No Shit, Sherlock: Hillary Clinton's Women's Rights are Human Rights
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No Shit, Sherlock: Hillary Clinton's Women's Rights are Human Rights

Hillary Clinton's historic (and obvious) speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women

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No Shit, Sherlock: Hillary Clinton's Women's Rights are Human Rights
Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office

On September 5th, 1995, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton addressed the United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing, China. The resulting speech, commonly known as, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, was a huge milestone in the fight for women’s rights. Clinton’s speech was coherent, impactful, and had all the makings of the great speech. In fact, it is still well known and highly regarded over twenty years later. According to President Bill Clinton, it is one of (if not the most) important speeches of Secretary Clinton’s long and storied career.

And, as Secretary Clinton herself said on the twentieth anniversary of the speech, “[it] seemed like a very obvious thing to say, but I wanted to say it, because people would say various things about human rights and throw something in about women. And luckily it did catch the imagination". While Secretary Clinton’s speech was, at the time, groundbreaking, it failed to make a lasting impact, and women’s rights are still a huge issue today.

The United Nations Fourth World Conference was attended, as these events usually are, by dignitaries, officials, politicians, and other powerful figures. The preliminary audience for Clinton’s speech was not the everyday woman, it was primarily women (and men) of some means and some political power. At the time, China (the host of the conference) was seen as a flagrant violator of women’s rights due to the one-child policy and other sexist policies. China also banned representatives of non-governmental organizations from attending the conference. Because of the many restrictions China imposed on the conference, Clinton’s participation was especially important to the United States. The speech is an example of an issue-framing speech, used to raise the profile of a certain issue and frame it for both the immediate and larger audience.

A commentator on an ABC News show at the time stated, “There’s no national interest in Hillary Clinton going to China, going to this women’s conference. It’s not an important conference.”. Clinton herself said, “ a lot of people said, this is not important to the United States government. It’s a nice thing, and we’re glad you care about it, but if Hillary Clinton goes to Beijing and talks about women’s rights, that elevates an issue, [...] and with so much else going on, maybe you (meaning me) should just talk about it from afar.” Many people also believed that Secretary Clinton would not address anything of importance, either. Mona Charon said on CNN that, “ [...] if she would go there and give a hard-hitting human rights speech, it would be worth it. But she won't do it.”. That perception was widespread in the mainstream media at the time.

The conference opened with a speech by former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto criticized the western world generally, and the United States in particular. Bhutto’s remarks, along with the Chinese government, put particular pressure on Secretary Clinton’s remarks. Because of various international tensions, the exact wording of her remarks was under close scrutiny. According to Alyse Nelson, who attended the conference as a recent college graduate, China had no idea what a women’s conference would entail, and were expecting, “a knitting conference, not these radical feminists”. The conference was only six years after the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre, and an American activist was arrested (and released) in the days leading up to the conference, all of which made Secretary Clinton’s participation controversial.

Before Hillary Clinton was the Democratic Nominee for the presidency, before she was Secretary of State, even before she was a senator, she was the First Lady and a powerful and prominent lawyer. According to Ann C. McGinley, a scholar at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas, “Hillary Clinton was an accomplished lawyer and partner in a well-known law firm, graduate of prestigious Wellesley College and Yale Law School, first lady of Arkansas, law professor, and mother of one child in 1992 when her husband, Bill Clinton, announced his candidacy for President of the United States.[...] When she married Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Hillary Rodham retained her own surname, a practice that was common among feminists of her age in order to avoid losing their identity and independence. Because of a chilly reception in Arkansas to her use of her birth name, presumably because she was too independent of her husband, she soon switched her name to Hillary Clinton.”. According to many scholars, different (and often explicit) challenges face gendered rhetorical speakers (in this case, Hillary Clinton). Clinton has for decades now been criticized not only on the basis of her politics, but on the basis of emotional appeal, psychological inquiry, fashion choices, and other personal matters that, in all likelihood, would not have played nearly as big a role if she were not a woman. Indeed, Secretary Clinton has perceived as, ‘unlikeable’, for many years, with no clear basis and with very little factual merit, although she has repeatedly tried and failed to address the issue by portraying emotional availability (as noted at the time in The Washington Post).

During Clinton’s time as First Lady, she was an extremely polarizing figure- either hated or loved for the threat she posed to traditional femininity, gender roles, and the office of the First Lady. As McGinley notes, “Throughout her career, Hillary Clinton suffered criticism for her dress and appearance. During her campaign for President, she was criticized for her pant suits, a symbol of women's empowerment since the 1960s. This criticism demonstrates the bind that women often face when they appear in public. The public evaluates women's competence and authority based partially on their clothing. [...] This double standard creates an additional burden on women running for public office. A sixty year old woman who apparently struggles with her weight, Clinton may not have gained public approval for her clothes even if she had dressed in high style feminine clothing. The pant-suit was her uniform, like the men's suits were their uniforms. [...] Clinton showed her masculine toughness by wearing pants, while distinguishing herself as feminine by choosing pant suits of many brilliant colors.” In this case, Secretary Clinton went above and beyond in establishing her femininity (appropriately, for a women’s conference). At this particular conference, it seems laughable that she would be a threat to traditional gender roles, with her pretty blonde curls and her pink sparkly suit. According to Secretary Clinton, “A friend of mine had given me this suit, and had said if you’re going to go, wear this suit. At first I thought it was a little too much, in your face, but then i thought, why not? So, I wore this pink suit, I was jetlagged, I was nervous, and i was anxious. Went into the hall [...] I was apprehensive. There was a lot riding on one speech. The people in the room were the people who were the delegates, who would ultimately determine what we voted on, for the platform for action.” Clinton’s suit probably caused people in the immediate audience (and those watching after the fact) to underestimate her based on her appearance. That is, until she opened her mouth.

