Laureation address: Secretary Hillary Clinton

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Law
Laureation by Professor Louise Richardson FRSE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Friday 13 September 2013

Hillary Clinton recently joined Twitter. In so doing she described herself in the following terms: “Wife, mom, lawyer, women and kids’ advocate, FLOAR (this is, First Lady of Arkansas), FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) US Senator, Secretary of State, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker.”

She surprised many by her mastery of the medium, but surprising sceptics by her mastery of policy and the issues facing others is one of the hallmarks of four decades of public service which have also been marked by a catalogue of firsts. She served as First Lady of the United States, United States Senator for the State of New York, and Secretary of State of the United States. She is the first First Lady to have been elected to the Senate, and the first First Lady to serve in the cabinet, as well as the first woman to be elected to state wide office in New York. Much earlier in her career she was the first student to speak at a Wellesley College Commencement and the first female partner of the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas. Another hallmark of this long, varied, distinguished and continuing career is tenacious advocacy for the rights of women and children.

Hillary Rodham was born in Chicago and started life as a Republican, canvassing at the age of 13 for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election and for Barry Goldwater four years later. She was President of the Young Republicans at Wellesley College where she majored in Political Science but the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam altered her thinking and she left the Republican Party in 1968. She attended Yale Law School where she worked at the Yale Child Study Center. Her first scholarly article ‘Children Under the Law’ was published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1973. Others followed, as well as her influential 1996 book, It takes a Village.

Moving to Arkansas she became one of only two female faculty members in the School of Law at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She was named Arkansas Woman of the year in 1983 and Arkansas Mother of the Year in 1984. In 1988, and again in 1991, she was named by the National Law Journal as one of the hundred most influential lawyers in America. During her twelve years as First Lady of Arkansas she was Chair of the Arkansas Education Standards Committee, co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and served on the boards of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Defence Fund.

As the first presidential partner with an independent professional identity, Hillary Clinton became a lightning rod for criticism of working women, when she became First Lady. Her efforts to secure universal health care proved so divisive that she was forced to wear a bullet proof vest at times. (Her ability to withstand unrelenting criticism of her clothes and her hair while trying to focus press attention on things that matter has led some of her supporters to wish for her a skin of kevlar.) The campaign for universal health care continues today. As First Lady she successfully led bipartisan efforts to provide health care to millions of American children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, to improve adoption and foster care systems, to reduce teenage pregnancy and to tackle violence against women in the US. Internationally too Clinton was an ardent advocate for the rights of women and children. She famously declared at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1996: “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” In 1997 with Secretary of State Madeline Albright she launched ‘Vital Voices’ to promote the advancement of women as an integral part of US foreign policy. Today Vital Voices is one of the pre-eminent NGOs working to identify, train and empower emerging women leaders around the world.

Elected to the Senate in 2000 she was comfortably re-elected in 2006 where she surprised those anticipating a carpetbagger and an ideologue, by her mastery of the issues facing New Yorkers and her pragmatism in forging solutions to their problems. After the 9/11 attacks she was a forceful advocate for funding the rebuilding of New York and the health needs of the first responders. She also fought for better health care and benefits for wounded service members and reservists. In the Senate she served on the Armed Services Committee; the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; the Environment and Public Works Committee; the Budget Committee and the Select Committee on Aging.

In 2008 Hillary Clinton sought to become the first woman to be nominated for the presidency of the US by a major party. She narrowly lost the nomination to Barak Obama for whom she then campaigned. In her speech suspending her campaign she characteristically told her supporters: “Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be.”

Appointed Secretary of State in January 2009 Clinton, whose endurance was legendary among the poor journalists assigned to keep up with her, travelled more than any of her predecessors, visiting 112 countries during her tenure.  As she put it herself: “we have a lot of damage to repair.” Whether in a Mongolian ‘ger’ (not a ‘yurt’) or discussing the environment in Nuuk, Greenland, she impressed all she met by her command of the issues facing them.  Her unglamorous but practical campaign to replace toxic fires with clean cook stoves will reduce carbon while saving countless lives. Through a ‘smart power’ approach to foreign policy Clinton sought to supplement reliance on military strength with reliance on America’s economic and technological strengths, development aid, and human rights advocacy. She sought greater resources for the State Department and USAID but also sought to make them more effective. She instituted a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review which established specific objectives for overseas missions, it sought to institutionalize goals like empowering women throughout the world and leading through ‘civilian power’. 

Hillary Clinton is a trailblazer and her tenacity and skill in forging ever onward has both inspired women everywhere and eased the path for the women who try to follow her lead.  She declared in June 2008: “As we gather here today . . . the 50th woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House. Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest ceiling at this time . . . it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”