Hillary Rodham Clinton staked her claim as an advocate for global women’s issues in 1995, when, as first lady, she gave an impassioned speech at a United Nations conference in Beijing. As secretary of state, she pushed to create a new position, ambassador at large for global women’s issues, and recruited Melanne Verveer, her former chief of staff, to fill it. And she has drawn attention to women at nearly every stop in her travels, most recently on an 11-day visit to Africa, during which, among other things, she went to eastern Congo to speak out against mass rape. Hours before leaving on that trip, Clinton discussed women’s issues and the Obama administration’s foreign policy for 35 minutes in her elegant seventh-floor office at the State Department. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Q: In your confirmation hearing, you said you would put women’s issues at the core of American foreign policy. But as you know, in much of the world, gender equality is not accepted as a universal human right. How do you overcome that deep-seated cultural resistance?
Clinton: You have to recognize how deep-seated it is, but also reach an understanding of how without providing more rights and responsibilities for women, many of the goals we claim to pursue in our foreign policy are either unachievable or much harder to achieve.
Democracy means nothing if half the people can’t vote, or if their vote doesn’t count, or if their literacy rate is so low that the exercise of their vote is in question. Which is why when I travel, I do events with women, I talk about women’s rights, I meet with women activists, I raise women’s concerns with the leaders I’m talking to.
I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential.
Q: I’m curious about what priorities you’re setting. Will the Obama administration have a signature issue — sex trafficking or gender-based violence or maternal mortality or education for girls — in the way that H.I.V./AIDS came to symbolize the Bush-administration strategy?
Clinton: We are having as a signature issue the fact that women and girls are a core factor in our foreign policy. If you look at what has to be done, in some societies, it is a different problem than in others. In some of the societies where women are deprived of political and economic rights, they have access to education and health care. In other societies, they may have been given the vote, but girl babies are still being put out to die.
So it’s not one specific program, so much as a policy. When it comes to our global health agenda, maternal health is now part of the Obama administration’s outreach. We’re very proud of the work this country has done, through Pepfar, on H.I.V./AIDS [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was begun by George W. Bush in 2003]. We’ve moved from an understanding of how to deal with global AIDS to recognizing it’s now a woman’s disease, because women are the most vulnerable and often have no power to protect themselves. And it’s increasingly younger women or even girls.
But women die every minute from poor maternal health care. You know, H.I.V./AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria — those are all, unfortunately, equal-opportunity killers. Maternal health is a woman’s issue; it’s a family issue; it’s a child issue. And for the United States to say to countries that have very high maternal mortality rates, “We care about the future of your children, and in order to do that, we care about the present of your women,” is a powerful statement.
Q: Do you have a point of view about what should come first: Do you empower women economically and then hope that they seize a political role for themselves? Or do you seek to give them more legal and political standing and hope that they can win a place in the economic sphere?
Clinton: That’s a great question, because I think the historical record would show both routes have worked. Women were not particularly economically empowered when we finally included the right of women to vote in our Constitution. So women’s rights were expanded in 1920, and that opened up a lot of doors to women to see themselves in different roles, including economic roles, outside the home.
India’s been a democracy for 60 years, and remarkably extended the vote to everyone, every caste, to both men and women equally. So women have been given the right to vote, but without economic empowerment, they didn’t have the influence that their votes should have brought, which is why the government of India has made such a big point of extending economic and political opportunity equally to women.
And when we visited SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association [in India], those women had the vote before they were born, but being economically empowered, being able to stand up for themselves inside their families, on the streets of their villages, is giving them a sense of autonomy and authority that just their vote couldn’t have.
Q: In your travels as secretary of state, you’ve focused heavily on the role of microlending. Is there a reason in these early days that you’ve tended to emphasize the economic over the political?
Clinton: It’s interesting: it’s partly because of where I’ve gone. It’s also because I’ve worked on microcredit since 1983, going back to Arkansas and projects that I worked on with my husband there.
