The Women's Bank occupies a one-room building in western India. The teller's counter is an old kitchen table covered with cloth. Bank clerks record all transactions by hand, on yellowed sheets that resemble worn-out telephone books. When I visited in 1995, I saw poor women who had walked 12 to 15 hours from their villages to take out loans — some as small as $1 — to invest in dairy cows, plows or goods that could be sold at market.
The most vivid image that has stayed with me from that trip happened there. Although the women in that room were from rural areas with little contact outside their communities, and although most of them certainly didn't speak English, they all stood together and sang as one, "We Shall Overcome."
Later that year, I traveled to Beijing as part of the US delegation to the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, an event that drew 50,000 women from around the world, 7,500 of them Americans. In Beijing, the United States joined 189 other states agreeing to the "Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action," a document that addressed 12 areas of concern regarding the advancement and status of women.
The issues were: women and poverty, education, health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms for the advancement, human rights, the media, the environment, and female children. Determined that we would return from Beijing steeled to act rather than write a report and put it on a shelf, the President named an Interagency Council on Women on the eve of our departure for China.
"The Women's Conference is going to talk about education and domestic violence and grass-roots economics, employment, health care, and political participation," said the President. "And we don't intend to walk away from it when it's over. I'm going to establish an interagency council to make sure that all the effort and good ideas actually get implemented when we come back home."
I was pleased to serve as the honorary chair of the conference in Beijing, and agreed to continue in the same role on the Interagency Council. Donna Shalala led the Council for 2 years, at which time the Secretary of State took over. The progress we've made in the intervening half-decade is a testament to their leadership, and cause — particularly now as the members of this administration move on — for celebration.
Earlier today, in the East Room of the White House, several hundred women gathered to do just that — to celebrate and honor every woman in the audience, but especially the two secretaries.
In the audience were women who had traveled with us to Beijing, many of them representing non-governmental organizations. There were people who have worked to pass legislation combating domestic violence, ending trafficking, and supporting microcredit. There were members of the press who turned a bright light on the egregious human rights abuses still plaguing women.
There were those who helped us build the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative and who are now working to create the Vital Voices Global Partnership to continue the work they started. And there were NGO leaders who have stood, spoken and inspired us to action so many times. As many of us prepare to leave, it will fall to them to ensure that the next Administration continues these fights.
Finally, there were cabinet members and other administration officials — no administration has ever had so many women appointees. Donna Shalala jokes that there are pieces of legislation passed by this administration that were never seen by a man until they reached my husband's desk.
The shift in foreign policy has been dramatic under Madeleine Albright. She took women's issues and made them an integral part of US foreign policy. In her words, "We changed the way people think."
Recently I was talking to a man who commented that most observers talk about the development of technology as the single most important change of the 20th century. He looked at me and said, "The most important change is the role of women."
I agree. But I must inject a note of caution: Looking into the 21st century, the question I find most important is this: What will we do with our new role?
Earlier this year, many of us traveled to the United Nations for Beijing + 5, the special session called to review and appraise the progress made in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action. I was honored to speak at the session, and when I finished my remarks, two women in the audience stood up and began to sing. Spontaneously, every other women in that vast auditorium joined them, raising their voices to sing "We Shall Overcome."
It happened again this afternoon — this time in the White House. As our celebration ended, every woman in the room gathered round the podium and sang again. We have come so far in five short years, but as the words to the song imply, we aren't there yet. And we won't be until women in every country participate fully and equally in their families, their communities and their governments.
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.