Wisconsin Women in Government

 

Thank you so much. Thank you, Eve. I thank all of you for being here this evening for this important cause, and for the very warm and gracious welcome. I also want to send greetings to the overflow room. I stopped there on the way in and it is about half the size of this room. Which means, I guess, it’s about 800 people. And I just told them that it was the most impressive overflow room I’ve ever seen. I’m glad that they are here as well.

This is such a wonderful idea: that you gather every year, and on a bi-partisan basis, to raise the scholarship money to enable women to continue their studies and their pursuit of their careers in public service, public administration, government affairs –it is a real tribute to all of you.

I’m delighted that one of my two Wisconsin colleagues could be here this evening. We finished voting at about 12:30 this morning and I saw Senator Feingold who told me that he was sorry he wasn’t going to be here to see me and he asked me to extend his best wishes. And then Senator Kohl came over to see me and said he would see me in Madison, which really delighted me. It is such a pleasure serving with Herb Kohl.

I don’t need to tell you that he is one of the most straightforward, honorable, effective men that I’ve ever met. He is such an incredibly strong advocate for Wisconsin. He really is like that advertisement, you know, when Herb Kohl speaks, people listen. He doesn’t speak very loudly, but he certainly does carry a lot of influence and weight. And so I was pleased that he was going to be here and I know how important helping young people with their educations happens to be for Senator Kohl.

Through the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, he helps one hundred graduating Wisconsin high school students afford their first year of college. And I can’t be in Madison with Herb Kohl without mentioning the Kohl center, and it’s just another indication of the love and dedication that he and his family have for his native state. So, thank you so much for everything you do, all the time.

I was also pleased to see Tammy and Gwen up here getting well-deserved awards and recognition. It is amazing that, I think, 25% of your congressional delegation are now women. And what these women represent—they’re both so eloquent. And you never really have to guess where either of them stands. And it’s a great pleasure to serve with them in Congress.

And I also want to thank Governor Doyle and Mrs. Doyle for their services. And all of the elected officials who have gathered here to encourage and support the extraordinarily important idea that we still have to encourage other women to look for ways that they can fulfill their aspirations in government and public service.

And I was struck when I heard that Wisconsin became a state in 1848. I think that’s what I heard from this — is that right? — are their historians in the audience? And in 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, there was the first-ever gathering for women and a few supportive men to declare that women should have equal rights to men. I’m very proud this happened in Seneca Falls. And if you’re ever in the area, you should stop and visit the wonderful National Park Museum and exhibits that tell the story of women who just decided that they were going to come together and make a statement declaring that women had equal rights, that God endowed us with the same rights and abilities as men had been given. And that although the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had not yet recognized that they were going to embark upon an audacious journey toward full equality.

So, they issued the Declaration of Sentiments that I really recommend it to you — look it up on the Internet and read about what these brave and unusual women had to say.

And so 1848 was an auspicious year. A good year for Wisconsin and a good year for women. And we’re still celebrating both Wisconsin and women tonight because the struggle for women’s full equality has been one that the United States pursued with increasing vigor in the 19th and 20th centuries, and which is still an unfulfilled promise for so many women around the world.

One of the very first gatherings of women to work for suffrage in Wisconsin was the state’s first Women’s Club, which organized in 1882 in the town of Richland Center. Now, the Women’s Club was created as a suffrage organization. But because the founders were the wives of prominent businessmen and professionals, they chose to keep the word “suffrage” out of the Club’s name. And in the words of Mrs. Julia Bowen, one of the founders, these women pledged to be, and I quote, “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.”

Now, their ruse was quite effective because the Richland Center Democrat reported in 1882 that one of the regular meetings of the Women’s Club was dedicated to discussing “The Life of William of Normandy.” And “Home Duties” was the topic of another such meeting. But, in fact, these women were working to obtain the right to vote. One founding member even tried to insert a suffrage clause into the Richland Center city charter.

So, once again, Wisconsin women were in the forefront. They were part of the vanguard of a movement for equality and full participation that would eventually help to bring rights and duties of citizenship to every American. And Wisconsin’s women and men led the way when on June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th amendment granting national suffrage to women.

Now, after women gained the franchise, many of the suffrage organizations across the country really went out of business. But Wisconsin’s women continued their push for full equality. And they were successful: on July 11, 1921, Governor John James Blaine signed a women’s rights bill that made Wisconsin the first state in the Union to guarantee women full and equal civil rights.

