Hillary Clinton Signals That She Intends to Make Women's Rights a Signature Issue

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits a female-run housing project with its manager, Patricia Matolengwe, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visits a female-run housing project with its manager, Patricia Matolengwe, in Cape Town, South Africa. (By Schalk Van Zuydam -- Associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

She talked chickens with female farmers in Kenya. She listened to the excruciating stories of rape victims in war-torn eastern Congo. And in South Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a housing project built by poor women, where she danced with a choir singing "Heel-a-ree! Heel-a-ree!"

Clinton's just-concluded 11-day trip to Africa has sent the clearest signal yet that she intends to make women's rights one of her signature issues and a higher priority than ever before in American diplomacy.

She plans to press governments on abuses of women's rights and make women more central in U.S. aid programs.

But her efforts go beyond the marble halls of government and show how she is redefining the role of secretary of state. Her trips are packed with town hall meetings and visits to micro-credit projects and women's dinners. Ever the politician, she is using her star power to boost women who could be her allies.

"It's just a constant effort to elevate people who, in their societies, may not even be known by their own leaders," Clinton said in an interview. "My coming gives them a platform, which then gives us the chance to try and change the priorities of the governments."

Clinton's agenda faces numerous obstacles. The U.S. aid system is a dysfunctional jumble of programs. Some critics may question why she is focusing on women's rights instead of terrorism or nuclear proliferation. And improving the lot of women in such places as Congo is complicated by deeply rooted social problems.

"It's great she's mentioning the issue," said Brett Schaefer, an Africa scholar at the Heritage Foundation. "As to whether her bringing it up will substantially improve the situation or treatment of women in Africa, frankly I doubt it."

Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said that Clinton has to tread carefully in socially conservative regions, particularly those where the U.S. military is at war. "You might be right, in the narrow sense of women in that country or region need to be empowered, but you're saying something inimical to other U.S. interests," he said.

Despite Clinton's efforts to spotlight women's issues, it was her own angry response to what she perceived as a sexist question at a town hall meeting in Congo that dominated American television coverage of her Africa trip. A student had asked for former president Bill Clinton's opinion on a local political issue -- "through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton." Snapped Hillary Clinton: "My husband is not the secretary of state. I am."

Clinton is not the first female secretary of state, but neither of her predecessors had her impact abroad as a pop feminist icon. On nearly every foreign trip, she has met with women -- South Korean students, Israeli entrepreneurs, Iraqi war widows, Chinese civic activists. Clinton mentioned "women" or "woman" at least 450 times in public comments in her first five months in the position, twice as often as her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

Clinton's interest in global women's issues is deeply personal, a mission she adopted as first lady after the stinging defeat of her health-care reform effort in 1994. For months, she kept a low profile. Then, in September 1995, she addressed the U.N. women's conference in Beijing, strongly denouncing abuses of women's rights. Delegates jumped to their feet in applause.

"It was a transformational moment for her," said Melanne Verveer, who has worked closely with Clinton since her White House days.

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