Power Shortage

Women’s rights are human rights. But rights are nothing without the power to claim them.

illustration of "equal" symbol as hurdle
Arsh Raziuddin

Giving speeches was not usually a problem for me, but a lot was riding on this one, and I had a genuine case of nerves as I took the stage. Before me were 1,500 delegates, mainly women, of every race and ethnicity, who had traveled to Beijing for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. What they all had in common in that moment was a daunting impassivity.

It was September 5, 1995. I had spent weeks writing and rewriting my speech. I wanted it to be bold, accessible, and unambiguous. I also thought hard about getting the delivery right. Women are often criticized if we show too much emotion in public, and I wanted to make sure my tone didn’t obscure the message. Hence, the nerves.

I started talking. As I spoke, each line was translated in real time into dozens of languages, creating a gap between me and the audience. Hundreds of delegates stared back blankly. This was my chance to change the way the world thought about women. And it didn’t seem to be going well.

On the flight to Beijing, I had pored over drafts with my speechwriter Lissa Muscatine and the foreign-policy experts crammed into my cabin. Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had asked me a simple question: “What do you want to accomplish with this speech?” My answer had been equally simple: “I want to push the envelope as far as I can on behalf of women and girls.”

I have long believed—supported by Everests of evidence—that relegating women’s health, education, and economic participation to the margins of foreign and domestic policy is ruinous not just for women, but for entire nations. The Beijing conference represented a rare opportunity to focus the world’s attention on the status of women and girls. I wanted to break the silence about atrocities being committed in specific regions of the world, as well as injustices and abuses that are universal, including in developed democracies such as my own. Most of all, I wanted to argue that it was no longer acceptable to talk about human rights and women’s rights as separate topics. They were one and the same, and I was determined to make people hear this.

Back in the U.S., the idea of my attendance in Beijing had been controversial. I was fresh off a bruising fight for health-care reform, a topic some considered far beyond the job description of a first lady. A year earlier, I had been burned in effigy at a protest against the health-care plan. (Today I take this as a compliment; back then it stung a little.) Members of Congress had scoffed at the idea of an international gathering focused on women’s issues. Republican Senator Phil Gramm declared that the conference was “shaping up as an unsanctioned festival of anti-family, anti-American sentiment.”

Officials at the State Department were nervous: A first lady talking about foreign policy on the world stage? What if I created some kind of international incident? They were also concerned that going to Beijing would implicitly condone China’s dismal human-rights record. I shared those concerns (and later, when I led the State Department, I made sure that China’s human-rights record was a focus of investigation and criticism). But in the end, I made my position clear: I was either going to travel to the conference as the leader of an official American delegation, or I was going to buy a seat on a commercial airline and attend as a private citizen. The opposition melted away.

Now, staring out at the delegates in front of me, I had a fleeting thought: What if this was a mistake? But if there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it is to keep going. I spoke about women and girls who were working to advance education, health care, economic independence, legal rights, and political participation. With barely concealed rage, I talked about the use of rape as a tactic of war, and the violence women are subjected to in their own homes.

I criticized China for its policy of coercive family planning. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Chinese government cut off the television feed of my speech to the rest of the convention center, where thousands of people who couldn’t fit into the hall were watching. (A few years ago, however, I got an email from a friend who had been walking around a department store in Beijing when the music faded and my speech started playing over the loudspeakers. I’ve always wondered what subversive person managed that.)

As I went on, I could feel a change in the atmosphere. Delegates, even (or especially) from countries I was criticizing, were leaning forward. And then I said this: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

When I finished, the room erupted into cheers. The delegates rose, giving me a standing ovation, a rarity at buttoned-up UN gatherings. As I left the hall, women hung over banisters to grab my hand. Some had tears in their eyes. The declaration of a simple, obvious message should perhaps not have had such a galvanizing effect. But 25 years ago, it caused shock waves.

Since 1995, the phrase Women’s rights are human rights has appeared on tote bags, cellphone cases, needlepoint pillows, and T-shirts. I’m happy about this. But the most transformative moment of the conference wasn’t my speech. It was the adoption of the Platform for Action, whereby representatives from all 189 nations committed to “the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life.” A 270-page document might not lend itself to bumper stickers or coffee mugs, but it laid the groundwork for sweeping, necessary changes.

