Girls packed a tiny assembly hall in one of Manhattan’s grittiest neighbourhoods. Most of them wore the T-shirts of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, which hosted the event in a low-slung building close to a public housing project near the East River.
The occasion, last Thursday afternoon, was the first stop in a global listening tour called “Girls: A No Ceilings Conversation”, conceived of by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton under the auspices of the Clinton Foundation.
The point, Clinton has said, is to have conversations with girls around the world to assess their progress and their needs and develop a new agenda for action as we approach the 20th anniversary of the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. There, as First Lady of the United States, Clinton delivered an unexpectedly challenging speech that included the now famous statement: "Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights."
On Thursday, Clinton was on stage with her daughter, Clinton Foundation vice chair Chelsea Clinton, and moderator actress-activist America Ferrera to speak with the 130 girls crammed into the room for the live-streamed panel, along with dozens of others who joined the gathering on video screens via Skype from schools in Seattle, Washington; Shaker Heights, Ohio; York, Virginia and Helena, Arkansas.
The 90-minute session at the Girls Club, which included Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the audience, began with a series of videos from girls discussing their dreams and their challenges. “I want to be a lawyer…or a DJ,” said one from New York City. Another from Burundi wants to be “a businesswoman with a recording studio for women.” A girl from the Lower Eastside Girls Club reminded the audience: “You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a woman.”
The pressing question for the Full Participation Project , Hillary Clinton said, is “How much progress have we made since 1995? What achievements do we have to celebrate? Where are the gaps?”
According to the Clinton Foundation, “Full participation for women and girls means access to equal rights and opportunities. Around the world, we know there has been progress. The gender gap in primary education has closed. Record numbers of women serve in leadership positions. More laws prohibiting violence and discrimination against women are on the books.
“Yet, for all of this progress, women and girls still face barriers to full participation. Women and girls still comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unfed and unpaid. Hard-won rights and legal protections remain elusive on the ground. Advancing the status of women and girls remains the unfinished business of our time. The full participation of women and girls in society is critical to achieving economic prosperity, stability, and security around the globe.”
One young woman from New York asked Clinton for advice for girls who want to speak out but fear to do so.
“First of all, I think if you’re going to speak out you have to be well prepared… you’ve got to practice,” Clinton said, acknowledging that surveys show that for many people, public speaking elicits a fear that is above that of dying in a fire.
But, she said, “If you feel strongly about something, don’t stifle it, don’t swallow it, speak out about it. Practice, then go do it and be prepared for whatever the consequences.”
She reminded the girls of advice once given by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who said, “If you’re in the public arena, you’ve got to grow skin like rhinoceros hide. You can’t be hurt easily.”
Addressing a question about why so many girls drop out of science, math and technology courses by high school, Clinton warned girls about the dangers of perfectionism that plague many young women.
“You may not the best, but you’re going to be good enough… Too many young women get stopped by the perfectionist gene,” she said, noting, “I’ve yet to meet a young man who doesn’t think he’s perfect or darn close to it.”
She also cautioned the young women not to be afraid to ask for help to reach their full potential. She recalled teaching law during her years in Arkansas and being struck by the number of female law students who wouldn’t ask her for help when they ran into difficulties.
“Don’t be shy or don’t think it will be a mark against you if you ask for help. You deserve to be the best you can be,” she said.
Clinton’s only venture into political waters came in response to the tearful question of a young woman, illegally brought to the U.S. at the age of five, who now finds many doors, including college, closed to her because of her undocumented status.
“I feel strongly that we are missing an opportunity by not welcoming people like you,” she said, noting that there are some 11 million people in the same situation, brought to the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own, who would benefit from proposals such as the Dream Act, to aid young people without legal status.
Clinton said she is “very much for immigration reform and the path to citizenship.”
As Secretary of State, she said, “I tried to work very hard to make the rights of women and girls part of our policy. We’ve made a lot of efforts, but there is nowhere in the world where we can say the job has been finished.”
Clinton’s global series of conversations are designed not only to elicit the experience of girls, but to contribute to a database documenting their gains and gaps toward full participation in their societies, a project conducted in partnership with groups such as the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations, Google, Facebook and various telecommunications firms.
The Clinton Foundation did not give a timetable for future conversations in the series.