If half the world's population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal, and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity is in serious jeopardy," she said. "The United States must be an unequivocal and unwavering voice in support of women's rights in every country on every continent."

Five months into her tenure, we're beginning to see what that vision looks like in practice. Ironically, given how politically contentious they are, reproductive rights may be the area where rapid progress is easiest. After all, much of what Bush did in this area can essentially be reversed by fiat. One of Obama's first acts was to repeal the so-called "global gag rule," which had denied American funding to organizations working abroad that perform abortions, counsel women that abortion is an option, or advocate for abortion-law liberalization. Obama also restored American funding to the United Nations Population Fund.

Now comes the hard part, as Clinton attempts to advance women's rights in other areas of foreign policy, including those that haven't traditionally put much emphasis on gender, such as peace and security and agricultural development. Despite her deep personal convictions, the supportive political environment, and the growing consensus about the importance of women's rights to global development, she is going to face real obstacles. American conservatives are determined to fight not only international family planning but also multilateral treaties on women's rights. Fundamentalists in Muslim countries often react furiously to attempts to empower women and accuse local feminists of being agents of Western imperialism, which complicates American efforts to bolster them. And Clinton is going to have to contend with a State Department culture that isn't used to paying much attention to women's issues.

"Look, I don't think this is rocket science, I don't think it's resistance for resistance's sake," says Melanne Verveer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women's issues and Clinton's former chief of staff. "It's evolutionary. People in positions that have policy implications don't always consider the importance of the women's dimension. Sometimes when they're told that it really should be done, they check the box, but they don't really see it for how crucial it might be to the overall outcome."

To succeed, Clinton must do more than change policy. She needs to do something that's both subtler and harder. She has to change the way State Department employees think about their job. Ultimately, she must to begin to change cultures, both in Washington and around the world.


Clinton doesn't come to this challenge alone. For years, experts in economics, development, and national security have recognized that the oppression of women leads to economic stagnation and political instability. Lawrence Summers, no paragon of radical feminism, argued when he was chief economist of the World Bank that "educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world."

This realization led to the Clinton administration's enthusiastic support for the big United Nations conferences, such as the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Conference on Women in Beijing, that were a hallmark of diplomacy in the 1990s. As the historian Paul Kennedy wrote in his 2006 book about the United Nations, The Parliament of Man, "By the early 1990s, the Cold War was over, the Thatcher-Reagan tendency was replaced by kinder, gentler policies, the notion of ‘human security' was being pushed by the [United Nations Development Programme] and the World Bank, and the facts about the failure to close the gender gap were becoming ever clearer. ... The campaign for gender advancement may have stagnated for a while, but it was time to push again."

The United States did most of its pushing multilaterally, supporting feminist language in global agreements like the ones emerging from Cairo and Beijing. Though unenforceable and too often ignored, these agreements nevertheless had real impact worldwide. Following them, many countries in Africa banned female genital cutting. Aid agencies did more to provide reproductive health services to women in humanitarian crisis situations. Yet despite these advances, the United States and the world did little as mass rape was deployed as a weapon of war in Bosnia, and the Taliban imposed a regime of sadistic gender apartheid in Afghanistan. Women's rights remained far from the center of the foreign-policy agenda.

The Bush administration worked to roll back reproductive rights internationally and was either indifferent or hostile to international agreements on women's rights. At the same time, it bolstered support for the war in Afghanistan by promising to liberate that country's women. Afghanistan's women did make real progress under the new government, but women's rights activists were disappointed by the gap between rhetoric and reality. "People were frustrated to see a lack of real resources on the ground directed towards women," says Isobel Coleman, director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. "To be fair, I think it wasn't something specific about women. It was that the whole Afghan effort was done on a shoestring."

Now people throughout the government are acting on women's rights in a more consistent and integrated way than we've seen before. In February, Sen. Barbara Boxer announced that she would be chairing a new Senate subcommittee on global women's issues. In March, the administration carved out a new post devoted to global women's issues and appointed Verveer to fill it. The same month, Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls, led by his close friend Valerie Jarrett, which will track the gender implications of federal programs. Meanwhile, one important piece of legislation related to women's rights globally, the International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act, is making its way through Congress, and another, the International Violence Against Women Act, is expected to come up later this year. Both would direct new resources to the fight to protect women and girls globally and would oblige the State Department to act on their behalf. "I would like to believe we're at a tipping point now," Verveer says. "There is a growing body of data that says investments in women yield high returns." And Clinton, she adds, "has labored long and hard in this vineyard."