In many ways, women are better off than they were 25 years ago. A girl born 25 years ago in Lesotho could not own property or sign a contract; today, she can. In East Africa, a girl born 25 years ago grew up in a region where female genital cutting was widespread; since then, the practice has declined significantly. In 1995, domestic violence was a crime in just 13 countries; today, it is illegal in more than 100. We’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary-school enrollment, and maternal mortality has dropped by more than half.

But the work is nowhere near done. As the changes laid out in the Platform for Action have been implemented, what’s become clear is that simply embracing the concept of women’s rights, let alone enshrining those rights in laws and constitutions, is not the same as achieving full equality. Rights are important, but they are nothing without the power to claim them.

In 2017, the Women’s March brought millions to the streets to protest sexism and misogyny. More than a decade after the activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase Me too, the movement has reached every corner of the world. The coronavirus pandemic, the loss of millions of jobs, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, among too many others, have prompted activists to shine a light on the injustice and inequality facing communities of color, especially Black women. All of this has a lot to do with rights, but it’s also about something more. It’s about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how we confront that imbalance.

Mary Beard dedicated an entire book to this subject. In Women & Power: A Manifesto, she explores the misogyny that has shaped our world for centuries, and urges readers to reject the notion of power as a zero-sum game. If power is seen as a tool only a few people can wield at a time, within systems designed by and for men, an entire gender will forever be excluded from it. Instead, she suggests, why not look at power more comprehensively? We should think of it as “the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually.”

I was clear-eyed about the difficulty of making progress 25 years ago, and I remain so today. But I am still surprised by the backlashes provoked by women’s advancement. Again and again, we’ve seen anger, hostility, and sexism directed at women who have the audacity to seek power. (I have some firsthand experience with this.) Deep-seated biases are even harder to change than discriminatory laws. It’s no coincidence that while we’ve made progress in areas traditionally associated with women, like health care and education, we’ve struggled to match that progress in the economy, politics, and national security. And as useful as the internet has been to feminist organizing, it has also created a platform for misogynists to spread sexist vitriol and disinformation.

Today, the pandemic is exacerbating some of the most insidious and pervasive inequities women face. In the U.S., women—who are already more likely than men to do low-wage work, raise a child on their own, and do unpaid work as caregivers—have lost their jobs at a higher rate than men since the onset of the virus. And we know that women will be less likely to return to paid employment than men, threatening what progress has been made toward equality in the workforce. On top of everything, several states have attempted to weaponize the crisis in order to eliminate access to safe and legal abortion, and the Trump administration’s rule permitting employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control on the basis of “moral” objections was upheld by the Supreme Court. (One can’t help asking, what about coverage for Viagra?)

We see similar trends around the globe. A United Nations Population Fund report predicted that the pandemic could well have a “catastrophic impact” on women, with millions assuming disproportionate responsibility for caregiving, unable to access contraception, or at risk of being married off or subjected to genital cutting. Experts have reported a dramatic spike in intimate-partner violence. History warns us that a global health and economic crisis can create pressure to push women’s concerns to the back burner.

Yet, even in the midst of all this turmoil, I still believe that advancing the rights, opportunities, and full participation of women and girls is the great unfinished business of the 21st century. Finishing this work is the right and moral thing to do—and it is also an urgent strategic imperative. We need a global commitment to changing laws and policies, and to transforming centuries-old cultural norms around women’s roles and value.

Not long after the 1995 conference, I was on a Voice of America radio program when a man called in to ask what I meant by my speech. I asked him to close his eyes and picture all the rights men have: the right to earn an income, the right to a job and an education, the right to vote and hold elective office, the right to be heard and valued in their families and communities. “We want the same rights,” I explained. He burst out: “That’s impossible!”

Nearly two decades later, as secretary of state, I sat across the table from presidents and prime ministers and watched their eyes glaze over when I raised the issue of women’s rights and opportunities in their countries. It was only when I showed them hard data and pointed out what nations were losing economically by excluding half their population from full participation that some of them started to listen.