I am also struck by every international public-opinion poll I’ve ever seen, that the No. 1 thing most men and women want is a good job with a good income. It is at the core of the human aspiration to be able to support oneself, to give one’s children a better future. Microenterprise is uniquely designed to empower women because — through the trial and error of its development, going back to Muhammad Yunus’s invention of it in Bangladesh — women are much greater at investing in future goods than the men who have participated in microcredit have turned out to be. And they are also very reliable in paying back, because they are so eager to have that extra help and recognition that microcredit provides.
So, I don’t make a distinction between economic empowerment and political, social empowerment; I think it’s fair to say both need to go hand in hand.
Q: There are counterterrorism experts who have made the observation that countries that nurture terrorist groups tend to be the same societies that marginalize women. Do you see a link between your campaign on women’s issues and our national security?
Clinton: I think it’s an absolute link. Part of the reason I have pursued it as secretary of state is because I see it in our national security interest. If you look at where we are fighting terrorism, there is a connection to groups that are making a stand against modernity, and that is most evident in their treatment of women.
What does preventing little girls from going to school in Afghanistan by throwing acid on them have to do with waging a struggle against oppression externally? It’s a projection of the insecurity and the disorientation that a lot of these terrorists and their sympathizers feel about a fast-changing world, where they turn on television sets and see programs with women behaving in ways they can’t even imagine. The idea that young women in their own societies would pursue an independent future is deeply threatening to their cultural values.
Q: Many of the countries where the abuses against women are most prevalent are also countries that have a vital strategic importance to the United States: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India. How can you aggressively advocate for women without jeopardizing those strategic relationships?
Clinton: Well, in a number of these strategic relationships, there’s a commitment to advancing the roles and rights of women. In India, the changes that have been made are remarkable. There are still tens of millions of very poor women, but women have assumed more and more responsibility; they are seen in public positions and increasingly economic ones, where their stature is accepted by society.
When I meet with the Chinese leadership, as I just did in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, they have women who are part of their leadership team, and women who are assuming greater and greater economic and political roles.
Obviously, there’s work to be done in both India and China, because the infanticide rate of girl babies is still overwhelmingly high, and unfortunately with technology, parents are able to use sonograms to determine the sex of a baby, and to abort girl children simply because they’d rather have a boy. And those are deeply set attitudes. But at the governmental level, there is a great deal of openness and commitment that I am seeing.
In other societies where we have strategic security interests, it’s a challenge to move the agenda forward in a way that includes women’s issues. When we did our strategic review on Afghanistan, we said very clearly, We can’t be all things to all people in Afghanistan. We have to focus on a few critical concerns. But one of them was the role of women, and women’s participation in society.
Q: Let me ask you one question about India, where we’ve just concluded a Strategic Dialogue agreement. I didn’t notice too much emphasis on sex trafficking on your trip, even though it’s clear India remains the world capital of sex trafficking. Can you make that case strenuously with the Indians at the same moment that we’re trying to do so many other things with them?
Clinton: Absolutely, and in fact, we do it every year with our annual report on trafficking in persons. It’s a very high priority to me, and it is raised as part of the ongoing discussions that we have with many countries. In a democracy like India, there is a challenge of getting the word down to the local jurisdiction — the local police, the local judges, the local authorities. But I have no doubt about the seriousness with which their government takes this issue.
Q: Could some of the billions of dollars the United States has spent on military aid to Pakistan since 9/11 have been better spent on education and health care for girls and women?
Clinton: Yes. The answer is yes, and in my meetings with then-President Musharraf in ’03, ’05, ’07, in this country as well, I raised it all the time.
I remember visiting a village about 45 minutes outside of Lahore, when I was in Pakistan as first lady, and we met with a group of mothers and grandmothers in the village. And they wanted very much to have a school at the secondary level for their daughters, the way their sons did. But the school for their sons was not in the village, so the sons had to travel. No one could even imagine the daughters traveling outside their village to continue their education.
