About the Author: Kelley Osterthaler is a Presidential Management Fellow serving for five months overseas at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China.
Today I had the privilege of attending one of the Secretary’s last engagements here at the Embassy in Beijing – the Women Leaders Forum. While it’s always great to be asked to “cover an event” for an “S” visit, this unique roundtable discussion between the Secretary and 22 courageous female leaders will, for me, be a lasting memory of my time at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. I arrived early to escort the women into the Embassy’s auditorium, which was set up “living room” style, with sofas and chairs at the front of the room. I heard a few shrieks of delight from some of the participants as they ran into colleagues and friends. Soon the room was filled with women doctors, lawyers, professors, and NGO founders and board members. I felt truly humbled.
It was clear from the minute she entered the room that Secretary Clinton was among friends. In 1998, when our Secretary was First Lady, she met some of the women leaders on a trip to Beijing. Now, almost eleven years later, Secretary Clinton seemed thrilled to reconnect with her old friends, and make some new friends doing advocacy work in China. One participant was especially pleased to finally meet the Secretary in person, as she had tried to do so in Washington, D.C. when receiving her 2007 Vital Voices award, but couldn’t. Instead, she went to Madame Tussauds D.C. and got her picture with “the Secretary” there.
A candid 25 minute discussion on women’s progress in education, healthcare, legal rights, and political participation in China followed this warm opening. Many of the women shared their personal stories of how they got interested in their topics, which ranged from HIV/AIDS advocacy work, to rural women’s issues and gender equality, to energy and climate change. A few of them went as far as to describe the difficulties they have trying to work in a country where open discussion on these issues is not always welcome.
Secretary Clinton mentioned the recently passed Lilly Ledbetter Act to highlight that the U.S. is still working on women’s equality issues. The Secretary shared her view that change comes from millions of little decisions made by courageous individuals, and said that they should not get discouraged about their own capacity to overcome obstacles that stand in their way. In the end, the resounding message from the women to Secretary Clinton was, “We hope you come back.” I have no doubt she will.