What Hillary really did in Africa

While the media obsessed over her "tirade" in Congo, Clinton was championing women's rights

Published August 18, 2009 4:19PM (EDT)

The way the media has been picking apart and obsessing over Hillary Clinton's so-called tirade in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you'd think our secretary of state did nothing more on her 11-day trip to Africa than flip out at some poor student. But an article in Tuesday's Washington Post reminds us that Clinton spent much of her visit championing the rights of women and cementing her commitment to improving the lot of ladies worldwide. And she didn't just talk a big game to leaders and dignitaries; Clinton actually listened to regular, African women tell the stories of their often difficult lives.

As the article's author, Mary Beth Sheridan, describes, Clinton met with rape victims in Congo and women farmers in Kenya. She paid a visit to a successful, women-run housing project in South Africa that she has supported since her days as first lady and was greeted by a youth choir and a crowd of overjoyed fans. Sheridan points out that Clinton spent twice as long at the project as with the South African president. "It feeds my heart," the secretary of state told the reporter. Earlier in the piece, Clinton explains her strategy of combining high-profile meetings with more personal events like town halls and women's dinners: "It's just a constant effort to elevate people who, in their societies, may not even be known by their own leaders. My coming gives them a platform, which then gives us the chance to try and change the priorities of the governments."

Gee, that doesn't sound like the harpy who swooped down from Washington to remind Africa that she is effing secretary of state, goddammit!

Sheridan notes that while many recent secretaries of state (three out of the last four, actually) have been women, Clinton has by far the greatest "pop feminist" cred. Clinton also spoke to Sheridan about her larger feminist agenda, enthusing about Melanne Verveer, her longtime colleague and recent appointee for the new position of global ambassador for women's affairs: "She will permeate the State Department, as I want her to, with what we should be doing about empowering and focusing on women across the board."

Unfortunately, although Clinton's impeccable women's rights record speaks for itself, Sheridan also observes a good deal of skepticism about the secretary of state's pro-woman mission. "It's great she's mentioning the issue," Brett Schaefer, an Africa scholar at the Heritage Foundation, told the Post. "As to whether her bringing it up will substantially improve the situation or treatment of women in Africa, frankly I doubt it." And Lawrence Wilkerson, who was Colin Powell's chief of staff, felt the need to warn Clinton that sometimes women's rights will just have to take a back seat to big-boy issues, like war: "You might be right, in the narrow sense of women in that country or region need to be empowered, but you're saying something inimical to other U.S. interests." (Hear that, Congolese rape victims?)

These condescending reactions can't help but remind me of Judith Warner's fantastic New York Times blog post about Clinton. Written in response to last week's DRC hullabaloo, "Hillary Fights a Tide of Trivialization" argues that Americans need to stop exploiting the secretary of state's smallest slip-ups for entertainment value if we want to see real, global improvements in women's rights:

As she circles the globe in coming years, making the case for women’s empowerment, starting with their basic right to be taken seriously, Clinton really has her work cut out for her. And it isn’t just because the situation of women around the world is so dire, and the ocean of problems confronting them — maternal mortality, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, malnourishment, lack of education, lack of adequate medical care, just for starters — is so wide and so deep. And it isn’t just that her historic mandate — to equally empower the other half of the world’s population, to chip away at the forces "devaluing women," in the words of Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s new ambassador at large for global women’s issues — is so huge and vague and seemingly overwhelming. It’s also because the tide of trivialization that washes over all things "Hillary" is just so powerful. That tide threatens to drown out anything of substance Clinton might attempt for a population whose problems have long been obscured in the androcentric world of diplomacy. And that’s a huge pity.

A huge pity, indeed. If only the media could learn to pay as much attention to Clinton's smart political moves as they do to her fashion faux pas and comments about Bill, perhaps she could finally prove the naysayers wrong.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

MORE FROM Judy Berman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------