About the Author: Kathleen Stephens serves as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.
In celebrating International Women’s Day, I am reminded of Secretary Clinton’s recent visit and the impact she had that day on thousands of young Korean women.
While Secretary Clinton’s visit to Korea from February 19 to 20 was packed with significant events and discussions, the consensus was that the highlight of the visit was the extraordinary conversation the Secretary conducted at a town hall meeting with over three thousand women students at Ewha Womans University.
As one of the top universities in Seoul and the largest female educational institute in the world, Ewha was the perfect place for Secretary Clinton to engage with future women leaders. She began by talking about the centrality of women’s rights not only in promoting human rights but also to foreign and security policy writ large. The Secretary then opened the floor to questions, and there were many. While some in the Western press were nonplussed that many of the Ewha students’ questions were not about foreign policy, I think we were all very interested in the Secretary’s answers.
The sense of shared concerns and shared experience in that huge auditorium was palpable, as Secretary Clinton responded to an array of questions, both professional and private. Several weeks later, both Korean women and men, are still abuzz about Secretary Clinton’s sincere, thoughtful, and personal reflections.
In a country where the emphasis on family is so important, many of the attendees remarked on what a rare opportunity it was to see a more personal side of the Secretary. They appreciated her hard-won wisdom in discussing the challenge of balancing a family with a career. They welcomed hearing about her daughter, her life as the First Lady, and the experiences of her youth. In turn, Secretary Clinton saw firsthand the talent, energy, and ambitions of Korea’s young women.
As we mark International Women’s Day, I think again of how I identified with many of the experiences and feelings the Secretary described last month in Seoul. I respect the accomplishments of women like the Korean National Assemblywomen the Secretary met, Ewha’s President Lee Bae-yong, and Korean astronaut Yi So-Yeon -- women who pushed and still push the envelope (in Yi’s case literally) every day. Their examples show the way toward a future where women’s rights will be so obvious that promoting them will no longer be necessary.
While we laud women’s progress, as Secretary Clinton noted, such progress is not inevitable or inexorable. We still live in a world in which three-fifths of its poorest people are women. Young girls constitute seventy percent of the children who are not in school worldwide. Half a million women die every year in childbirth. In the U.S., as in Korea, as in the rest of the world, we still have some ways to go. I think of what Eleanor Roosevelt said: “It is not enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it is not enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” We must continue to work together, whether an Ewha student, a National Assembly Member, a Jeju woman diver, an LPGA golfer, an Ambassador in Korea, or a Secretary of State, to advance the cause of women. In so doing, we advance the cause of us all.