And when I think about the extraordinarily accomplished Pakistanis in the professions, in medicine, in education, I think it is certainly the case that if Pakistan had invested more in the education of children so that poor families would not have sent their boys off to be educated by extremists, it might well have made a difference. And it still can, because that’s part of our approach now.
Q: Because it’s also a question of how we allocate our resources.
Clinton: That’s right, and with the Kerry-Lugar/Berman bill[s] that provide aid for these kinds of purposes in Pakistan, we hope to try to make up for lost time. [These Senate and House bills are currently being finalized in Congress.]
Q: Gender-based violence is an enormous issue in much of Africa, and in places like Congo, rape, as you know, is an instrument of war. How can you, or anybody else, hope to combat that?
Clinton: President Obama and I and the United States will not tolerate this continuation of wanton, senseless, brutal violence perpetrated against girls and women. We don’t know exactly what we can do, but we are going to be delivering some aid and some ideas about how to better organize the communities to deal with it. We’re going to sound the alarm that this is not all just unexpected and irrational.
These militias, which perpetrate a lot of these rapes and other horrific assaults on girls and women, are paid well, or realize the spoils of guarding the mines. Those mines, which are one of the great natural resources of the Congo, produce a lot of the materials that go into our cellphones and other electronics. There are tens of millions of dollars that go into these militias that, in effect, get translated into a sense of impunity that is then exercised against the weakest members of society.
The ambassador for war crimes, Steve Rapp, has the distinction of being among the first international prosecutors to win a case on gender violence, and I specifically wanted him to take on this role, because I want to highlight this issue.
Q: I’ve been at more than a few women’s events with you overseas where the men in the audience drift off to their BlackBerrys or into a snooze after a few minutes. How do you change the mind-set, not just overseas but at home and in this building, that tends to view women’s issues as a pink ghetto?
Clinton: By making the arguments that I am making here — that so-called women’s issues are stability issues, security issues, equity issues. The World Bank and many other analyses have proved over and over again that where women are mistreated, where they are denied equal rights, you will find instability that very often serves as an incubator of extremism.
A woman who is safe enough in her own life to invest in her children and see them go to school is not going to have as many children. The resource battles over water and land will be diminished. This is all connected. And it’s an issue of how we take hard power and soft power, so called, and use it to advance not just American ends but, in advancing global progress, we are making the world safer for our own children.
Q: Last month in New Delhi, a young woman asked you an interesting question: How would you view the progress of women in both India and the United States? She pointed out that India elected a woman as prime minister within three decades of independence, while the U.S. had yet to elect a female president. Is there any lesson from your own presidential campaign that you can use to take to women elsewhere in the world?
Clinton: Well, you’ve heard me talk about this in a lot of settings, from Japan to South Korea to Indonesia to India to Latin America [laughs]. It is one of the most common questions I’m asked, along with the question about how I can now work for and with President Obama, since he and I ran so vigorously against each other. It is clearly on young women’s minds. And I find that both exciting and gratifying.
My campaign for many millions of reasons gave a lot of heart to many young women. It is still the most common comment that people make to me: “your campaign gave me courage” or “your campaign made a difference in my daughter’s life” or “I went back to school because of your campaign.” So, it is unfinished business, and young women know it is unfinished business.
The vast majority of them will never run for political office in any country. But they may decide to seek an education that their family doesn’t approve of, or move away for a job that is a little bit frightening to them, but which they feel they’ve got the skills to do. Or, you know, stand up and speak out against an injustice they see. And it is all of that ripple that is building and building — and is unstoppable.
I live for those moments where I see this woman stand up in SEWA — this poor, uneducated woman — and say, “I am the president of SEWA; 1.1 million women voted.” I mean, what a great statement that was from her. So, I get a lot of joy out of doing this work. I think it is so critically important, but it is also incredibly moving to see these individual lives changed because of some event or speech that you have no idea why it made an impression on them.