The Women In Public Service Project

By Samantha Plotner

Students pose with Secretary Clinton

On December 15 the Sisters Consortium and the United States Department of State kicked off The Women in Public Service Project at an Opening Colloquium in Washington, DC. This initiative is designed to encourage women both in the United States and abroad to enter careers in public service. Before the event even began, the star power present was evident. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (a proud Wellesley graduate) posed for a photograph with the students from the five Sisters Colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith). Seats in Dean Acheson Auditorium were reserved for Madeleine Albright, Gloria Steinem, and Valerie Jarrett among others. Some audience members may have recognized a visibly pregnant Huma Abedin, a trusted Clinton aide, checking the podium before the Secretary’s arrival.

The event finally began with opening remarks from Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the Department of State. She highlighted how necessary the Project was because “the global challenges we face cannot be dealt with without women.” After additional remarks from the President of Smith College, Carol T. Christ. Ambassador-at-Large for Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer introduced Secretary Clinton. After receiving a standing ovation, Clinton temporarily ceded the podium to Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde.

Lagarde with Secretary Clinton

Of Clinton and her run for the Presidency in 2008, Lagarde said she greatly admired her “ability to run the risk of failing.” Though she expressed a desire to avoid discussing the Eurozone economic crisis, she did touch on it briefly, with her main point being that the democratic process does not always move as quickly as financial markets would like. Moving on to the topic of women in public service, Lagarde highlighted how the skills “best used in times of crisis and post-crisis” are the ones women tend to posses, for example the ability to “engage without being aggressive.” Lagarde then shared an anecdote from her time as the French Minister of Finance. The government was having a problem getting more women onto corporate boards because chairmen of boards were claiming they simply could not find qualified women. Lagarde knew that was not true, so she put together a list of qualified female candidates to give any chairman who claimed he knew no qualified women. “Start making your list,” she instructed the audience, and “you will be able to use it.” In closing she told the young women present to “grit your teeth and smile because there are others after you.” After receiving a healthy dose of applause, Lagarde exited the auditorium and Secretary Clinton returned to the podium.

Secretary Clinton

After some shout outs to all her “Wellesley sisters” and other guests Clinton dove headfirst into the issue at hand. The Project is something “we hope will be a continuing commitment to bringing more women into public service.” She briefly went through her own record of public service as First Lady of Arkansas, then of the United States, as a Senator, and now as Secretary of State. Though even after such a long time “it still is hard” being a woman in public service, she was quick to point out that “public service is not only about running for elected office…we need women at all levels of government.” To Clinton “this is not just about fairness…its about expanding the pool of talent.” Both in the United States and abroad, there are legal and cultural barriers for women pursuing public service careers. Women also need to be shown that getting involved in politics is a good thing. “Women were instrumental” during the Arab Spring (or Arab Awakening as Clinton called it) but “for many of them politics was kind of a dirty word.” Clinton’s message to them was that “you may not realize the gains and hopes you demonstrated for if you aren’t involved in politics. “ After highlighting some of the aspects of the Women in Public Service Project (including the annual summer institute) Clinton closed by telling the audience (both in the auditorium and watching the webcast) that if they decided to pursue a public service career “not only do you have my blessing…you have the support of myself and my country.” After yet another standing ovation, the event turned into a series of panel-style discussions and interviews.
The first panel was moderated by Jane Harman, the first female head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars at Princeton University and a former congresswoman. It was made up of Nora Berra, France’s Minster of Health; Irina Bokova, the Director General of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization; Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program; Florence Chenoweth, Liberia’s Minister of Agriculture; Vice Admiral Carol Pottenger, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Capability Development at NATO Headquarters; Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor. Harman addressed the audience as “future Madame and Mrs. Presidents” and Chenoweth shared her amazing journey to becoming the first college-educated agriculturist in Liberia. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t be what you think you want to be,” she told the audience. Clark (who before her current position was President of New Zealand) instructed the young women present to not “neglect economics- it really is important.” Sebelius emphasized the importance of women being loud and proud about their abilities because as she put it, “I know men who aren’t as bright as this table who constantly have their hand up saying ‘pick me!’” As a result, those men can end up getting opportunities over a more qualified woman.

After a short reconfiguring of the stage, CBS News correspondent Norah O’Donnell interviewed President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosovo. President Jahjaga is not only Kosovo’s first female President, she is also the youngest female head of state in the world. Though she been President for less than a year she’s made women’s issues an important part of her agenda, committing 20% of her time to them. “You should never hesitate on anything,” she told the audience.

Secretary Albright

After that, Barnard senior Shilpa Guha interviewed White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, who had been a mentor to Barack and Michelle Obama long before they were President and First Lady. Appropriately enough, the emphasis was on the importance of mentorship. “Start by working hard yourself,” she instructed, because if someone is going to mentor you, you have to make it worth the mentor’s time. She then switched gears and highlighted the White House Council on Women and Girls and President Obama’s commitment to women’s rights. Jarrett’s theory on why Obama has made this a priority in his administration is because of his two young daughters. “When men have daughters, that’s what changes their perspective, makes them realize the importance of helping girls.”

Then there was a panel entitled “A Dialogue Among Generations,” which included New York congresswoman Nita Lowey, Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz of the U.S. Coast Guard, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Steinem noted that “women who have this idea that we’re human beings are sometimes treated like they’re crazy.” It was a theme echoed not only by the rest of the women on the panel but by the whole auditorium.

Finally there was an address from former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. She mentioned a quote of hers that had been highlighted by several other speakers. “I have in fact said there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I said it so often it ended up on a Starbucks cup…so there is a special place in paradise, or at least the State Department, for women who do.” She closed on an inspirational note. “Each victory becomes a platform on which the next can be built…we cannot be stopped.” Everyone present roared, and it was the perfect ending to a truly inspirational event. The Women in Public Service Project got off to a great start.

Samantha is a junior at Barnard and Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing.

For more information on The Women in Public Service Project, go to their website


Images courtesy of The Women in Public Service Project and Samantha Plotner.

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