The Vital Voice of Hillary Clinton: Part 1

First Lady Hillary Clinton in India in 1995

First Lady Hillary Clinton in India in 1995














Hillary Clinton knows that women leaders are “…the vital voices of women in public life. They are the voices against violence and corruption. They are the voices of economic empowerment and social justice. They are the voices of peace and democracy. They are the vital voices of progress.”

What does Hillary Clinton know that most of the other presidential candidates don’t?

The voices of women leaders are vital to democracy.

The trafficking of women and children is a human rights issue.

These aren’t earth shattering ideas, but there was a time, only two decades ago, when these ideas were groundbreaking and that time was 1995.

Who helped to advance the idea that women’s rights are human rights? You guessed it, Hillary Clinton. And she’s running for president again. The usual divisive criticisms about her abound; she’s beholden to corporations, she’s a war hawk, she’s a phony. Her speech in 1995 in Beijing about women’s rights is trivialized today by people who neglect to see how ground breaking that speech was at the time. And the most recent criticism is that despite her length of time in politics Hillary hasn’t really accomplished much. So much fervor to bring down a candidate.

You rarely hear that if she wins the presidency it will be a significant step forward for global women’s rights. Given her history it is a puzzle that this isn’t the first item to come to mind for people. So it’s time to dive in to Hillary’s contribution to global women’s rights so that people can’t ignore them. Here’s a statement that may seem earth shattering:

Hillary was a major contributor to bringing about the awareness we now have about the crime of trafficking of women and children to the world stage.

Allow me to explain.

Back in the 1990s, according to Alyse Nelson, CEO of Vital Voices, an organization that trains up-and-coming women leaders around the world, the idea of women’s rights was “tangential at best, to the foreign policy agendas of most governments.” But, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of the few who was at the forefront. (It is interesting to note that there was one early voice on the subject and it was the economist Larry Summers who, in his 1994 study, wrote about how economies improve when countries invest in the education of girls.)

Hillary walked a fine political line in the media spotlight as First Ladies do because they are un-elected. The position is and always has been a balancing act. For Hillary, if she was too outspoken she would have been called pushy. If she was too quiet, she wouldn’t be able to get her work done. And she had work to do.


In September of 1995, Hillary traveled to Beijing, China to give a speech at the Fourth World Conference for Women, an event organized by the Commission on the Status of Women. These conferences monitored the status of women worldwide. A Platform for Action would be adopted as part of the conference agenda.

In preparation, President Bill Clinton established the Intragency Council on Women in August to “make sure that all the effort and good ideas actually get implemented when we get back home.” Hillary was appointed its honorary co-chair and the Chair was Madeleine Albright, who was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations at the time.

Tension in the White House was spilling out everywhere in preparation for this trip. Officials in the Clinton Administration were anticipating serious blow-back from China if Hillary gave her speech which included words on human rights. But despite the resistance she faced, she was given the go-ahead to travel to China.

Her speech included the now-famous words, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” It might not sound so groundbreaking to you now, but now is not 1995. After she spoke, there was a brief moment of silence while audience members waited for the translation through their headsets. Then came the applause.

So what does a first lady do when one of her goals is the rights of women?

The speech was so powerful that it united liberals and conservatives, at least for a time. Hillary knew that women’s rights moved beyond partisan politics. Her words gave these women in the audience a platform, so to speak, upon which they could frame their work back home in their own countries.

“It changed everything for me.”

A Russian woman named Marina Pisklakova-Parker was in the audience in Beijing. Marina started the first domestic violence hot-line in Russia in 1993. I contacted her and coincidentally she was finishing up a visit with a relative in Los Angeles and was willing to meet with me.


Marina Pisklakova-Parker

I drove to the San Fernando Valley on a hot day to see her in an apartment that was thankfully shaded by numerous trees. As I sat down on the sofa she offered me Russian candies that were piled high in ornate dishes on her coffee table. I happily accepted. A signed copy of Hillary’s autobiography was on the table.

Marina didn’t start the domestic violence hot-line because she was an activist; she started it because she had been listening to women whom she met who were being beaten by their husbands and they had no where to turn, even the police considered it a private matter. Marina started ANNA, “Association No to Violence.”

And in 1995, she traveled to Beijing to meet with other women.

Upon listening to Hillary’s speech, Marina said it was unusual to see a first lady step out of a traditional role of supporter and wife to pave her own path – a path for global women’s rights.

Her words ignited pride and strength in Marina. “I realized that what I was doing was so much more than I thought I was doing. It took my understanding of this to a new level. Hearing it from her was also, a First Lady, speaking to women on behalf of women; coming from the Soviet Union and Russia where the First Lady was invisible and not really present, it was a totally new experience and changed everything for me.”