And to sort of connect the entire journey, there is the story of Louise J. Smith of Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin. She was twelve years old when she attended the suffrage convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. I can’t quite find out, and perhaps someone in this great crowd would know and let me know then, why a twelve-year-old girl from Wisconsin was in Seneca Falls, New York, for the Women’s Convention. But, nevertheless, she was there and she was part of that assembly that adopted the Declaration of Human Sentiments along with famous names like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and then Frederick Douglass. And, then, she was 84 years old when she cast her first presidential ballot on November 2, 1920, the first national election in which women were permitted to vote. She is believed to be one of only two women who were present at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention who lived long enough to be able actually to see the fruits of their labors and hopes come to reality and be able to cast a vote once the Constitution granted her that right.

And, so, when I was given the great honor of coming and speaking with you tonight, I couldn’t help but believe that this was not just about women in government here in Wisconsin today, but it was really the ongoing journey that Wisconsin women and the men who have supported them have been on for more than 150 years and that’s a great tribute to this state and its progressive tradition and to so many of you who still, today, understand that we have to continue the work of strengthening democracy and extending full and equal rights to every human being.

Now, there is much to be done. Some of it can be marked in numbers. You know, as I said, you have two women members of Congress. You have women serving in statewide elected positions. You have women, obviously, in the state senate, in the assembly. You’ve come very far when you look at numbers of women’s participation now.

And it’s not just in elected life. Women are running campaigns. Women are active in the offices on behalf of elected officials. Women represent corporations and businesses in the halls of government. Women are involved in every level and every type of public activity. And that’s important because if we are to be all we can be as a nation, we cannot rest until every little girl and every little boy who might aspire to public service has the opportunity to pursue that dream.

But if it’s just about numbers, that’s not enough. I don’t think that the women and men gathered in Seneca Falls would be satisfied to find out that the right they worked so hard for us to have, and that then succeeding generations worked to knock down barriers of segregation and discrimination, to provide, at the very least, the fundamental rights — citizenship, the vote – would be exercised. I don’t think they would be happy to learn that so many of our fellow citizens don’t register to vote and don’t even bother to vote. I think they would be wondering how this precious right could be so taken for granted.

So, yes, we’ve come such a far distance together, but we still have work to do. We have to make sure that the next generation understands the sacrifices of all who came before. You see, Tammy and Gwen before you, you know how hard each has worked to achieve the position of honor and responsibility she holds now. The obstacles that each has overcome—but they would be the first to tell you that they didn’t get there by themselves. They got to where they are in the United States House of Representatives just as I did making it to the United States Senate because of the support of so many others.

“So, yes, we’ve come such a far distance together, but we still have work to do. We have to make sure that the next generation understands the sacrifices of all who came before.”

So how do we explain this lack of interest, this indifference, this apathy about this fundamental right that is so critical to who we are as a nation and how well we will do in the future? We’ve seen some very inspiring sights in the last year as the people in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Palestinian Territories and Ukraine and so many other places across the world have stood in lines, have demonstrated in great numbers for their right to choose their government.

It’s been inspiring, but it’s also been somewhat humbling because we don’t necessarily have the same commitment any longer in our own democracy. Democracy is becoming something of a spectator sport – there are those who are intensely involved on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum: they live and breathe politics twenty-four hours a day; they follow in the news; they are on the internet; they read blogs; they are totally immersed in what’s going on in the political world, but you know most Americans are trying to make a living and raise a family and figure out the other issues in their day-to-day lives: deal with rising gas prices; with rising healthcare prices; with having to have two jobs instead of the one job which their mother or father had that provided with standard living. So, there’s a lot of pressing in on many of us today that may not necessarily lead to involvement in the political process. So when we look back on people who gathered in Seneca Falls or were in the Women’s Club and trying to plot and plan for suffrage, it’s hard even to relate to that because we have all of these blessings now. And I don’t think that that’s enough just to say, “Look at how much you accomplished, but now we leave it to someone else.”

“We really have to ask ourselves: what kind of society are we building? What do we want our country to look like and be like in the 21st century? What is the role and responsibility of all of us — men and women together?”

Because we don’t just want women to be in government for the sake of lists or checkmarks next to goals of how many: how many scholarships have been given; how many women have run for office; how many have been elected. That’s only part of the story. We really have to ask ourselves: what kind of society are we building? What do we want our country to look like and be like in the 21st century? What is the role and responsibility of all of us — men and women together? And then, of course, what is the special obligation of those who enter into the public arena?

