WMC News & Features

Hillary Clinton Launches Public Service Initiative

Farah Pandith Speaks To Press 2011 01 28

Working with the nation’s top women’s liberal arts colleges, Secretary of State Clinton hopes to harness the potential of women around the world to strengthen leadership in both government and civil society.

For the world to cope with its full range of problems, women must be agents of change. Unfortunately, historically and globally, women’s voices have been largely missing from positions of power and influence.

To address this issue, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched a bold new initiative late last year to increase the number of women in public service at the local, national, and international level. Developed by a founding partnership of the five leading women’s colleges—Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley—and the U.S. Department of State, the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) will “provide vital momentum to the next generation of women leaders.” The project’s ambitious goal is global, political, and civil leadership of at least 50 percent women by 2050. On the way, the project plans to build “the infrastructure and conven[e] the conversations necessary to achieve this vision.”

WPSP will offer an annual summer institute in partnership with the women’s colleges, the first to be held this year at Clinton’s alma mater Wellesley. Emerging leaders from all over the globe will gain critical skills in public speaking, coalition building, networking, and mentorship, with State Department sponsorship for 40 participants from Middle Eastern and North African countries in political transition.

H. Kim Bottomly, president of Wellesley (which graduated not only Clinton but the first U.S. woman secretary of state, Madeleine Albright), said the college is “proud to play a leading role in the State Department’s first effort to tap the power of women’s liberal arts colleges for global benefit—along with the power of their international networks of influential women alumnae.” Bottomly noted that although overall representation of women in public service is “far from balanced” (less than 20 percent of the world’s elected offices are held by women), “graduates of the leading women’s colleges are especially successful at holding positions in public office,” citing as an example of women now in crucial leadership roles Farah Pandith (Smith ’90), who is the State Department’s first special representative to Muslim communities.

Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s first ambassador for global women’s issues, says that there has been an overwhelmingly positive response and offers of support for the WPSP. “I’m looking forward to welcoming more and more colleges and universities to the project,” she said. “And I very much hope that women leaders around the world will be able to point to their participation in this initiative as an important catalyst for their careers.” WPSP also plans to establish a foundation to support its work with help from non-profits and corporate partners.

When Secretary Clinton announced the Women in Public Service Project in December at a colloquium at the State Department, she said she was personally “embarrassed” that the proportion of women in the U.S. Congress—17 percent—is even lower than the 20 percent global average of parliamentary seats. Women make up 25 percent of state legislatures in the United States. In her remarks, Clinton emphasized that the project was not just about fairness. “If you’re trying to solve a problem,” she said, “whether it is fighting corruption or strengthening the rule of law or sparking economic growth, you are more likely to succeed if you widen the circle to include a broader range of expertise, experience, and ideas.” In traveling around the world, she said she has been inspired by “the many different ways women contribute”—as human rights activists, entrepreneurs, and the “young women standing up for representative government in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.” Citing an example of the benefits of women’s perspectives, she said that “the World Bank has found that women tend to invest more of their earnings in their families and communities than men do,” adding that “those are the kinds of instincts and priorities we would all like to see” at the government level.

Clinton said the courageous young women who had been instrumental in bringing about changes in the Middle East expressed to her unease about entering politics. “My point was if you don’t make your own transition from having been part of this extraordinary historic revolution to actually doing the hard, and yes, sometimes boring difficult work of politics, you may not realize the gains and the hopes that you had demonstrated for.”

Clinton recalled her own personal “trepidation” when she was considering running for the Senate seat in New York. She was on a “rollercoaster of emotions,” until she got what she “chose to take as a sign” at an appearance at a high school gymnasium to promote a film on women in sports. The basketball team captain whispered the title of the documentary as she shook her hand after introducing her, saying, “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton. Dare to compete.” Entering the Senate race was, Clinton said, “one of the best decisions of my life.”

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