Your Woman on the Scene

Women’s Advocate: Hillary Clinton

hillary on stage


Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hillary Clinton speak at the San José State University Event Center on my campus, and I must say the experienced politica—a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state for Obama—possesses quite the presidential presence.

While researching Champion of Choice, the biography of Dr. Nafis Sadik, I interviewed Nafis about her work at the UN Population Fund and her collaborations with Hillary. Nafis talked about her admiration of Clinton’s speaking ability as the two women both headlined at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Nafis said to Hillary, “I notice that you never look at your notes.” And Hillary replied, “Yes, after a time, one does develop a knack.”

That knack was clearly in effect last night as Clinton spoke extemporaneously with nary a note in sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that she is the best public speaker I’ve ever encountered, including her hubby, who while President Bill Clinton, gave a phenomenal commencement address when I graduated from Penn State. For those of us who speak for a living, like any craft, its practitioners analyze the skills of others and Hillary ruled the packed 7000-seat auditorium, receiving two standing ovations.

When her host, Santa Clara County tax assessor Larry Stone, (described as an old friend of the Clintons), asked if Hillary had any announcements to make—i.e. that she was running for president in 2016—the crowd roared.

I was curious about Hillary’s choice of theme last night: women’s rights. But she was no doubt speaking to her base, as the crowd was predominantly female. Accommodating her message for her Silicon Valley audience, she made note of the enormous gender disparity in high tech, noting that only 20% of the workers are female. That disparity exacerbates as the stakes rise, with only 11% on the boards of technology firms being women.

Last night Clinton seemed intent on establishing her long-standing record as a women’s advocate—showing she’s not a newcomer to the game—as she continuously referred to her participation at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. While everything Clinton said about her participation there is true, she didn’t mention that all the work she and the U.S. team did at Beijing was based on the diplomatic successes of the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 governments reached an agreement on females’ rights to education and reproductive health. In Beijing the Americans’ greatest goal was simply to protect the advancements for women made the previous year.

Actually Hillary was not well-received by the Chinese in Beijing in 1995. Then First Lady, she arrived at the conference hall to great fanfare, wearing a pink suit, her shoulder-length blonde hair styled into a smooth wave framing her face. In her address Clinton touched on many of the human rights abuses for which the Chinese had been excoriated in recent years; her comments clearly disparaging them were not well received, considered improper behavior for a guest in their country. Yet Clinton boldly addressed the issues head on at this global summit—with the international press corps recording. She referenced China’s one-child policy and their coercive tactics toward women to enforce it. That takes real guts when you’re on stage under the spotlight of the nation’s capital.

Last night, Hillary quoted her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt’s line: “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros’s hide.” That trait will no doubt serve Secretary Clinton well if folks continue to lob shoes at her—as they did in Las Vegas last week. But she just ducked, cracked a joke, and carried on…acting very presidential indeed.


Champion of Choice

Cairo: September 5, 1994

Over the course of the coming week, dignitaries from around the globe will be arriving for the International Conference on Population and Development, their limos gliding down a grand circular drive lined by palm trees and a colorful cornucopia of national flags. They will stop at the VIP entrance to the conference center, a sleek white circular building featuring arched windows—a design reminiscent of a space-aged Roman Coliseum. When the passengers exit their cars, they’ll look out upon a wide expanse of green lawn and manicured trees. Peeking up above those treetops, they’ll be able to see the point of a contemporary pyramid marking Anwar Sadat’s grave—a poignant reminder of the risks those dignitaries will face when they enter this facility.

Egyptian president Sadat may have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts, but that didn’t save him from dying in a pool of his own blood when terrorists machine-gunned him as he sat a short distance from this conference center, watching a military parade. In the reviewing stand alongside Sadat that day were the future secretary-general of the UN, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and the man who would become the new president of Egypt before that day was done: Hosni Mubarak. Thirteen years later, as this Arab nation’s head of state, he would be responsible for protecting twenty thousand dignitaries from violence by the same type of fundamentalists who had murdered Anwar Sadat.

So for Mubarak—who had served as a military man for three decades, who had been seated just to the right of Sadat and watched him die, who had himself escaped multiple assassination attempts in his lucky thirteen years as president—the importance of security during ICPD was a very real concern, not just another perfunctory item on his administrative checklist. With four thousand journalists in town and the eyes of the international community focused on Cairo, he did not want any deaths—least of all his.

Part of the president’s strategy to prevent this was to station ten thousand armed troops around the city—circling the conference center, along the streets, at the airports—and to position soldiers and metal detectors at every hotel. A member of the U.S. delegation said the omnipresent security could border on the comical at times: “Our entire delegation and other invited guests spent one night on the Nile for dinner, a sort of relaxed evening. And ringing us on the river were police boats. They were just cruising around us, good and slow, making sure that nobody else came close.” In the meantime the leader of the U.S. team, Tim Wirth, wore a bullet-proof vest under his suit jacket.

Stirling Scruggs, as one of the UNFPA spokespersons handling the conference, remembered being coached on what to do in case someone was killed or taken hostage. “The White House Advance Team and the Secret Service from the U.S. government came in and laid out this map to show me where the U.S. was involved and where the vice president’s escape routes would be if there was an attack, or anything like that. There were fundamentalist threats against the U.S.—some of the dignitaries and Al Gore—but there were also threats concerning the issues.” Gore, hobbling around on crutches after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, had better hope he didn’t’ have to beat a hasty retreat on foot.


Dr. Sadik flew in three weeks prior to the conference opening, and as soon as she hit the tarmac, she was under the watchful eye of Mubarak. As she traveled throughout the capital, UN bodyguards sat in the car with her. Two others, holding automatic weapons, hung out the windows of her limo on either side; this dynamic was repeated by the Egyptian security in the lead car in the motorcade and the car to the rear. As she walked around the conference center she became a very popular woman indeed, followed by four men: one in the front, one on either side, and one to the rear. They searched the ladies’ bathroom before they permitted her to enter; they accompanied her at lunch and sat at another table, with some staring at her throughout her meal while others scanned the perimeter; they monitored her conference command headquarters, which became a real nuisance as she was running this enormous event. “My office had two doors, one to enter and one to exit, and once I went out of the entrance door to look for some staff members. My security opened the door for something and when they found out that I wasn’t there, they went crazy and shut everything down. They said, ‘You can’t do that, you have to leave from this door and we have to see that you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Well, obviously, you should have had somebody guarding the other door!”


An excerpt from Champion of Choice: The Life and Legacy of Women’s Advocate Nafis Sadik (University of Nebraska Press 2013)

© Cathleen Miller