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Amb. Swanee Hunt Headshot

A Structure to Match the Vision

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Watching Hillary Clinton before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee was an unalloyed joy. Smart, committed, grounded. Values I've admired ever since we first worked together in 1992 on her husband's campaign. In fact, she's the reason I was appointed US Ambassador to Austria, where we brought 170 women leaders from Eastern Europe to exchange strategies with their counterparts in the West. The gains made on behalf of women by Senator Clinton in the Democratic primary will continue with her selection as Secretary of State. The woman who 13 years ago at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing declared unapologetically that "women's rights are human rights" will more than ever stand on a global platform.

It's no surprise that Senator Clinton's nomination by President-elect Obama was greeted by most women with elation. But having a strong showing of women in high places is distinct from addressing the concerns of women as a group. And so many are urging President-elect Obama to re-constitute the White House Office on Women, which was all but dismantled during the Bush administration. With so many decisions made outside of Cabinet meetings, it's important that a strong voice for women's interests be within the purview of the West Wing.

Women's advancement must be a priority for political and policy reasons. We were the deciding demographic during the presidential campaign. We propelled Hillary Clinton to victory in primary after primary; in the general election, we accounted for 56% of the voters who elected Barack Obama. Analysts say that women's role in America's electoral politics is likely to increase. We will play a major role in determining the outcome of the 2010 midterm and the 2012 presidential elections.

As for the policy side, women's general concern for entrepreneurship, family, health, education, and the environment enriches all areas of the President's policy agenda. Given his interest in broad coalitions to back his platform, it's important to note that women as a group have proven exceedingly able to compromise across party lines and forge long-term, sustainable solutions to social problems. And so the question of what structure will best address women's concerns is not a side issue, to be faced once our economy gets back on track or the Middle East achieves equilibrium.

In terms of foreign policy, a critical mass of women's leadership (usually about 30%), is a key to stabilizing war-torn countries and one of the most effective ways to counter the rise of extremism. Senator Barbara Boxer, during an interview on January 13th, discussed the plans of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to form a US Commission on Women's Rights, to be led by the women members of the Committee. The Senate's attention is encouraging, but the Commission must not address women only as victims. Yes, women suffer disproportionately across most cultures, but they must be among the decision-makers determining the solutions to their problems.

Without a clear signal of the importance of their work from the President-elect, many American women leaders and organizations will be frustrated and possibly less engaged in this administration. A highly visible Office on Women will send the signal that our strengths are valued and our struggles acknowledged. A December 16th letter from a broad coalition of women's organizations called upon the President-elect to create a Cabinet-level Office on Women. Others are advocating for a commission devoted to increasing the percentage of women in political life. Whatever differences we have, we agree that the overarching office must be high enough to be integral to the formulation of domestic and foreign policy.

As the majority of the population, women are not just one more constituency among many. Underrepresented in the legislative branch (around 17%), and the same on the Supreme Court (11%), it's all the more important for women to be robustly represented in the executive branch. As a Ugandan friend of mine says about women's rightful role -- "Nothing about us without us."