Secretary Clinton recently said, “I was coming of age at a time when there were jobs girls couldn’t have, schools we couldn’t attend, so when i heard about the conference I very much wanted to go, because whatever role I played, I wanted to be seen as supporting the full participation of girls and women. It was just profoundly important.. Speaking to the conference, she wanted to be very clear in her intentions. Secretary Clinton began by establishing her credibility to speak on the topic - something which, as a woman, she probably should not have to do. This reinforces the idea that women are treated as less than human- a man probably wouldn’t have to prove his credibility on the topic of the rights of men. Hillary Clinton first spoke from her own experience before turning to examples from the international community to establish ethos while using a narrative to keep the audience’s attention. As she says “Over the past 25 years, I have worked persistently on issues relating to women, children, and families. Over the past two and a half years, I've had the opportunity to learn more about the challenges facing women in my own country and around the world.”

In terms of ethos (meaning the speaker’s qualifications), Clinton begins her speech by developing her credibility and position as someone able to advocate for women. And, as a woman, she refers to global women as a ‘we’ rather than a ‘they’, which further establishes her credibility. She establishes her credibility and the collective identity of global women early, and reaffirms it throughout the speech. She also established herself as a member of global leaders, able to make change and improve conditions. Because Secretary Clinton is a woman, and a woman in a position of power, she was able to use her Beijing speech as a way to give voice in a rhetorical performance. She used her gendered subject position as a way to represent an issue for unempowered women worldwide.

Clinton’s speech declared, "that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights". Historically, women’s rights have been a subset of human rights, thought of as less-than. By Clinton’s logic, if women are humans than women’s rights are equal to human rights. This statement is a pretty basic syllogism and an example of deductive reasoning. As an onlooker said, “...what she saved till last was forced abortion and forced sterilization. Everyone in that room understood she was talking about China.” . Using a specific example to call China out on their human rights abuses without actually calling them out on their human rights abuses is a pretty great example of dog whistle politics, and it also demonstrates the Secretary Clinton was a better rhetorical speaker than generally believed at the time (and, really, now).

In Clinton’s own words, “I wanted my speech to be simple, vivid and strong in its message that women’s rights are not separate from or a subsidiary of the human rights every person is entitled to enjoy”. She was not aiming to be flashy, or overly emotional. She just wanted to draw attention to an ongoing human rights issue. Additionally, Secretary Clinton knew her speech was being translated live to her primary audience; it was written with that in mind, and she received little reaction initially because of it. That would have made it hard to perceive the impact of the speech whilst it was happening, making her performance all the more impressive.

The main rallying point of Secretary Clinton’s speech was, "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. " Because she echoed her sentiment twice, and uses key verbs, she made the symbolic nature of her rhetoric even more powerful. The words she used, meaning ‘speak’ and ‘heard’, opened up a space not historically open to women - the public space. As women have been historically regulated to the private space (the home) they are often thought of as afterthoughts, not meant for political participation. Secretary Clinton used her powerful position to make clear that any woman has the same right as she does to participate in the public discourse.

Unfortunately, despite Clinton’s groundbreaking speech, women’s rights have not made much progress in the last twenty years.According to a report released by Deloitte, the gender wage gap in the United States will not close until at least 2069. According to the IWPR, if progress continues at the same rate then women will not have fifty percent of seats in the US Congress until 2117. This is in spite of the fact that a higher percent of registered voters than men, and that since 1980 more women have voted in presidential elections than men. In fact, Hillary Clinton herself is the first woman to be a major party’s presidential candidate. Clinton herself says that despite some progress made, “Women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed, and unpaid. At the end of 2013 women held less than twenty-two percent of all seats in Parliaments and Legislatures world-wide”. While Clinton’s speech was a milestone in the fight for women’s rights, she herself would acknowledge that the struggle is far from over. “As I dove deeper into my work on behalf of women and girls, I started describing our quest for equal rights and full participation for women as the unfinished business of our time. It was a reminder to audiences, and to me, just how far we still had to go.”. In fact, in Hillary Clinton’s opening statement during September’s first debate for the 2016 Presidential election, she reaffirmed the need for equal pay for equal work. Hopefully, Secretary Clinton will continue her advocacy for women’s rights for the next twenty years.

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