Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hillary Clinton's Global Agenda

As many observed, Hillary Clinton's Africa trip flew mostly under the radar, emerging only with a gotcha moment when she snapped at someone asking about Bill (or they weren't asking about Bill, or they were asking about Bill after all, depending on which report you believe -- I've now typed his name three times as much as hers thus far, gosh, why does that happen?).

Clinton is doing something important, and new: placing women's concerns at the forefront of U.S. policy toward the world -- not just as "development," but as a formal part of economic and security policy.
In a DailyBeast essay, "Hillary's New Crusade," Michelle Goldberg put it like this:
Rhetorically, there’s not much new here—for years, politicians, economists, development experts, and national-security specialists have argued that women’s oppression leads to economic stagnation, and political instability. (As Lawrence Summers, no paragon of radical feminism, argued when he was chief economist of the World Bank, “Educating girls yields a higher rate of return than any other investment in the developing world.”) But Clinton has acted on this understanding in bold and unequivocal ways. [my emphasis]
The NYTimes package I flagged yesterday has an interview with her, "A New Gender Agenda," in which Clinton makes the further point that economic development efforts, such as micro-lending, should not even be distinguished from security questions, these are intimately intertwined.
BUT I'm surprised (well, not so very surprised) that there is little reflection, throughout this issue of the NYT magazine, on the role religion plays in the story of women. And then, turning to Goldberg's assessment of the broad vision Hillary Clinton brings to her role as Secretary of State, I am again surprised to see no mention of the fact that she is an active Methodist and a thoughtful Christian, which surely informs her vision of the good (recall the 1993 NYT Mag cover story, "Saint Hillary").

Perhaps this is because there are some conflicts, some real (and some simply manufactured for fund-raising purposes), between the "new agenda" and the global religious story about gender, for Christians and others. The lead-in to that interview mentions her role in the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995). For a sense of the conflict of these "agendas," see the final Vatican statement, delivered by delegation head Mary Ann Glendon (later ambassador to the Vatican, recently refused the Laetare Medal at ND because it was honoring Obama). Here's a relevant excerpt (but there's more, read the whole thing for the problematic details):
The documents before us reflect that complex and uneven history of women's search. They are full of promise, but often short on concrete commitment, and in certain respects one could ask if the long-term consequences will really serve the good of women.
The Delegation of the Holy See has worked hard, in a constructive way and in a spirit of good will to make the documents more responsive to women. Certainly the living heart of these documents lies in their sections on the needs of women in poverty, on strategies for development, on literacy and education, on ending violence against women, on a culture of peace, and on access to employment, land, capital, and technology.
My Delegation is pleased to note a close correspondence between these points and Catholic social teaching.
My Delegation would be remiss in its duty to women, however, if it did not also indicate several critical areas where it strongly disagrees with the text. My Delegation regrets to note in the text an exaggerated individualism, in which key, relevant provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are slighted, for example, the obligation to provide"special care and assistance" to motherhood. This selectivity thus marks another step in the colonization of the broad and rich discourse of universal rights by an impoverished, libertarian rights dialect. Surely this international gathering could have done more for women and girls than to leave them alone with their rights! [my emphasis]

Glendon and the Holy See were arguing, in 1995, that the "global women's agenda" was too often hijacked by a liberal western feminist emphasis on the availability of contraception and abortion. Hillary Clinton's global agenda most emphatically does not do that. Yet, to be effective, and humane, such an agenda needs to take careful -- and yes, pragmatic -- account of the role of religion in defining -- and sustaining -- the women of the world.
This will make a hard task even more difficult, and even more likely to get bogged down in contrasting cultural agendas that have little to do with the reality on the ground, to which Clinton is clearly committed. But I think it's necessary.
UPDATE: Washington Post: David Rothkopf on HRC, from Aug. 23.

Thus another programming note: Sr. Margaret Farley (Yale Divinity School, emerita) speaks at Fairfield University at 7:30 pm on Wednesday, 7 October 2009. Her vision will be global, her lecture title is "Agenda for Women in the 21st Century Church." The lecture is free and open to the public ... see you there.