Keynote

Hillary Clinton implores audience to “become agents of change”

Hillary Clinton fired up her 2016 presidential campaign with a sweeping, estrogen-packed speech at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on Thursday, telling the crowd at Lincoln Center, “There has never been a better time in history to be born female.”

The former secretary of state began with a personal story about her mother, “my earliest inspiration and my guiding light,” she said. “She had a childhood none of us would want,” she said, describing how her mother had been mistreated and abandoned in her youth. “I didn’t know this growing up. I just knew she was my mom,” she recalled. “As I got a little older and heard about her story, I was stunned. I said, ‘How could you have survived?’”

Clinton said her mother told her about “those moments of kindness that kept her going” in her childhood, such as a teacher who shared food with her at school, pretending she had brought too much food for herself, when really she recognized a child in need. “When I was old enough to understand the challenges my own mother faced, that lit a spark,” Clinton said.

She referenced her famous 1995 speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing—when she said “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”—and said much progress has been made since then. She cited laws against domestic violence and “significant strides in closing gaps for women and girls.” She told the crowd, “You’re here, understanding there is a movement, a necessary movement, that requires you to be involved in advancing the rights of women and girls.”

She said a girl born in Tanzania 20 years ago “could not hope to one day own or inherit property—today she can.” If that same girl had been born in Nepal, she said, there was a “tragically high chance” that she and her mother could have died in childbirth. “Today that’s far less likely,” she said. She pointed to Rwanda, which has a higher percentage of women in Parliament than anywhere in the world.

Nonetheless, she said, “despite all this progress, we’re just not there yet.” She said secondary school “remains out of reach for so many girls around the world” and that despite a drop in maternal-mortality rates, too many women are still denied access to safe childbirth. Clinton discussed a lack of quality affordable childcare, unequal pay for women, inflexible work schedules, and no guaranteed paid leave for mothers of newborns.

She noted that the U.S. ranks 65th out of 142 nations on equal pay. “Imagine that,” she said. “We should be number one.” Clinton said that when she talks to men about this, “which I frequently do,” she reminds them: If it were their wife, sister, or mother getting taken advantage of at work, they would want to do something about it. “When women are held back, the country is held back. When women get ahead, everyone gets ahead.”

The full participation of women and girls in society is “the unfinished business of the 21st century,” she said. She drew applause when she said women deserve the right to make their own health-care choices, not to have those choices “taken away by an employer like Hobby Lobby.”

In her wide-ranging speech, she also addressed sexual violence, saying every woman deserves safety and security and that “we have to guarantee that our institutions respond to the continuing scourge of sexual assault.” Further, she said, “We move forward when gay and transgender women are embraced as colleagues and friends, not fired from their jobs because of who they love.” And, “we move forward when women who came to this country in search of a better life can earn a path to citizenship.”

Some people who “offer themselves as leaders” have a very different view, she said in an apparent reference to her rivals, adding that they prefer to deport mothers for fear of getting blasted on talk radio. Clinton also congratulated Loretta Lynch on her historic confirmation as the nation’s first African-American female attorney general.

“We have seen women all over the world become agents of change,” she continued. “I’ve met the women in Liberia who forced an end to a bloody civil war and then took their places in the government.” She added, “Here in the U.S., we saw fast-food workers marching the streets,” asking for a “living wage and a chance at the American dream.” She implored the audience, “You now must be an agent of change as well.”

In closing, she returned to her mother, saying her mom was born before women had the right to vote, and that she never graduated from college. “But she was determined to give me opportunities far beyond any she had ever known,” she said, noting that she wants her granddaughter (whom she described at one point as “amazing and fabulous”) to have those same opportunities.

“I’m grateful that there is now a new burst of energy around the rights and opportunities of women and girls,” Clinton said. “There is still much more to be done…but if we get to work, we will get it done together.”

The annual Women in the World Summit, now in its sixth year, highlights global issues through the voices of newsmakers, activists, artists, rebels, and crime fighters. One of those activists introduced Clinton to the audience on Thursday. Beatrice Biira described her journey from an impoverished rural village in Uganda to college in America, thanks to a dairy goat her family received from the charity Heifer International. When the family made some money from selling the goat’s milk, Biira got to go to school and change her fate. She later became an intern for Clinton in the Senate, and now she works for Heifer in New York, helping get goats to other families in need.

Biira said that when she was an intern for Clinton, “She told me that my resilience reminded her of civil-rights activist Harriet Tubman. If she believed in me that much, who am I to not believe in myself?”

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