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Hillary Clinton's Global Feminist Legacy

Her tenure at State may have lacked a bold diplomatic achievement. But posterity will remember her efforts to help women.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stops to watch women dance and sing in welcome during her visit to Lumbadzi Milk Bulking Group in Lilongwe, Malawi, on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, on the first visit to Malawi by any U.S. Secretary of State. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Hillary Rodham Clinton left the State Department amid a furor over the Benghazi attacks and criticism that she never achieved a breakthrough diplomatic moment. She may ultimately be remembered for a quieter, perhaps more lasting, legacy of putting women at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Clinton and her handpicked ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, placed women’s rights and needs on the agenda at international conferences, on trips, and throughout the State Department itself. Clinton institutionalized this way of conducting foreign policy in 2010 in a first-time “quadrennial review” that mentioned women more than 100 times, followed by a March 2012 directive billed as the department’s first-ever guidance to embassies and bureaus on how to advance the “strategic imperative” of gender equality. “The department is focusing across all of our work to reduce disparities and proactively promote gender equality,” the directive said.


Clinton’s approach is backed up by research showing that women who are full participants in politics and the economy are key to “fostering international peace and security, growing vibrant market economies, and supporting open and accountable governance,” as the White House put it last fall.

“They laid a tremendous platform for us to continue to build on and grow,” says Suzanne Petroni, senior director for gender, population, and development at the International Center for Research on Women.

The result has been high-level international advocacy for women and a department-wide proliferation of programs addressing the problems of women and girls. The department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative, for instance, has trained Egyptian women to be online activists and has tried to reduce child marriages in Yemen. The Office of Global Women’s Issues runs some 70 public-private partnership programs in 40 countries, ranging from teaching African women how to export their textiles and agricultural products, to training rural health providers in Congo in how to assist female victims of sexual violence, and offering micro-finance loans (in the form of pigs) to improve rural women’s economic stability. Both Clinton and Verveer were insistent advocates for Afghan women, making sure they had a presence at peace talks and international conferences about the future of Afghanistan.


As John Kerry takes over at State, two countries stand out as unfinished business. One is Saudi Arabia, where women can’t vote or drive (the only such ban in the world), must cover themselves head to toe in public, and must have a male guardian. Despite such rampant human-rights violations—against political dissenters as well as women—U.S. officials tend to be circumspect, given their reliance on Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and energy source. They also want to avoid the potential for backlash from ultraconservative Saudi factions. “The thing that’s hardest about Saudi [Arabia] from the U.S. perspective is, what can you do that actually helps ... more than it hurts?” asks Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network.

Clinton, who said she had raised women’s rights privately with Saudi leaders, made a bit of a stir in 2011 by publicly supporting a protest against the ban on driving. But she stressed that the protest was homegrown.

The State Department has done some training to prepare Saudi women for 2015, when King Abdullah says they will be allowed to vote and run in local elections. The king announced in January he would name 30 women to the all-male Shura Council, and petitioners have urged the council to discuss the driving ban. But the council is an advisory body that can’t make its recommendations stick; and, of course, the women named to it will have to be driven there by men. “It’s absurd,” says Verveer, who last month became executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. “There are ironies and contradictions, and there’s no way to condone it. But hopefully one step will lead to another step.”

The other country that stands out as a challenge is Afghanistan, as negotiators forge the country’s future and the U.S. presence ebbs. “There are great worries about what is going to happen to the women there,” Verveer says. “They’re very fearful that ... they will somehow be sold out in the process.” Kerry was reassuring at his confirmation hearing in January. If there is negotiation with the Taliban, he said, they will have to cut ties to al-Qaida and “they must commit to respect the constitution of Afghanistan and the current status of women and girls within their society.”


Clinton’s departure won’t end her initiatives. President Obama cemented the Office of Global Women’s Issues, the at-large ambassadorship, and the elevation of gender issues for the rest of his tenure late last year in an executive order establishing a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. Cathy Russell, Jill Biden’s chief of staff, was nominated this week to succeed Verveer. She is married to White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and once worked at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And, while Kerry may be no Clinton, he does have a history of interest in international women’s issues. In February 2009, he created a subcommittee on global women’s issues for Sen. Barbara Boxer to run. He told Boxer at his confirmation hearing he was committed to the national action plan on women and had in fact been reading it just the night before.

The California Democrat said she quizzed Kerry on several women’s issues to get him on record and “send a message from this hearing to these women and girls around the world that they won’t be forgotten” now that Clinton is gone. That’s highly unlikely to happen, at least while Obama’s executive order is in force. The looming question is whether the next president will preserve the global women’s-issues office and the ambassador-at-large position. “I still hope we can get legislation to make that permanent,” Petroni says. “Because, yes, it has made a difference.”

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