When women are healthier and more economically secure, families, communities, and entire nations are better off. Gender parity in education is associated with longer life expectancies for women and men. According to one estimate, the global economic benefit to closing the gender gap in workforce participation by 2025 could be $28 trillion. And we’ve known for a long time that when women are included at the peace table, agreements are more likely to be reached, and to be longer lasting.

Conversely, a study by Valerie Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen found that subordination of women at the household level corresponds with instability at the national level. Populism and authoritarianism are on the rise, and for leaders like Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and—yes—Donald Trump, the drive to diminish women’s rights is inextricably linked to their quest for political power.

Over the past 25 years, we have seen that when women and girls participate in democracy, the benefits ripple out across society. Women leaders are more likely to increase budgets for health care and education, and women’s leadership contributes to greater cooperation, equality, and stability. Many of the countries with the most effective responses to the pandemic are led by women: Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Sanna Marin in Finland, and Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan.

Yet, even though women are now running for office—and winning—in unprecedented numbers, progress has been slow. We’ve risen from 12 female heads of state in 1995 to just 22 today. Only 14 countries out of 193 have parity in the national cabinet. The share of women in parliaments remains less than 25 percent on average; only four countries in the world have achieved parity this year.

So what’s holding us back? Although sexism and structural barriers are in many places no longer legal, they’re still very much with us. Today, instead, they’re cultural.

Running for president, I felt the full force of misogyny—from the blunt, even ostentatious sexism of Donald Trump, who called me a “nasty woman” (a slur I and many others have decided to wear as a badge of honor), to the trap of “likability,” which seems to snare only women.

Watching the diverse slate of 2020 candidates was inspiring, but it was also discouraging to hear familiar tropes about women candidates’ speaking styles, voices, and authenticity. (I don’t hate women candidates, I just hate Hillary Clinton. And now I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren. And come to think of it, I’m not wild about Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar either…)

We all have images in our head of what a leader looks and sounds like. That image has been white and male for centuries, and changing it will take deliberate effort. On that front, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of having Kamala Harris—a woman of color, and the child of immigrants—on the presidential ticket.

Biases and cultural norms that subordinate women are everywhere. The social psychologist Madeline Heilman found that, after looking at two personnel files for potential job candidates, identical except for the names, 86 percent of people surveyed determined that the male candidate was more competent than the female candidate. When they were told that the candidates were equally competent, 83 percent said the man was more likable. And it’s not only men who perpetuate these attitudes. The UN Development Program’s “2020 Human Development Perspectives” report found that in developing and developed countries alike, both men and women show clear bias against gender equality. This finding suggests that we have reached an “inequality plateau,” at great cost to health, education, autonomy, representation, and more. We need a new approach.

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.

Consider Sweden, which in 2014 became the first country in the world to explicitly adopt a “feminist foreign policy.” As then–Foreign Minister Margot Wallström described it, the policy recognizes that “striving toward gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development, and security-policy objectives.” France, Canada, and Mexico have since taken steps to follow suit.

In addition to voting for women seeking positions of power, each of us can speak out, support organizations promoting women’s rights and power, and engage in peaceful protest movements. We can support mentoring and role modeling, and work to change messages in media. We can call out sexism and racism, and challenge insidious norms in our culture, workplaces, and households. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, a milestone we had hoped could be celebrated with events across America. Though the pandemic has rendered that nearly impossible, an equally fitting tribute is to commit ourselves to new platforms for action, in our own country and on the world stage. And someday soon, I hope we will elect a woman president of the United States.

That’s a sentence that’s painful to write. But here’s something that gives me hope: 25 years ago, speaking in Beijing as first lady, I thought I had reached the peak of power and influence that would ever be available to me. I was determined to use it to lift up the concerns and rights of women. Yet it turned out my journey was far from over, and I would get the chance to carry those concerns into the highest levels of government and politics. What we think are peaks can turn out to be frustrating plateaus. But they also can be way stations on a higher climb. That’s what I think about when I see young women around the world who have no patience for gradual change and no intention of slowing down. They believe a new world order is not only possible, but necessary and urgent, and they’re absolutely right.

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