Melanne Verveer winces, ever so slightly, to hear women’s rights described as Hillary Clinton’s signature issue.

This reaction is rather odd since (1) it is indisputable that this is the secretary of state’s priority and (2) Verveer serves as her ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.

But Verveer’s response is also telling, because the looming question is not the impact of Clinton’s tenure but how to ensure that the focus on women and girls will outlast it.

“This is not just about the right thing to do,” Verveer says. “Morally, you can’t make an argument about this. . . . But it’s also the smart, strategic thing to do.”

Smart as a matter of economics, Verveer says, because women’s education and economic participation are essential to alleviating poverty and economic growth. And smart as a matter of security because women are inevitably affected by war — see the phenomenon of rape as a tactic of war — and key to a successful outcome.

“You can’t write them off and think you’re going to have a sustainable peace,” says Verveer, who will be leaving the State Department when Clinton departs.

Verveer has worked with Clinton on the issue since their White House days, when she served as the first lady’s chief of staff. She was in Beijing in 1995 when Clinton famously declared that women’s rights are human rights.

If that tautology now seems blindingly obvious, consider that the address was blacked out by Chinese state radio and television, and matters such as female genital mutilation, bride-burning, female infanticide and girls’ education were rarely highlighted for diplomatic discussion.

Certainly, even before Clinton’s arrival, the State Department paid attention to women. Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, created an office of women’s issues that has continued in some form since.

But Clinton, on arriving at State, said, “We really need to bump it up higher,” Verveer recalls. Because in Washington rank is power, that meant moving to make the job an ambassadorial-level post, reporting directly to the secretary.

Because in Washington relationships are all-important, Verveer’s decades-long friendship with the secretary guaranteed that she would be taken seriously.

And because in Washington and elsewhere who you choose to meet reflects your priorities, Clinton has taken pains, as she did during her Senate days, to include meetings with women and about women’s issues on her schedule whenever she travels overseas.

Verveer herself has visited more than 60 countries — and not, as she says, “the glamour capitals.” Her itinerary has tended more toward places like Yemen, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

That the work is far from complete is clear from the recent news out of Pakistan, where 15-year-oldMalala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to argue in favor of educating girls, and from India, where a 23-year-old student died after being gang-raped. In Afghanistan, the tenuous progress of women and girls faces the peril of provinces being retaken by the Taliban.

Clinton and Verveer have embedded women’s issues into the foreign policy agenda, in hopes not only of elevating the priority but also of assuring that it outlasts Clinton’s tenure.

Thus Clinton’s 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, setting the departmental blueprint, mentioned women well over 100 times, as Clinton is fond of pointing out. Last year, Clinton issued the first-ever policy guidance on promoting gender equality, requiring that the issue be incorporated throughout the department’s activities.

One final, important hurdle: making the ambassadorial post a permanent position.

It’s not likely that a future secretary of state would downgrade the office; the optics would be too terrible. And John Kerry, President Obama’s choice for secretary of state, has signaled his interest in the issue. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he created a subcommittee on women.

But it is also unlikely that a future secretary, male or female, will devote as much passion to the subject as Clinton. The more realistic goal is at least to keep the matter of women and girls in the forefront.

‘’To me, as she goes out the door, the last thing that should go out the door with her is the commitment to these issues,” Verveer says. “Nobody should take a scintilla of anything from her for what she’s done, but the unfortunate message would be this is hers. It is so much more.”

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