What you’re doing tonight by making a statement that is important, contributing to these scholarships, says an enormous amount about how you feel this should be conducted. But I would just offer a few observations about what more work we have to do. Because we face a lot of challenges as a nation. I think that we’re at a real turning point in American history and it’s not a Republican, Democratic, Independent, any other label turning point. It’s just that there are points in history that call upon all of us to really rise to the challenge. But it’s not so obvious today — there’s not a civil war or a world war or a great depression, not even a cold war. Our challenges may not be quite so obvious, but they are just as significant because every generation of Americans has had to chart its course for the future. And when you look back over our nation’s past, it’s remarkable how they were always people — men and women of good faith, of conscience, of vision — thinking about where they wanted to help our country go.

You know, I always struggle when I think about how in the middle of the civil war, the bloodiest conflict ever fought on our shores, a Republican President, a Republican Congress, were not just anguishing over the war, as horrible as that was, and as difficult as the battles were, they were also deciding to plot the course of a national railway system; they were passing legislation for the Homestead Act; they were creating land grant colleges, because they were in view with this extraordinary American spirit that has always pushed us forward into the future. Like those women in Wisconsin or those women and men in Seneca Falls, how absurd it must have seemed that they would even think that women would suddenly be able to vote, and for most of them, they didn’t even live to see it. It was not being done for themselves. They were doing it for their daughters and their granddaughters. But this idea of being focused and preferring the future, sacrificing today for a better tomorrow, is really at the root of the American experience and the American dream. And at every point, at every turning point, there have been so many Americans who’ve understood that, who’ve made the investments that will make us richer and safer and smarter and stronger as a nation, no matter how hard times were.

At the turn of the last century, as we were moving from an agricultural to an industrial society, Teddy Roosevelt was thinking about what needed to be done to make sure the playing field was level enough so that we didn’t have concentrated wealth and abuse of power that often goes along with that. Eleanor Roosevelt and women of her class were working in settlement houses, following the example of Jane Adams because they believed that these floods of immigrants that were coming into our country would be given the opportunity, as maybe absurd as that seemed to some, to be, at some point in the future, fully functioning citizens of their new country.

And, of course, in the Great Depression, again, how audacious. In New York, people were standing in breadlines while leaders were building bridges and tunnels and roads, spending money for investments for a stronger future. And there are so many examples where at critical turning points, leaders looked toward the future and decided that they would be part of creating the conditions that would lead to better opportunities for the next generation. And so many women have played roles in that, behind the scenes and now are at the table, are full participants in the decisions in state legislatures and executive offices. We’ve had two women Secretaries of State. The first speaker to address this dinner, I believe, was my good friend and the former Chancellor Donna Shalala. There have been so many more women who have now been able to participate in creating the future that all of us will inherit.

How will we be judged by history? If we were to fast-forward fifty to a hundred years, would the historians or the citizens of the twenty-second century look back and say that we were meeting our obligations? That we were continuing to fulfill the ideals and values of America? That we were cherishing what is really important in life, the families and faith and civic and philanthropic associations that give so much meaning to the lives we lead? That we had an understanding that transcended all of the divisions that too often separate us, that we were working to bring people together so that we could use the talents of every single one of us?

I think these are unanswered questions. And I would hope that as we consider them, and wonder how we would be judged, we start trying to answer them with the kind of positive, optimistic answers that previous generations of Americans have provided. And it goes from the very simple to the profound. You know, I can imagine having been there myself, that there may be some mothers in the audience tonight who are thinking about how the laundry will get done or how to schedule the busy days that their children lead in today’s complex society or how to take care of a sick and aging parent or relative. And those are our responsibilities, but I believe that each of us not only must be responsible in our own lives, but we must be responsible in society and that part of that is to work to provide opportunities and experiences that will help us be both good parents and good workers, good citizens, contributors, and I don’t know that we’ve done enough along those lines.

We haven’t necessarily dealt with the pressing problem of providing quality affordable health care for all Americans, and it’s going to get harder, not easier. It’s going to be much more difficult as we see budget deficits that are pressing. Very difficult decisions, cutting programs like Medicaid and so many of the other essential parts of the social safety net. How will we keep our communities together? How will we care for the vulnerable among us? Will we just walk away and leave people to their own devices or will we be creative in coming up with solutions that fit the needs of today?

And we can look at our education system and know that we have the greatest education system in many parts of our country in the entire world, but we have places where children are not learning. We have made it more difficult for young people to go to college today, to afford to attend and continue and complete than it was twenty, twenty-five years ago. How much talent are we losing? How many people are we basically saying, “Your dreams are no longer our dreams?” .”? And when we think about the economy, we know that it is not creating the kind of jobs that maintain the standard of living for a working family that we used to take for granted. And the health care and retirement benefits that used to go along with employment are less and less certain. How would we recreate that safety net? And, of course, with social security: we know that it there is a big debate going on about it. What is the outcome of that? What is our intergenerational responsibility to one another?

