Remarks at Wellesley College

Good morning. Oh, good morning. It is wonderful for me to have this opportunity to be here with all of you. I want to thank President Bottomly for the introduction and for understanding that the education of women does not stop at the campus’s edge or even a country’s border. This event, being held for the first time here at Wellelsey, would not have been possible without the commitment and leadership of all the so-called sister schools including Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Scripps College whose President Lori Bettison-Varga is here today. We just expect this to continue growing and going from strength to strength.

There are many longtime friends here in the audience tonight and distinguished leaders young and young at heart from around the world, but I am particularly pleased that you’ve just had a chance to hear from my friend and predecessor both at Wellesley and in the State Department. I’ve apparently had a habit of following in Madeleine’s footsteps, and I have to say it always does work out for the best so thank you so much, Madeleine. I also want to thank some of the people who have made this extraordinary idea become a reality. Rangita de Silva de Alwis who is the Director of the 2012 Women in Public Service Project; Ambassador Melanne Verveer, our Ambassador At Large for Women’s Global Issues, which you’ll hear from later in the program; Bhara Pandit who is my special representative to Muslim communities around the world, a graduate of Smith College and a strong advocate for this program; and Kavita Ramdas, Chair of the Institute Planning Committee.  I want to thank not only all whom I have mentioned but all the speakers and mentors who are contributing their time and expertise throughout this first Women in Public Service Institute. It’s an extraordinary collection of talent and wisdom, and I envy all of you who will be given the opportunity to sit in on every session and listen to every panel.

Most of all, I want to recognize the 50 young women who have traveled here from around the world not only to participate but to share their own experiences, to give us some sense of the challenges and opportunities that they see before them, to acquire some new skills and some new friends. Many come from countries in transition across the Middle East and North Africa. You are among the young people transforming a region and inspiring the world. Now we are looking to you for your leadership to turn the promise of change into real and lasting progress that moves each of your countries towards democracy, human rights, and opportunity. No matter where you are from, we’re all here today because we believe in your potential and we are committed to your futures. We’re here because we feel the call to public service to work together to solve problems, to improve lives, and because we are convinced that the women of the world have so much to contribute.

I could not think of a better place to launch this institute than here at Wellesley. I have so many memories from my time here: swimming in the lake sometimes legally sometimes not, staying up late in my dormitory talking to my friends sometimes arguing about everything from art and politics to what we were going to do for dinner that night, being told by my French teacher that, ‘Mademoiselle your talents lie elsewhere.’ It was a humbling experience. I came here at a time of great upheaval in America.

The years of my time at Wellesley coincided with protests and war, by inspiring movements so social change, and by devastating riots and assassinations. The experiences of that era not only changed us but also changed Wellesley. We used to say that Wellesley was a girls’ school when we started and a women’s college when we left. I learned a lot from my time here.

This is where I first felt the call to public service, the imperative to get off the sidelines and try to make a difference. After all, this college’s Latin motto urges us not to be ministered unto but to minister. It was here that I began to gain the confidence and the skills to get involved, to pursue new and different ways to solve problems, to speak up, to be heard. That is what this Women in Public Service Project is all about. You’ve begun your own personal journey. In some cases, you’ve had to overcome challenges that certainly my classmates and I never dreamed of. You will get to know each other over these next weeks, but I’ve been reading your bios and been very impressed.

There is a young woman from Afghanistan here today, Naheed Farhi, who like millions of other girls in her country lived for years under the repression of Taliban rule. They burned her school and all the books, but Naheed persevered.  After the Taliban were overthrown, she went on to earn degrees in law and political science. She became a human rights activist. She even ran for office. Now, at 27, she is the youngest member of Afghanistan’s Parliament.

Naheed is not alone. There is a young woman here from South Sudan, Jackcilia Ebere whose family had to flee when civil war reached their village. Now she is back home helping build the world’s newest nation as both a civil society activist and a public official.  Every one of you has your own story of challenges overcome and barriers broken because all over the world women still face obstacles to political and economic participation. Cultural traditions, legal barriers, social pressures stop women from pursuing an education or starting a business or certainly running for office.  There aren’t enough mentors and role models, and there are too many extremists of all stripes trying to constrain and control women: how we dress, how we act, even decisions we make about our own health and bodies.

The numbers on participation tell the story. Women hold less than 20% of all seats in parliaments and legislatures around the world. I am sorry to say, here in the United States are percentage is even a little lower at 17%. It’s not just politics. Only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. I always think to myself, what a waste because the world cannot miss out on the talents and contributions of half the population.

But these numbers tell only part of the story. We need better data and more rigorous research that documents the impact women have in public service and the obstacles that still prevent us from contributing. To begin this work, the Women in Public Service Project has given an initial grant to the University of Albany for field research in Uganda and an initiative to form a new caucus for women legislators there. We look forward to expanding on this kind of effort in the future.

Around the world, we are hoping to help correct the gender imbalances in public service not just by working at the top, shattering those glass ceilings, but also at a grassroots level by training and supporting women like those who are here who have the talent, who have the will, but sometimes not the opportunity to become effective leaders in their nations. I know how daunting it can be to get started. When I first arrived on this campus in the fall of 1965, I was acutely aware of my own limitations. I didn’t think I was smart enough or worldly enough to succeed here. I called home and I told my parents that I didn’t think that I should stay at Wellesley. My father immediately said, ‘well then come home. Go to school near home.’ But my mother, a woman who had been abandoned as a child and had to fight for everything she had in life said, ‘you cannot quit. You must persevere. You must go on.’ Of course, she was right. I grew to love Wellesley and to test myself against limits that I experienced and then to try to go beyond them.