The conference and notably, Hillary’s speech, inspired action. The women in the audience went back to their communities filled with the knowledge and strength that their voices and work mattered. For many of them now knew what they were – leaders. And they had support from the women at that conference.

A woman from Cambodia, Mu Sochua, was also in that audience. She said later, “When I talked to even the Prime Minister about women’s rights are human rights he said, ‘This is nonsense.’ I said ‘That’s not nonsense, in Beijing we talked about it.'”

Hillary’s words knitted together their feelings about women’s rights with the strength they needed in order to stand up and confront anyone who would deny women’s rights.

Journalist Andrea Mitchell was in the audience in Beijing then, and in a recent interview with Hillary she asked Clinton about that speech. Hillary responded, “I was very proud to have made that speech to set forth a platform for action.”

There were many breakthroughs at that conference and of particular importance was that the word “trafficking” was actually recognized as an act of violence against women, the current definition that we associate with trafficking was initiated at this conference.

Now awareness of this crime had to be recognized worldwide.

Women of Tomorrow

For the entirety of United States history, the married spouses of our presidents have all been female and the changing gender roles of women can be viewed through the work, actions and even voices of the first ladies of the United States. In a filmed documentary with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962, one can hear her delicate voice, almost a whisper through a soft smile with a subtle sprinkling of a New England accent.

Hillary met Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy when Hillary entered the White House as First lady. This was a meeting of two first ladies from very different times in the United States.

By the 1990s, because of the women’s liberation movement, societal gender roles were changing fast. But people (this includes members of the press) absorb social change in stages. For example, upon entering the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton was challenged by many on the fact that she had kept her maiden name as her middle name. Oh the horror! This was covered delightedly by the press who obviously found this a worthy news story.

So what does a First Lady do when one of her goals is the rights of women? Let’s find out.

After Beijing, when she traveled with President Bill Clinton, Hillary would take separate trips to visit with women, heads of state and people who worked in NGOs to discuss women’s rights. One good example of this was her November trip in 1996 to visit Thailand when Bill was attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bangkok. Then Hillary traveled to Chiang Rai to meet with people in an organization called Thai Women of Tomorrow, a U.S. Peace Corps project that worked to stop people from selling their female children into prostitution.

Her visit was meaningful as this was a First Lady reaching out to people on this grass roots level who might not have had such a powerful figure helping them. The people of Chiang Rai were “suffering from a general destruction of family and community relationships.”

This is not a problem that gets fixed overnight. Hillary was helping them to lay the groundwork.

If you haven’t heard of this visit I am not surprised. It is hard to find numerous articles on this trip because the U.S. press was following President Clinton, not the First Lady. But this neglect benefited her. She could travel lighter without a phalanx of press. Thankfully, these meetings were covered by local press. The President might have been making news that day, but the First Lady was walking into unchartered ground and unbeknownst to many, making history for women’s rights.

Luckily for us Hillary’s political life is long and we can now fully flesh out her visit to Chiang Rai.

A transcript from a 2009 press conference in Thailand when, as Secretary of State, Hillary (no longer tempered by the confines of the first lady role) took a question from the audience. Chakrapand Wongburanavit, who after welcoming her back to Thailand said, “Actually I met you in 1996 when you visited the Thai Women of Tomorrow Project … . At that time, I served as the dean of faculty of social science of Chiang Rai University, and also serving as the director of Thai Women of Tomorrow Project.” He continued, “I would like to report to you that we can really accomplish our goal; that is, we can find the workable model to solve the child prostitute problem in Thailand. In this regards, I would like to thank to the U.S. Government for supporting us at the first stage of the project.”

Hillary responded, “When I was here in ’96, I actually met with some of the people in the government at that time, and we talked through some of the laws that were being considered. A lot of those laws have been passed. They’re on the law books, so to speak. Now it’s a question of enforcement and it’s a question to changing attitudes.”

As First Lady, Hillary could meet, discuss and plan with people at the grass roots level about women’s rights issues without overshadowing the President. As Secretary of State she could build upon that work and discuss laws and the need for enforcement. And in the middle of these two roles she was a Senator who worked to continue the agenda of women’s global rights by encouraging renewed efforts to strengthen anti-trafficking laws.

This work is an example of what it takes to implement change for women’s rights globally. It can take decades and it doesn’t happen from giving a speech. Luckily for us Hillary has built her agenda for women’s rights through her many roles as a politician. You have to ponder what could happen if she achieves the role of President.

 Jennifer Hall Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films,  in visual effects, and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being distributed nationally and more public screenings are upcoming, including the Feminism in London Conference! Jennifer was named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project. To schedule an interview with Jennifer or book her as a speaker, she can be reached at
Image courtesy U.S. Department of State/in the public domain and Jennifer Hall Lee
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