On a broader level, internationally, we know that there are many women who are still being denied basic rights all over the world. There are a billion people living on less than a dollar a day. There are conflicts and violence that primarily afflict women and children. And I have been in so many places where there is so little hope, but there is so much energy. There is so much of a work ethic. But governments are disorganized, they’re corrupt, and they don’t give people a chance to live up to their God given potential. So, America has a lot of work to do – here at home and abroad.

And as we honor women in government, it is appropriate that we think for a moment that this is the tenth anniversary of the Women’s Conference in Beijing. It was a gathering that lasted only a few days, but set into action a set of principles about how women should be treated that are still used as a benchmark. It led to the criminalization of trafficking of women and children. It led to the criminalization of domestic violence in so many societies. It led to changing inheritance laws and voting laws so that more and more women and girls were given a chance at equality.

Just like the Wisconsin suffragettes in the 19th century, there are a lot of women who take heart from the stories they hear about women in America. And now I think we can take heart from some of the courage that we see in women around the world. When the Afghan women draw their burqas, how many of us looked at that picture and just smiled with pride? When the Iraqi women held up their fingers with the purple on it to show they had voted, how many of us thought, “Would I have been brave enough to do that myself?” And in Ukraine, women were a central part of the orange revolution.

And, recently, I was part of honoring one of those brave Ukrainian women at the Vital Voices annual benefit — an organization that actually Michael Verveer’s mother Melanne runs in Washington and that I helped to start to try to use American women with our experience, with the privileges that we have obtained, to help inspire courage and mentor women from other places in the world.

At that gala, we heard the story of a woman named Natalia Dmytruk. She was a government employee. She was a Ukrainian woman in government. She was a sign-language interpreter on Ukraine’s state-run TV channel during their presidential election. She was instructed to report that the government-backed presidential candidate was the winner. And disgusted by that deception, she decided to tell the truth.

At the end of the broadcast, she exposed an orange ribbon on her sleeve and told the audience in sign language, “Everything you’ve heard so far on the news was a total lie.” (Laughter and applause) I’m sometimes tempted to say the same. (Laughter) She went on to communicate in sign language, “I am ashamed to translate these lies. Yushchenko is President. Good-bye. You will probably never see me here again.”

Her story was both inspiring and poignant because I think we have to ask ourselves, as women in government, what risks will we take for the truth? As Republicans, as Democrats, as Independents will we stand up and say, “Stop. This is not working. This is not right. This is not the best that America has to offer.”? If we are, as I believe, at this turning point in American history, we may be called upon to do just that. Because we have huge challenges and decisions.

There is so much that we have to deal with today in society and politics and government. And we’re going to need not just numbers, but courage. We’re going to need alliances. We’re going to need people who put country first and party second. We’re going to need that spirit, that planning for the future, even if we’re convinced we may not live to see it.

Because we have been so blessed to be citizens of this nation. We have to do our part now to ensure that those blessings, those privileges and opportunities, are passed on to these young women who receive the scholarships today. That they can be part of solving the problems and charting the future. I’m very optimistic about where we go as a nation. Because there isn’t anything like America — never has been, never will be. But that doesn’t mean that it will just operate on its own on automatic.

“We are called upon, right now, to ask ourselves what we need to do today to make sure that America stays strong tomorrow. We are called upon to act with courage and conviction.”

We are called upon, right now, to ask ourselves what we need to do today to make sure that America stays strong tomorrow. We are called upon to act with courage and conviction. I’m more than convinced there are enough women and men in government who are ready to answer that call. And if we do so, then we will continue to attract the committed, dedicated women who have been honored here tonight and in years past. We will continue to see the results of their labors and we will know that we are indeed in good hands.

There has never been any better time in human history or a better place to be alive as a woman than right now in twenty-first century America. It has taken a long time to get to the point where we are today and perhaps it is now our chance and our obligation to demonstrate clearly to all those people whose names we’ll never know and those who are in the history books: they knew what they were doing when they fought for our rights. They understood that having women in government would revolutionize, transform American government for the better. Now, we cannot let them down, and we cannot disappoint our children. So, I’m hoping that not only will we have women in government, but that all of us together will have a government worthy of the American people and effectively charting the course for the new American century. Thank you all, and God bless you.

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