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5 Times Hillary Clinton Put Women and Girls First As Secretary of State


Welcome to Hillary’s Herstory, an ongoing series where we spotlight Hillary Clinton’s myriad accomplishments and the impact she’s made in her decades of public service.

Hillary Clinton was an incredible Secretary of State.

She took on the task of repairing our image around the world and fostering new relationships with world leaders with her typical unrelenting work ethic, and she came out at the end of her term as one of the most well-traveled, well-liked, and, by all measures, successful Secretaries of State of all time.

While serving her tenure, however, she also redefined the role of the State Department in terms of how they applied a gender analysis in their work. Hillary did there what she does in all of her positions: She put women and girls first, and she demanded that her team – and the entire Obama administration – follow suit. While she was there, she continually asserted that the equality of women was fundamental to national strength and democracy in every country around the world, and she set new standards for how the White House would take on foreign policy with respects to how their work impacted women and girls.

Here’s 5 ways Hillary centered the rights of women and girl as Secretary of State – and succeeded at improving their lives.

She Put “Feminist Foreign Policy” Into Place

“I want to pledge to you that as secretary of state I view [women’s] issues as central to our foreign policy,” Hillary said at her confirmation hearing, “not as adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser than all of the other issues that we have to confront.”

She was and is a woman of her word: Throughout her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton consistently intertwined feminism with foreign policy, creating a type of global politic now called “The Hillary Doctrine.”

Her work didn’t see the advancement of democracy and the advancement of women’s rights as two separate goals – instead, she unabashedly worked to make leaders around the world recognize how connected gender equality and growth really were for their countries. She explicitly demanded that the nations we supported and worked in coalition with cemented women’s rights as they built democracies, and appealed to world leaders about the importance of challenging oppressive gender politics. No longer would women’s rights and the education and well-being of girls be left up to fate as we engaged in foreign policy. Instead, Hillary made those things stated priorities and demanded the same from America’s allies and those who relied on its support.

A strong example of how Hillary went about weaving feminism into foreign policy lies in the partnerships she forged with NGOs and for-profit companies during her tenure at the State Department to lift women up economically. She launched the International Council on Women’s Business Leadership and worked extensively with Women’s Entrepreneurship in Americas (WEAmericas) and the Techwomen programs to help women launch businesses and find mentors in male-dominated fields. Her efforts weren’t housed in the State Department’s Office for Global Women’s Issues, but instead were part of the work the Department already engaged in every day. No longer would women’s issues be in a silo. Under Hillary’s direction, advancing women’s rights was everyone’s job.

From clean stoves to reproductive health, Hillary made it clear from day one as Secretary of State that she was interested in – and committed to – changing women’s lives around the world. And she saw to that goal with her unmatched enthusiasm, leaving behind her a legacy of feminist leadership in the world of foreign policy.

She Led the Creation of an Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security

One of the many steps Hillary took toward instutionalizing her feminist approach to foreign policy was leading the creation of the US National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, which she called “a comprehensive roadmap for accelerating and institutionalizing efforts across the United States government to advance women’s participation in making and keeping peace.”

The NAPWPS expanded the ways in which the US would work to bring women to the forefront of peace-making, specifically laying out strategies for partnering with women to prevent conflicts, increasing and strengthening protections for women and girls during and after conflict, integrating the needs of women and girls into relief and recovery efforts, and institutionalizing all of the practices within five months. Advocates said it represented “a long and hard-fought struggle to bring the concerns and strengths of women to the security agenda.”

That encompassed programs based around giving women a seat at the peace-making table, expanding the direct services available to them in times of crisis, creating training programs that centered gender for folks intervening in times of conflict or crisis abroad, engaging women in disaster prevention strategies and risk reduction exercises, launching programs addressing human trafficking and other human rights abuses that impact women and girls, and working to lay the foundation for more gender equality in times of both war and peace around the world.

Although women and girls are disproportionately impacted by crisis and conflict, women are often left behind in peace-making efforts and recovery campaigns. The NAPWPS sought to make sure that didn’t happen anymore, creating a go-to guide for America’s leaders in times of crisis that centered the unique needs of women and girls.

She Called for International Support for Survivors in War-Torn Nations

Hillary Clinton was the first Secretary of State to enter Eastern Congo. There she came face-to-face with the epidemic of sexual violence that plagues women in war zones, as well as the human cost it incurs. It’s also where she went to unveil a $17 million plan to make it stop.