At the same time, one lesson of the last eight years is that, when it comes to remaking other cultures, the United States usually has less power than it thinks. Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard and a proponent of a more modest, realist foreign policy, sounds a note of caution about American initiatives to alter gender dynamics abroad. "In a lot of countries, the relationship between men and women is one of the more fundamental ways that society defines itself," Walt says. "If the U.S. is going in in a heavy-handed way and saying, ‘We think the way you have organized male-female relations in your society is all wrong and you should change it now,' we are almost certainly going to generate a considerable amount of resentment, resistance, suspicion."

Walt doubts that the United States can fix problems of sexual inequality in other countries, no matter how hard it tries. As he points out, we still haven't figured out how to eliminate violence against women here in the United States. "We don't have the slightest idea how to do this in Congo or Nigeria or Yemen or the former Soviet Union," he says. "The set of practices that make up attitudes and relations between men and women in different societies is pretty complicated. The notion that a bunch of Americans will enact legislation and a set of polices that will substantially alter male-female relations in some very different society strikes me as overly optimistic."

Yet people who work on international women's issues point to a number of practical, systematic things that the United States can do to make a difference to women worldwide. Furthermore, they argue that American policy handicaps itself when it ignores the reality of women's lives. Feminism, they say, is actually a component of realism, not a fanciful, blithely idealistic departure from it.

"Take food security, which is going to be a significant initiative of this administration," Verveer says. The Obama team, she points out, wants to go beyond simply reacting to hunger crises and instead "look in terms of the long term -- how do we enable people around the world to be more productive, to raise the standard of living, to earn incomes that will enable them to address the food issue?" The gender dimension of the problem may not be immediately apparent, but there's actually no way to make progress without addressing it.

"Over a long, long time our polices generally did not have a focus on the fact that women are between 60 [percent] and 80 percent of the small-holder farmers," Verveer says. "If you're not really adapting training, credit, and all the considerations that go into enhancing productivity in a way that women's roles in farming enter into it," then there's little hope of progress.

The problem begins with how data is collected, explains Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women. "It starts from presuming that the head of the household is a man and getting the information only from him," she says. Surveys that only deal with men's role in production lead to programs in which only men get technical advice, fertilizer, seeds, and other assistance. "In any country in Africa, women are primarily responsible for both subsistence agriculture, as well as the agricultural products that they sell in the markets," Gupta says. "The yield is typically very low, and they do not get the help that men get to maximize their productivity."

Pointing this out, though, is not generally enough to get people to change the way they've been doing their job for years. "It's going to require a big systems and operational shift," Gupta says. "I don't use the word cultural shift -- it's not so much a cultural shift as it's a mandate. Systems need to be put in place for accountability, indicators against which everybody must measure and report."

Such internal organizational changes are far less exciting than bold new policy initiatives, but even Walt says they could potentially have a big impact. "People in the foundation world began to do this 10 or 20 years ago," he says. "If you got money from the MacArthur Foundation, they wanted to see evidence that you were gender aware. It got an instantaneous response. In a lot of cases it was pro-forma, but in other cases it had a more substantial impact." In the State Department, he says, "Maybe if you really did embed that sensitivity deeply into lots of criteria for evaluation, you would get the organization to do more than nod in that direction. It would be more than a few lines in the foreign-aid budget."


Even if Clinton can turn around the ship of state, promoting women's rights internationally is going to require an extraordinary balance of strength and delicacy. In Pakistan, for example, women are being grossly victimized by the Taliban, and in some places the government has acquiesced in the implementation of Sharia law. The United States has some leverage because it lavishes so much aid on that country, but American influence on behalf of Pakistani women could be counterproductive if it's too visible.

Indeed, Coleman suggests that many Pakistanis have had a muted reaction to the march of the Taliban "precisely because they're conflating what the Taliban is doing to somehow standing up and resisting the United States." She continues, "If and when women's rights are conflated with some type of imposition of Western values, that becomes a dangerous concoction for women."

