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Lanny Davis: ‘Women’s rights are human rights’ — 20 years later

Almost 20 years ago, in September 1995, America’s first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, took the podium at the fourth annual United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing.  

A prominent Chinese pro-democracy dissident had been arrested. Many in the U.S. government and broader diplomatic community opposed the first lady going to China at such a time. First ladies, they argued, were not supposed to call out and challenge a foreign government as a guest on its soil. It just isn’t done. It just isn’t diplomatic. It just isn’t ... well, what first ladies are supposed to do.

But Clinton didn’t abide by this advice. She stood on principle, and gave what I believe was one of the finest and most important speeches of her life. It is worth reading in full, at The Clinton Foundation’s website.  

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The most memorable passage, quoted to this day, unmistakably connected the arrest of the dissident and China’s dismal record on human rights violations with the subject of the Women’s Conference: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely — and the right to be heard.”

“Let me be clear,” she said. Few doubted that her speech was directed to and about Chinese government leaders. “Freedom means the right of people to assemble, organize and debate openly.” 

The Chinese government cut off video at the conference center and blacked out all Chinese media reporting of the speech. But the word spread. As Clinton left the conference room, there were women standing in hallways and hanging over the balconies. Tens of millions of Chinese women, by word of mouth, heard about and were moved by the speech.  

And remarkably, the first lady’s blunt words — far from causing an international breach and controversy with the Chinese government — ultimately won admiration and respect for her among government leaders that lasts to this day.  

The outcome of this conference was a “Platform for Action,” adopted by the 189 nations represented at the conference, calling for the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life at the national, regional and international levels.”  

Now, almost 20 years later, Hillary Clinton has announced a new Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation program, a legacy of her 1995 speech:  “No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project.”   

During her recent announcement of this new project, she noted the progress women have made around the globe since her 1995 speech and the U.N. Conference’s commitments. But she also pointed out specific facts — as is her custom — showing how much remained to be done to remove the artificial ceilings that still unjustly limited women and girls around the globe. 

Twenty years later, she pointed out, “women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed, unschooled and unpaid. At least 100 countries have laws on the books that limit the participation of women in the economy. In some places, women cannot open a bank account or sign a contract. In others, they are restricted from what jobs they can hold. And even in advanced economies like our own, women earn 16 percent less than men for doing the same job.”

Clinton’s 1995 speech and her new “No Ceilings” initiative is emblematic of an approach she has taken to public policy issues during her many years in public life. When she talks about any group’s particular rights, she has the ability to find common threads and values affecting all groups. Ultimately, Hillary Clinton focuses not on special interests but on the public interest and the common good. 

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is special counsel to Dilworth Paxson of Philadelphia and the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).