New York Times photo by Roberto Schmidt
New York Times photo by Roberto Schmidt

Calling Congo’s sexual violence problem “evil in its basest form” – the nation is known as the rape capital of the world – Hillary announced in 2009 that America would no longer stand by and let the suffering continue. Included in her multi-million dollar effort were funds and personnel devoted to training doctors, empowering survivors to document violence, and programs to improve police services and training. She also called on the Congolese government to do better by its women and girls and to take rape more seriously. During the same visit, she spoke with survivors and their family members about the challenges they faced in the war-torn nation and what she could do to better support them – and rally support for them in the international community.

She followed up on that by rallying support in the United Nations Security Council for adopting text mandating that peacekeeping missions protect women and girls from sexual violence in armed conflict:

“With its resolution today, the Security Council is sending an unequivocal message ‑‑ a call to action,” Secretary-General Ban said immediately following the text’s adoption. He expressed regret that previous responses to sexual violence had not been able to stem the scourge. “Parties to armed conflict continue to use sexual violence with efficient brutality. The perpetrators generally operate with impunity,” he added, pledging to continue to ensure effective follow-up by the United Nations system.

Speaking in her national capacity, Secretary of State Clinton emphasized the toll that rape had taken on the women and communities she had visited in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other conflict areas. “It shreds the fabric that weaves us together as human beings,” she added.

She Established Funding for Maternal and Reproductive Health Care Around the World

In 2010, Hillary continued expanding funding for women’s rights via the State Department with the roll-out of the $63 billion Global Health Initiative, which assists poor nations around the world improve reproductive health services, lower the rate of infant and maternal mortality, slow the transmission of HIV / AIDS, and keep their medical facilities clean.

By 2013, the GHI had engaged over 40 partner nations in developing comprehensive plans to achieve those goals.

(And unlike its peer programs in the government, GHI centralized communication between countries and reporting in order to make it possible to asses how the program was faring and where more work was needed to achieve the specific goals. Measurable goals! Measurable goals centered around women and girls! Cause for praise, indeed.)

The GHI fit well into the work Hillary was doing otherwise in the State Department, where her commitment to women’s sexual and reproductive health never wavered. Under her direction, the State Department was training and supporting midwives, utilizing mobile technology to improve public health, and engaging in long-term programs to improve health care for pregnant women and newborns. She also worked to ensure that the US was following suit itself, including leading the push to reverse the “global gag rule” in the Obama administration’s tenure and thus expanding the amount of funding available for women’s reproductive health services abroad through USAID.

“Reproductive health services can and do save women’s lives, strengthen their overall health, and improve families’ and communities’ well-being,” Hillary said at the 2013 Oslo Summit. It was a fitting way to cap off a tenure in which she had worked like hell to achieve those goals.

She Launched the Office on Global Women’s Issues

The most obvious way Hillary championed women’s rights in the State Department was the creation of the Office of Global Women’s Issues, which was led by her appointee Melanne Verveer – the first-ever US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues. Although the State Department had considered women’s rights in the past at various times, it was a novel concept to create a specific post dedicated to gender equality – and it was one Hillary pursued with vigor.

Through this department, Hillary was able to institutionalize her “feminist foreign policy” and make it possible for the department to expend more resources specifically on the advancement, education, and health care of women and girls around the world. In other words, the department allowed Hillary’s State Department – and, by extension, the Obama Administration – to make women and girls a priority in their foreign policy:

Under Ambassador Verveer’s leadership, the Office of Global Women’s Issues oversaw the development of two women’s security strategies—the Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence Globally and the Implementation Plan of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security. The broad frameworks provide U.S. government agencies, embassies, and consulates guidance on protecting women around the world. The two strategies recognize that women cannot progress politically or economically unless they are safe and protected from violence and conflict.

President Obama made the position of US Ambassador-at-Large permanent after Hillary’s departure from his cabinet, and the Office of Global Women’s Issues is still going strong with efforts to promote the political, economic, and social equality of women and girls around the world.

Carmen Rios

Carmen is a writer, revolutionary, and social media guru living the dream in Los Angeles. She coordinates blog content for the She Wins campaign and is also the Digital Editor at Ms., Co-Founder and Managing Editor at Argot Magazine, Feminism Editor and Community Director at Autostraddle, and a Contributor at Everyday Feminism.