This makes some women reluctant to publicly accept help from the United States. In 2007, for example, the State Department under Condoleezza Rice created the Women of Courage award, meant to honor women leaders from around the globe. "Some of the women I know personally," Coleman says. "They debate whether to accept this award, because they well understand that it can create problems for them at home." As Coleman emphasizes, this doesn't mean that such recognition isn't valuable for women working at the grass roots. Besides giving them a platform, it may also accord a measure of political protection. Had Iranian women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi not won the Nobel Peace Prize, Coleman says, "no doubt that she would be imprisoned by Iranian authorities."

The trick, then, is to support women working at the grass roots without overshadowing them. "It's a matter of how we proceed." Verveer says. She points, for example, to the four women elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament in May. "We have worked over a long time at the request of women in Kuwait to help them win the struggle for the right to vote," she says. American policy helped lay the foundation for these women's triumph, though the victory is very much their own.

One way that the United States can promote women's rights without sparking major backlashes is by working through the United Nations, an organization that, for all its highly publicized flaws, retains broad legitimacy in most of the world. To be sure, as a 2008 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll showed, publics in many Muslim countries believe that the United States controls the world body. Nevertheless, that same survey, which looked at public opinion in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Indonesia, the Palestinian Territories, and Azerbaijan, also found majority support for expanded U.N. powers and influence. Sixty-three percent of respondents, for example, said the U.N. should have the authority to go into countries to investigate human-rights violations.

The U.N. is often particularly active in post-conflict situations, an area where Verveer says more needs to be done to centralize women's concerns. "Women are often the victims in conflict, and when issues like rape as a tool of war are not considered in the peace process, violence against women often continues afterwards," she says. Last year, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1820, which, among other things, reaffirmed that mass rape can constitute a war crime and even be an element of genocide. Yet as Ellen Chesler, director of the Women and Public Policy Initiative at Hunter College points out, "There's never been a trial at a U.N. criminal court for committing rape or allowing rape as a war crime."

But the United States, not being a party to the International Criminal Court, isn't in much of a position to push for such enforcement. That's one reason why many women's rights advocates argue that in order for the United States to be an effective advocate for women globally, it needs to participate more fully in the international system. "A commitment to gender equality probably means a commitment to all the human-rights and international cooperative agencies that the United States right now is not in any position to deliver on," Chesler says.

That's especially true when it comes to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. A global treaty, CEDAW includes the right to education, employment, property ownership, family planning, and freedom from gender-based violence. Signatory countries submit periodic reports on their compliance to a U. N. committee. The committee lacks enforcement mechanisms but can exercise a degree of moral authority, which the United States could leverage if it weren't one of the few nations that has refused to ratify the treaty.

Besides the United States, the only other countries that have refused to ratify CEDAW are Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and a few Pacific Island states. Obviously, many of the countries that have signed the treaty violate it every day, but CEDAW has nonetheless proved very useful. A Tanzanian court cited it in overturning a law prohibiting women from inheriting "clan" land from their fathers, and in Colombia, CEDAW was used to secure constitutional pressure against domestic violence. As Chesler points out in a recent briefing paper, the United States encouraged both Afghanistan and Iraq to incorporate CEDAW provisions directly into their constitutions or bill of rights. But as long as the U.S. refuses to ratify the treaty, it can hardly pressure other countries to abide by it. "For international credibility, for foreign-policy leadership on the issue of women and girls, it is imperative that the U.S. ratify CEDAW," Gupta says.

During the presidential campaign, Clinton, Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden all promised to seek CEDAW ratification. But the religious right, which has consistently opposed the treaty as both an attack on American sovereignty and as an instrument of radical feminism, is mobilizing against it. In April, a Weekly Standard article about CEDAW was headlined, "This Is No Time to Go Wobbly." The tone of the article was anxious; it warned that "CEDAW's moment may finally have come."

That may be right. At the same hearing where Clinton took on Chris Smith, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat and a strong supporter of CEDAW, asked Clinton about the treaty. Clinton responded that the administration is "forwarding CEDAW, along with other priority treaties, to the Senate in the hope that this could be the year we would finally ratify this convention that really does recognize and support the rights of women." She continued, her voice getting more emphatic, "We need to move on this."

It looks like she's already started.