Now, 20 years later, Clinton is running for president amid critiques that she is calculating, always scripted and risk-averse. But those of us who worked with her on the Beijing speech saw a woman who, under intense scrutiny and pressure, was willing to gamble for a cause and principle she cared about. In the end, Beijing laid the groundwork not only for her advocacy of women’s rights as senator and secretary of state, but also for the global women’s movement. It never would have happened if she hadn’t overruled the counsel of senior administration advisers, stood up to Democratic and Republican opponents in Congress and trusted her own judgment over the optics. She took big risks – and they paid off.
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For months before Clinton’s trip, administration officials and politicians in both parties had warned her that going to Beijing for a global women’s conference simply put too much at stake – the administration’s domestic political agenda, public opinion, our country’s diplomatic relationship with China and internal White House politics.
Many Democrats, including high-level West Wing staff, were unenthused. Clinton’s signature policy project, health-care reform, had recently failed, only to be followed by disastrous midterm elections for Democrats. Soon enough, the administration would enter a difficult budget battle with the new Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. And less than two years away loomed a presidential election. “There was definitely angst,” Mike McCurry, then White House press secretary, reminisced with me recently. “There was anxiety on the West Wing front that they did not want the trip to generate ‘issues.’”
At the State Department, there were concerns, too. What if the first lady eclipsed Secretary of State Warren Christopher on the international stage? What if she diverted attention from higher administration foreign policy priorities, or further strained already delicate Sino-American relations? “I remember all the hand-wringing over that trip,” recalls Mary Ellen Glynn, the deputy White House press secretary who had also served in the press office at the State Department.
Leading Republicans in Congress, including Sens. Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm, were also staunchly opposed, with Gramm labeling the conference “an unsanctioned festival of anti-family, anti-American sentiment.”
The conference had international detractors, too. The Vatican worried about what the conference platform would say about abortion, and some Islamic countries had objections to elements of the women’s rights agenda. Meanwhile, the Chinese had a conundrum of their own: Clinton would bring international attention (something they craved) to a global conference they were hosting. On the other hand, they couldn’t control — and had no idea — what this outspoken lawyer and wife of an American president would actually say. Making matters more complicated, just months before the trip the Chinese government arrested a naturalized American citizen and dissident, Harry Wu, as he attempted to enter the country. Wu’s detainment expanded the chorus against Clinton’s trip, with editorial writers, human rights groups (already furious with China for its suppression of non-governmental organizations), and Wu’s vocal wife now chiming in.
That left Clinton’s staff, women’s rights activists, the president and a few stray allies in the administration, as the only ones who wanted her to go.
Clinton herself, though, was undeterred. At one point she even told us she would travel to Beijing on a commercial airliner as a private citizen – a comical thought to everyone but her. Growing up, she’d listened to her mother’s stories about her difficult childhood and her lack of opportunities. As a law student and young lawyer, as a children and family’s advocate, and as first lady of Arkansas, she had witnessed disparities and inequities and had worked for expanding women’s legal protections, economic empowerment, health care and education. Now she wanted to use her platform as first lady – as one of the most visible women in the world – to speak out for millions who couldn’t speak out for themselves.
Wu remained in custody while the summer wore on, and the drumbeat against the trip persisted, but I began working on the speech with Clinton, her chief and deputy chief of staff, and one adviser on women’s issues. We discussed how a white, professional, First World feminist could connect to women around the world from far different backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Gathering in her staff’s office suite in the Old Executive Office Building or upstairs in the residence, we kept the drafts largely to ourselves and resisted attempts by others to tamper with the message.
Meanwhile, both the president and the first lady spoke publicly against the Republican rhetoric that the conference would be anti-family. The president said the United States was not sending “some sort of radical delegation” to Beijing and promised that the conference would be “true blue to families.” In the meantime, we just we hoped that efforts to free Wu would yield results.
On Aug. 24, just 11 days before the conference was to begin, the Chinese convicted Wu of being a spy and deported him. We were thrilled that he was out, but top White House officials were not assuaged. They were nervous about the upcoming budget battle with Gingrich, the possibility that renewed attention on Clinton might prolong the political damage from health-care reform, and further harming relations with China. They even suggested to the White House press corps that she wouldn’t make much news in Beijing. At least that’s what they hoped.
Yet every time I talked to her about the speech, she was emphatic about not watering it down. On Sept. 5, the day after we landed, she gave her speech in the main auditorium of the Beijing International Conference Center.
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I watched from behind a curtain on the stage with deepening alarm. Well into the address, her audience of 1,500 official delegates sat stone-faced and silent. What had we gotten wrong? Had we overreached? I began to panic.
There was no need, it turned out. Audience members had been listening to simultaneous translations in their native languages and were not necessarily at the same points in the speech. When applause finally broke out, Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, and I looked at each other in utter relief, only then realizing what had happened.
The 20-minute speech instantly reverberated around the world. Clinton’s line that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all” is still a mantra today. And her graphic litany of abuses that women and girls in many countries were regularly subjected to was as forceful as any language ever used to talk about women’s rights. “Women comprise more than half the world’s population, 70 percent of the world’s poor, and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write,” she said. “We are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly. Yet much of the work we do is not valued — not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders.” This was simply not something major state actors made a habit of talking about in 1995.
Editorial pages that had been critical beforehand praised her afterward. Even higher ups in the West Wing were pleased. With the exception of a few right-wingers, Republicans, were glad to see Clinton criticize Chinese policies on coerced abortion and human rights. The Chinese, on the other hand, were not so happy. The authorities censored the speech on official Chinese radio and television, preventing Chinese citizens from hearing it or seeing it.
By the end of the conference, delegates from 189 countries had adopted the Platform for Action, spurring measurable progress for women in the years since. A report released in March by the No Ceilings initiative at the Clinton Foundation — based on the most exhaustive collection of data on women globally over two decades – cited areas where progress has been slow but also several positive trends since Beijing: the global rate of maternal mortality has dropped by 42 percent; the gender gap in access to primary education has virtually closed globally; by 2013, 76 of 100 countries had passed legislation outlawing domestic violence, up from 13 in 1995; and almost twice as many women hold political office today compared with 20 years ago (though they are still very much a minority, holding less than one-quarter of seats in national legislatures).
Most people remember Beijing as Clinton’s first major step in a long career spent advocating for women and girls. But I remember mostly her intrepidness – her willingness to take personal and political risks — to achieve something she believed in.
A presidential campaign imposes heavy constraints on a politician, rewarding candidates who stick to the script and punishing those who are spontaneous or off-message. But Beijing showed that when Hillary Clinton cares deeply about something, she is more than willing to be bold and take risks. She will push the envelope. And that’s worth knowing about a woman asking us to make her our next commander-in-chief.