I remember a classmate of mine wrote a poem about this process we were all going through. She said, ‘it is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives, and once those limits are understood to understand that limitations should no longer exist.’

The year 1968 was particularly tumultuous. I remember going with a friend to what was then the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to Grant Park where there were riots and confrontations with the police. I’ll never forget the smell of tear gas, the sight of night sticks and rocks slicing through the air, the sound of protest chants mixing with frightened screams and angry shouts. Now that was just one day, and I got to go home to my safe life once it was over, but over the last year and a half as protests and revolutions have swept the Middle East and North Africa, I have thought back to that experience in Chicago. When I talk to young activists, whether they be from Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen or Libya or Jordan or anywhere in the region, I am reminded that our yearnings for human rights and human dignity, for justice and opportunity are truly universal. For those of you who have been on the front lines of these struggles, who have tasted the gas and felt the beatings and who are now working to shape and secure your transitions to democracy, I express great appreciation. It can be difficult, however, to move from protest to politics. In my conversations with young activities, I have heard many questions about how to make that shift, how to organize, how to hold a new government accountable, how to run for office. Those are crucial questions because, truly, in a democracy protecting that democracy becomes the duty and responsibility of every citizen.

History shows that all too often the victors of revolutions can become their victims and that new autocrats can derail progress toward democracy so it is up to every citizen, men and women alike, to resist the call of demagogues, to build coalitions, to keep faith in the future of the system you are building even when your candidates lose in the elections. As women, you have a special stake in the outcome because we have seen that women’s rights and opportunities can hang in the balance. We know from experience that women’s contributions are vital to building successful democracies and thriving societies. This can be an incredibly frustrating process.

After the riots and assassinations of 1968, my classmates and I wrestled with whether political action is ultimately worth the pain, the struggle, the compromise, but I realize that despite our disillusionment, it was ultimately the only root in a democracy for peaceful and lasting change. The class of 1969 eventually decided we needed a student speaker and they asked me to speak at our graduation ceremony. One of the things that I said was the challenge now was to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. That is what I hope you learn to do here at the Women in Public Service Institute, to make what seems to be impossible possible.

I remember being in Cairo last spring meeting with men and women who had been leaders of the protest in Tahrir Square. I asked them, ‘so now are you starting to organize for politics? Are you beginning to think about how to put together coalitions to run candidates for office?’ I’ll never forget one young man said, ‘that is not our job. Others will do the politics.’ I said, ‘oh excuse me, if you do not participate then others will hijack your revolution. They will very often begin from the first day to undermine the hopes and aspirations that you were protesting for.’

Over the coming days, you will work with leading experts and academics and have the chance to build these relationships that can give you additional insights. You’ll hear from a wide range of women leaders from inside and outside the government, women who have organized social movements and civil society organizations, who have started businesses, run for office, and defied the odds throughout their lives. Each of you will be paired with a mentor who will stay in close contact with you after you return home.

There will be seminars on practical skills, like how to move legislation through a parliament or hold a press conference, sessions on how to organize grassroots networks and how to lobby public officials, discussions about major challenges like increasing women’s participation in peace negotiations and post conflict decision-making. I am very pleased that Dell Computers is one of our sponsors because each of you will be given a laptop loaded with software and tools for grassroots organizing and networking, and Dell is also providing training on how to use social media and other connection technologies for effective advocacy in communications. By the time you leave Wellesley, I hope that you will not only have some new tools and connections, but even more importantly, new confidence and determination because this, as you know so well, is only the beginning. The real work lies ahead each of you at home.

I also hope that the Women in Public Service Project will continue going and growing as well. The summer institute will rotate to each of the founding seven sisters colleges in the coming years, and these schools have created a foundation that will sustain and coordinate this effort for the future. That is not all, later this summer, the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh will host another conference for women from across South Asia. The State Department will also sponsor two summer institutes for women student leaders at Simmons College and St. Mary’s in Indiana. Then in the fall, Smith College, in collaboration with the State Department and the French government will organize a gathering focused on women’s leadership in public health around the world. Early next year three women’s colleges on the west coast, Scripps, Mount St. Mary’s, and Mills, will welcome young women leaders from Latin America. There is a lot to do, and it all depends on you. Let me leave you with one last memory. One of my classmates at Wellesley, and still a friend of mine today, was the granddaughter of one of America’s greatest diplomats, the former Secretary of State Dean Atchison. Four years later, right before graduation I was introduced to him, and I was pretty nervous about making a speech the next morning, but Secretary Atchison shook my hand and said, ‘I’m looking forward to hearing what you say.’ That made me even more nervous.  Well, today I am saying to each of you, I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say and to seeing what you will accomplish and to admiring the progress that you will achieve. I want you also to know that the United States will stand with you as your partner and as your supporter as you do what is necessary to secure democracy and the universal human rights that every human being is entitled to. So I thank you, I thank you for coming to be part of this, our first event. I thank Wellesley for hosting and for nurturing generations of young women, like Madeleine Albright and myself, and I am thrilled that there is such an outpouring of support from around the academic world not only here in the United States but globally to give you what you need to help you make the decisions that are right for you as you continue your own journey of leadership and service. Thank you all very much.

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