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‘Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights’

06 Dec 2019 | Tracy Bell-Reeves Tracy Bell-Reeves, Director of Programmes and Events at Advance HE, explains why Hillary Rodham-Clinton’s words from 1995 still strike a chord 25 years later.

Last month, I had the honour of being invited to a talk by Hillary Rodham-Clinton at Kings College London during her fleeting visit to the UK. She was insightful, thought provoking and threaded through a strong message about the need for standing your ground even under intense pressure with humility and honesty, and not being afraid to open up about the challenges you face.

The story of Hillary Clinton has not been one short of controversy or challenge and she has been tested in so many ways; her telling of her story really showed her strength in being able to thrive, despite the obstacles thrown in her way and in insisting in her right (and that of all women) to be heard and not silenced.

 In 1995, Hilary was flying across the Pacific on an Air Force jet bound for Beijing, honing her speech for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Twenty-five years ago it had been a bruising first few years in the White House for the Clintons with various exposés and also the failure of Hillary’s own high-profile efforts – unprecedented for a First Lady – to reform the nation’s health care system.

Her trip to China provoked controversy with objections by some quarters to a first lady wading into tricky diplomatic waters and fearing offending the Chinese with criticism. But Hilary was determined to make the trip, hoping to “push the envelope as far as I can on behalf of women and girls.”

The impact of her 21-minute speech was amazing. Her declaration that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” remains one of her signature moments in public life and a phrase still invoked today. Hilary recalled one of her high moments being when she heard the speech played in a shopping mall some years later and realised how impactful it had been to be still being played years later. She wasn’t sure how many shoppers listened, but she felt her message had reached the mainstream!

The speech provided a platform she had never had before and with that came the encouragement to run for Senate. She described how she doubted herself to be good enough – experiencing an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome. It was a young female basketball player who changed her mind – Hillary asked her how she dealt with facing more experienced, tougher players and she replied, “I dare to compete,” and added, “and so should you, Mrs Clinton. We need you to dare to compete”. Sometimes, said Hillary, we have to be brave, be bold because we know we have a voice, an opportunity that can then be used to advocate for others who need it.

Hillary spoke how about those experiences - and many others - encouraged her to contest and challenge the ‘accepted norm’ of what is conceived of as appropriate for women – and she still does so today. As a lawyer, she knows that the law can be an enabler of women’s rights but can also be a barrier. There are many codes and rules that seek to diminish or ‘manage’ the view of what it means to be a woman in working life, such as the recent directive forbidding women wearing glasses at work in Japan. Hillary reminded us that we need to push against these impositions, use the power of our collective voices to speak out, to advocate and to collaborate for change. With awareness, the door opens a little further.

For me, what resonated most from what Hillary shared that day, was about the overwhelming evidence of the benefit of diversity for societal, political and business benefit – not just gender but all forms of diversity and yet how easily that evidence can still be ignored. She asked of us all that, “whoever you are, send out the message that diversity is our friend, not our adversary”.

In summary, Hillary’s talk highlighted many of the themes we will explore on 23 January 2020 at our Women in HE Conference – about the value and benefit of diversity for individuals and organisations, about the cultural challenges faced regularly by women and how there is a need for all to think, behave and respond differently and the potential in collective voices, shared solutions and collaboration.

Women in HE: Conditions for Change - how can we accelerate change that tackles the treatment and inclusion of women? takes place on 23 January 2020 in London. Find out more and book your place now.

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