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Women Changing the World

Deborah SparIn 1995, First Lady Hillary Clinton electrified women around the world when she stood before delegates from 180 countries at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, and, after reciting a devastating litany of abuses suffered by women across the globe, proclaimed, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

This spring, almost 15 years after that historic speech, she returned to Beijing, this time during her first overseas visit as United States Secretary of State. Though the world had changed drastically since 1995, as had her role in it, Secretary Clinton took time out of her whirlwind visit to reassert her commitment to promoting equality for women by listening to and learning from 22 women leaders who spoke of progress made on gender equality and continuing obstacles for women in China. The group consensus was that progress had been made, but there was still much work to be done—in China, the United States, and the rest of the world. “In no society, certainly including my own, are women treated equally yet,” said Clinton.

Barnard can, and should, play a role in addressing this gap, both in this country and around the world, bringing what we know about women’s education to the women who need it most, and exposing our own students to the complex realities of the global economy. In my inaugural address, I pledged to expand Barnard’s presence outside the U.S., allowing the College to play a more active role in a world increasingly dominated by the international exchange of capital, technology, people, and ideas. In this spirit, I traveled this spring to Korea, Hong Kong, and China to visit with alumnae, parents, and friends of the College, as well as with fellow educators and potential student-exchange partners. The visits were all fruitful, eye-opening, and inspiring. The highlight of my trip to Asia, though, was the opportunity to listen to and learn from—much as Secretary Clinton did—a group of Chinese women leaders who are truly changing China and the world. You will read more about this event in the pages of this magazine, but I also wanted to share my thoughts on the symposium, which I recorded for The Huffington Post; an excerpt is below. I know that I speak for many of us here in Morningside Heights who look forward to hearing from Secretary Clinton herself when she delivers the keynote address at Barnard’s commencement ceremonies on May 18. There is still much work to be done.

March 30, 2009 — Earlier this month, Barnard College decided to hold a symposium celebrating women who, like Chinese feminist, anti-foot-binding reformer and first Asian Barnard graduate Kang Tongbi at the turn of the century, are currently working to change China. In a packed ballroom of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Beijing, we gathered a most remarkable group: Yang Lan, a television anchor and media entrepreneur; Yan Geling, an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter; Ruby Yang, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker; and Wu Qing, a long-serving member of the Beijing Haidian District People’s Congress and renowned women’s rights advocate.

Each of the women offered a powerful view of women’s activism from the perspective of modern China. Implicitly, the Chinese women also pointed to what might be conceived as an East-West divide of feminism. In China, Mao’s dictum that “women hold up half the sky” has meant that Chinese women have labored for decades alongside men—in fields and cramped factories, to be sure, but also in laboratories, banks, and universities. Wu Yi, China’s chief trade negotiator, is female; so is Chen Lei, who was 33 years old when appointed chief engineer of China’s iconic National Aquatics Center, or “Water Cube.” What China lacks is not women leaders but an examination of women’s leadership. In the U.S., thought about women’s rights preceded by a wide margin the actual granting of these rights. Women fought for suffrage and for reproductive freedoms and for equal opportunity and pay long before they got any of it. Arguably, they still haven’t. In China, by comparison, intellectual scrutiny of feminism was stalled by the cascade of events that has befallen China since the time of Kang Tongbi—war and revolution, famine and rapid-fire growth, an education system still rooted in classical teachings, and a political system that does not prioritize any kind of rights. Ironically, therefore, Chinese women may have achieved certain levels of power and equality without an accompanying discussion—so common in the West—of what their power means and how it may differ from men’s.

Without question, both China and the U.S.—along with nearly every country in the world—still have a great way to go before achieving true equality for women. Yet there is also undeniable change underway; a palpable electricity that hums around Chinese women like Wu Qing and Yang Lan, around Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and our own Hillary Clinton. From my perch at Barnard College, a liberal arts college devoted to the education of women, I see an extraordinary generation of young women grappling with new ideas about feminism and new views of women’s power and leadership. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, this generation is accustomed to a world defined by choice: the choice of reproduction, the choice of gender identity, the choice of educational options and careers. In shaping their own lives and roles, these young women will look to all kinds of role models, reaching as they should across time and place and culture. And Kang Tongbi, along with her formidable heirs in modern China, may not be a bad place to start.

-Photograph by Margaret Lambert