Hillary Clinton Caught up with Me on the Subject of Power
Issue 142 — September 14, 2020
Don’t get the wrong idea. I have great respect for Hillary Clinton, and she has been a woman ahead of her time in many ways. But her recent essay shows she has caught up with my core message about women’s relationship with power. Let me roll back the tape and tell you what I mean.
You know that great song in the musical “Hamilton” — “The Room Where It Happens?”
I was in the room where it happened 25 years ago. Two rooms where it happened, actually.
And the experience was life changing. World changing even. But that was then.
I was reminded of the anniversary of that event when I read Hillary Clinton’s article in The Atlantic October 2020 issue, entitled “Power Shortage: Women’s rights are human rights. But rights are nothing without the power to claim them.”
When I read that title, I thought about how we make the mistake again and again when we think that once a decision is made, a deed done, a right won or claimed, that the quest is over and we can go on to the next thing. And I confess that a little smile came onto my face as I realized that Secretary Clinton has realized exactly what I have been saying and teaching women to do for the last decade: embrace their power to claim their rights and more importantly to act upon them intentionally.
Clinton recounts in the Atlantic article how she wrote the iconic speech in which she came to make the famous declaration that stirred the 40,000 women attending the U.N 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing and/or the ancillary Non-Governmental Organization conference in the suburb of Huairou and made first-page headlines globally: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It was a bold statement on its face and the fact that it was made by the first lady of the Unites States, gave it singular force.
It felt at the time like a seismic shift in thinking about women that had the potential to change the world forever. It must have had the same earthshaking effect on people that 19th century suffragists had on cultures that had never imagined women voting before they started advocating for it.
As the saying goes, misattributed to Mahatma Ghandi but originated with a U.S. Labor unionist Nicholas Klein and rephrased many ways over time: first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they try to kill you, then you win.
But winning is always a fragile bird. Just as we’ve seen that 100 years after women won the right to vote and the law was written into the U.S. Constitution, we are facing myriad ways factions within our country are working to suppress the vote for everyone. So we relearn the lesson: we often take a step back for every one-and-a-half steps forward. And just when we think the fight for equality is over, we find that a new battle has opened nearby.
So it was and is with that groundbreaking conference.
I was privileged to be in the auditorium at the UN 4th World Conference on Women on September 5, 1995, when Hillary Clinton first delivered that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” message because I had a press pass that enabled me to be in the official delegates’ auditorium. I’d been asked by the Arizona Republic to write about my experience at the conference. This gave me access to a number of behind the scenes events I would not otherwise have been privy to.
The speech was an incredibly uplifting moment. Though the Chinese government tried to quash media carrying the speech, the women in the room and those who were standing outside close enough to hear it on the sound system were moved to tears of recognition when Clinton spoke of the plight of women globally, and to joy that a leader of the free world had the courage to speak up and articulate a new vision for women.
Yes, declaring that women have rights and they are inseparable from any other human rights — that was a bold statement on its face. And it was controversial, politically risky because it flew right in the face of Chinese human rights violations that Clinton fully intended to skewer with her words.
Those eleven words became the ideas that more than anything else framed the agreements that came out of the conference and would ultimately be signed onto by most of the world’s nations.
Women’s rights exist and they are human rights. Novel idea.
The next morning, I was in the room where Clinton delivered basically the same speech at the NGO conference. That was quite a different scene than the orderly official meeting in an elegantly appointed auditorium in Beijing.
Thousands of women and a few men, including my husband Alex, stood in the rain and mud at 5 am to wait for a 9 am door opening. We were so close together that we formed a colorful canopy of umbrellas outside an auditorium that would hold the few hundred of those of us fortunate enough to get in. Again, I was among them. Looking back, I feel like Forrest Gump, serendipitously witnessing historic events.
At first the security guards stopped me from entering because I was wearing my press pass. But thanks to my having an NGO pass in addition, and that I had the good sense to take off the offending press pass, I was allowed in.
Clinton was late arriving and the crowd was getting restless. So at one point a woman named Shirley May Springer Stanton from Anchorage Alaska went onto the stage and started singing a cappella. The song she sang had the refrain “Gonna keep on moving forward, never turning back, never turning back.” Pretty soon the whole auditorium joined her and the room reverberated with the song that expressed our hopes that true equality would come when women’s rights were understood as human rights.
But Clinton is absolutely right in her quarter-century retrospection. She wrote:
“Twenty-five years after Beijing, it’s no longer enough to talk about women’s rights. We must augment women’s power in every sphere, including government, the economy, and national security. We can start by taking steps to increase women’s representation in the public and private sectors, whether by exploring quotas for gender parity in public office, broadening the success of gender-blind orchestra auditions to other employers, removing names from résumés, or following the lead of states where asking about salary history is now illegal.
We can demand that elected officials and employers alike recognize paid leave, affordable child care, and closing the gender pay gap as the urgent imperatives they are. We can build women’s economic power, including by investing in women-led businesses. And as we recover and rebuild after the pandemic, we can seize the opportunity to transform economic systems that discriminate against women and devalue essential caregiving work.”
The most shocking insight I gained when I researched and wrote my book No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power is that while we have with great effort changed many laws and opened so many doors, and though it is true that some external barriers of policy and implicit bias remain, it is now women’s own culturally learned ambivalent relationship with power that holds us back because it keeps us from having intentions to lead at the level that would bring gender parity to power, pay, and position. We have to use our power for equal rights to be meaningful.
So I am glad that Hillary Clinton has had the same realization, yet sad that it remains necessary to talk about the need for women to have the power to exercise their hard won rights.
Looking into my notes from the 4th World Conference in Women, I was reminded that in her NGO speech, Clinton included this “Poem to Break the Silence.” It had been given to her by a young woman from Delhi, just before Clinton delivered her iconic declaration.
“Too many women in too many countries speak the same language of silence. My grandmother was always silent, always agreed. Only her husband had the positive right, or so it was said, to speak and to be heard. They say it is different now. After all, I am always vocal, and my grandmother thinks I talk too much. But sometimes I wonder…When a woman fights for power as all women would like to, quietly or loudly, it is questioned. And yet, there must be freedom if we are to speak. And yes, there must be power if we are to be heard. And when we have both freedom ad power, let us not be misunderstood. We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak — too many women in too many countries. I seek only to forget my grandmother’s silence.”
“That is the kind of feeling that literally millions and millions of women feel every day,” Mrs. Clinton said, and you had to imagine she spoke from experience.
But now I reflect that the young girl who gave Clinton that poem knew ahead of her time that “there must be power if we are to be heard.”
There must be power if we are to be heard. There must be power if we are to lead effectively. There must be power if we are to have true equality. And we must use that power or it is meaningless.
So my tips for you this week are quotes from some of my favorite powerhouse women.
- You are your own power source, as my friend Nathalie Molina Nino says in her book that every entrepreneur must read, Leapfrog.
- “You have a voice, don’t be afraid to use it!” says philanthropist Melinda Gates, and we know there is power in your voice and power in your words, just as there was transformative power in Hillary Clinton’s words in Beijing 25 years ago.
Read up on what has been implemented and what is left to be done of the agreements in the Beijing Platform for Action.
3. The most common way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any — says writer Alice Walker.
4. You had the power all along, my dear –Glinda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz.
P.S. Here’s my podcast discussing some of these questions. Please share it and this article with anyone whom you think they might help. Listen, subscribe, and let me know how it goes for you.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.