09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Female Secretary of State, Making a Difference in Africa

A female secretary of state who identifies with the plight of women is making a difference. We’ve had two female secretaries of state with Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. But Hillary is the first one to spend seven days in Africa and use her time there to put a bright spotlight on an issue that has survived largely in the dark -- the massive use of rape as a tool of war.

Such mutilation and violent abuse of women will continue as long as the world turns a blind eye to such massive atrocities. Hillary Clinton’s visit to the worst war torn areas in the Congo makes it that much harder for anyone to say “we just didn’t know.”

But being a female secretary of state, married to a former president, continues to burden her with baggage she should no longer be asked to carry. One slip of the tongue, in a moment of fatigue, threatens to undermine all that she has accomplished. Why, after having proven that she is a skilled diplomat in her own right, are the commentators so quick to jump on her?

The issue was a question asked by a student: if she knew what Mr. Clinton thought. She responded in knee-jerk fashion that she was the secretary of state. Not a big deal, but it became a big deal (the student said later he meant to say Mr.Obama) because the media is still so eager to diminish her role, to see her as a shrewish, jealous woman. Even at her best—going to African killing places like Goma, where few if any Americans have gone to save women’s lives -- she is not acknowledged for her courage. Worse yet, the torture, rape and killing she wants the world to see, is obscured.

We cannot allow the old habit of Hillary bashing to distract us from her mission and ours -- to create outrage against the targeted, purposeful, destruction of thousands of women’s lives, so that the perpetrators will be punished, or at the very least, shamed into changing their gruesome tactics of warfare.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.