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Amb. Swanee Hunt

Amb. Swanee Hunt

Posted March 17, 2009 | 04:13 PM (EST)

The Zeitgeist Has Appeared, and She's Smart


It's been a week of historic moments for women in the US and around the world.

Thinking back -- in August, I stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver listening to pundits as they debated whether women would support Barack Obama. They did--56% of them, and a critical 79% of unmarried women. So it was fitting that his first act as president was to reinforce the right of equal pay for equal work, a move that had been squelched by the Bush team. And now he's come forth with a bold, visionary structural statement showing his commitment to the vital importance of women as agents for the change we seek.

On March 6, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Melanne Verveer as the first ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues. She'll report directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The office and the officeholder couldn't be more appropriate. I've known Melanne since December 1992, when she headed the Washington Transition Office of the soon-to-be First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In a crushingly intense time, she encouraged my analysis of how the foreign policy sector could benefit from the advancement of women. Partly as a result, as US Ambassador to Austria in July 1997 I gathered 320 women leaders from East and West Europe and the US for a conference we dubbed Vital Voices: Women in Democracy. The First Lady gave the keynote, and Melanne Verveer, her chief of staff, was right in the middle of the mix. When I left my post to found the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the Clinton White House and State Department adopted Vital Voices as an ongoing initiative. At the end of that administration, it was spun out as a new NGO, the Vital Voices Global Partnership. Verveer guided the organization into a robust international nonprofit investing in emerging women leaders. Honorary co-chairs of the organization were Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Senator Hillary Clinton.

So now the team will continue as Ambassador Verveer takes her place alongside her Secretary of State. Together, they will protect women victims of abuse and hardship and work upstream of those problems by supporting the advancement of women policy makers. Worldwide, women are poised to transform their countries. Supporting them is a perfect example of what Secretary of State Clinton calls "smart power."

But that's not all the good news: On March 11, President Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, headed by one of his most trusted senior advisors, Valerie Jarrett, "to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy." Consisting of Cabinet secretaries and other high-level officials, the Council will coordinate, examine, and prod, to make sure that the challenges facing women receive the attention they deserve. After the announcement, I enjoyed hearing an interview with Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. Asked if she was disappointed that there would be no Cabinet-level Secretary for Women's Affairs, she said something to the effect "We asked for a Cabinet position, and instead we got the Cabinet!"

I can attest, after working with women leaders in 60 nations, that these developments in our government don't stand in isolation. Even though the World Bank insists that women pull their communities out of poverty and stabilize them after conflict, few countries understand that promoting women's well-being is not only humane but also a terrifically effective public policy, and hence, patriotic. I've waited a long time to be able to say that my country is one of these enlightened nations.

Every public policy needs a human face - like Wazhma Frogh. The Afghanistan country director for an NGO called Global Rights, she is one of seven extraordinary women First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Clinton recognized last week with the International Women of Courage award. They lauded her "courageous efforts to combat sexual and domestic violence, and child and marital rape throughout Afghanistan, despite facing dangerous conditions."

I first met Wazhma a year ago, as we worked on recommendations to reform the security sector - particularly army and police - in her country. As she described her strict army officer father who forbade her going to school, and women crouching by the door while the men ate their meals, I realized that beneath her warm smile was a spirit fueled by a powerful instinct for justice. "Security isn't only soldiers and tanks and fighting on the streets," she said, with intensity. "It's human security. More than fighting terrorism, it's fighting poverty." As we send 17,000 more troops into that country, we'd best be sure we're finding 17,000 women leaders like Wazhma to support. Then we'll stabilize the country.

During last week's ceremony, Secretary Clinton remarked that "our country has a lot to live up to." With the announcements of an Ambassador-at-Large for Women's Global Affairs, and the White House Council on Women and Girls, we've raised our sights.