The Women in Public Service Project, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's new initiative to shepherd a new generation of women into politics and policymaking around the globe, could prove to be the most significant public diplomacy move since the Kennedy Administration launched the Peace Corps fifty years ago. It could also be a game-changer for the Seven Sisters Colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley), with whom Clinton has partnered. The project's goal is to ensure that by 2050, half of the world's government officials will be women. They plan to accomplish this goal by offering leadership training, mentoring and support for scholarly research on women in public service.
On Thursday, December 15, I attended a colloquium at the State Department, where some of the world's most powerful women in government talked about why more women are needed in the corridors of power and how they themselves got there. The session was part consciousness-raising and part pep rally, but it sent a clear message to the largely young, mostly female, very select audience of hundreds: If you prepare yourself well, believe in yourself, and network with other women, you can change the world.
This video provides an introduction to the project:
In her keynote remarks, Clinton noted that while women constitute 50 percent of the world's population, they hold fewer than 20 percent of the parliamentary seats. She added that elevating more women into positions of leadership was not just a matter of fairness -- it was a way to bring the best talents to bear to solve pressing problems:
Now, there are many benefits of bringing more women into government service, whether they are elected or appointed, whether they work in the public eye or more quietly for the public good. The World Bank has found that women tend to invest more of their earnings in their families and communities than men do. That in turn makes societies stronger and economies more likely to grow. At the government level, those are the kinds of instincts and priorities we would all like to see.
The session I attended featured 27 speakers in three hours ranging from college students to feminist icon Gloria Steinem, International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde, Kosovo president Atifeta Jahjaga, Thai parliament member Dr. Jarupan Kuldiloke, and Vice-Admiral Carol M. Pottenger, a deputy chief of staff for NATO. (There is a complete list of speakers on the project's website. There were other activities that weren't included in the schedule that was given to me -- you can get a sense of those from this Twitter timeline.)
Clinton announced that the project will sponsor its first summer institute for women leaders in June 2012 at her alma mater, Wellesley College. While participants will come from all over the globe, Clinton said the State Department will sponsor 40 women leaders from Middle Eastern and North African countries in political transition. The project will also establish a foundation to support the ongoing leadership development effort, which is growing to include more academic institutions, non-profits, and corporate partners.
At the symposium, speakers shared their own stories why having more women in public service matters, and what it takes to break into public service careers and ascend the ranks. Lagarde said that broad and diverse leadership was essential to addressing the current global economic crisis. She urged women to keep lists of other qualified women who can be promoted to prominent positions, noting times that she has heard male colleagues say that they would love to promote women to corporate boards and other prominent bodies, but they can't find anyone. She also counseled women in leadership positions, "especially those in the minority," to pick their battles, "and smile, because there will be others after you."
This kind of sisterly advice was a recurrent feature of the symposium. Veteran policymakers shared the early hurdles they'd had to surmount in order to get to the positions of power they hold today. Former Rep. Jane Harman, a Smith College alumna, recalled that she had to go to nearby all-male Amherst College to take her law school entrance exam, because it wasn't offered at her school. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) recalled how she, current House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and retired Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-CO) had to fight to get women included in clinical trials. "Even the lab rats were male!" she said. Dr. Florence Chenoweth, Liberia's Minister of Agriculture, recounted how she had to sue to enter the College of Agriculture at the University of Liberia. Now, she said, she offers scholarships to women who want to enter the field.
Chenoweth's comment came in response to a question from Harman that paraphrased former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 2008 statement that there is a "special place in Hell" for women who don't help other women. Harman asked, "What are you doing to avoid Hell?"
Asked about her greatest failure, United Nations Development Program director Helen Clark confessed that she wished she had studied economics in college. Others talked about needing to have had more faith in themselves, and the importance of being willing to take risks. Senior White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett confided that when she worked in city government, she had to be prodded by a friend to go after the raises and promotions that she knew her work deserved.
The need for self-confidence and co-operation among women was echoed in a one-on-one conversation between ABC News White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell and Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga. At 36, Jahjaga is the youthful president of one of the world's youngest democracies. She began her career as a policewoman when Kosovo's force was established in 2000, rising to senior positions over the course of the next decade. Along the way, she earned a law degree in Kosovo and certificates in police management and related subjects at the University of Leichester and the University of Virginia. She said she decided to enter politics when she concluded that, "The only way to make change is to be a part of the change." Rather than fear failure, she said, "I see failure as a new start."
O'Donnell asked Pres. Jahjaga whether, as a female Muslim leader of an emerging democracy friendly to the West, she thought Kosovo was an example for the world at a time when so many think that Islamic and Western values are irreconcilable. Pres. Jahjaga stressed the fact that Kosovo is a pluralistic society whose citizens come from varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. It was women, she said, who led the process of reconciliation in the aftermath of her country's war of independence from Serbia in the late 1990s -- won with the support of a NATO bombing campaign conducted at the urging of former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Pres. Jahjaga also used her time in Washington to meet privately with Secretary Clinton the day before the colloquium. The two leaders touched on opportunities for economic cooperation and the signing of an agreement to preserve cultural sites related to the history of groups oppressed during World War II. At the signing ceremony, Pres. Jahjaga said,
Today, Kosovo is a multiethnic and inclusive society, where all its ethnic communities live in freedom and peace. Our approach is one of building good neighborhood relations with all the countries in the region, and Kosovo has established itself as a factor of stability in the Balkans.
Kosovo is a new country with a long history. We have a rich cultural heritage that has survived over the centuries. This past, expressed in the architectural values, in the objects of worship and religious monuments, testifies that we lived together for the centuries and represent each other’s heritage as common values.
This agreement between the Republic of Kosovo and the United States of America is another testament of our commitment to cultural tolerance and multiculturalism, and our embrace for the diversity of the members of our society regardless of ethnicity, faith, or race. The American values and ideals are an inspiration to us, and we look forward to jointly implement this agreement to further preserve our common cultural heritage.
No doubt Secretary Clinton hopes that the opportunities afforded by the WPSP project will produce many more examples of leaders like Pres. Jahjaga -- leaders who are popular in their own countries and also friendly to U.S. interests.
This kind of networking among powerful women is not new, of course. The late civil rights leader Dorothy Height was fond of recalling gatherings of women activists at the New York State home of then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1930s and 40s. Clinton herself has been at this work a long time, as several speakers noted. However, women such as Clinton are now in a position to exercise institutional power in a way that was only a dream for their forbears.
By making women's liberal arts colleges a prime destination for American and U.S. political leaders who happen to be women, the WPSP project seems poised to afford them a distinct competitive advantage at a time when liberal arts institutions generally are struggling. The presidents of what Clinton called the "Founding Sisters" colleges were at the symposium, as were delegations of students from their respective schools. As Mt. Holyoke senior and Zimbabwean native Chiedza Christina Mufunde told the audience that access to this kind of education and encouragement can make all of the difference:
As the product of a selective girls' public high school and the mother of a Smith graduate, I understand how single-sex education can prepare girls to compete in a world that often sells women short. As the holder of an AB in Politics from Princeton, I understand how personal and professional networks combine to put some institutions and individuals at the forefront of world affairs. By leveraging her old-girl network and power of her position, Clinton may be spearheading the dawn of a new era of international political leadership and cooperation.
Credit Image: © Zhang Jun/Xinhua/ZUMAPRESS.com
WPSP logo: http://www.womeninpublicservice.org
Photo of Hillary Clinton: The Smith Sophian: http://yfrog.com/odfuymaj
Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt: Wikimedia
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