In a gathering held last night at the White House, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton held a discussion with women’s historians and activists on the topic of women’s rights, past and present. Others were invited to participate by calling in questions or submitting thoughts via the Internet.
The discussion was part of a series of “Millenium Evenings” sponsored by the White House to celebrate American culture and ideas. Three distinguished scholars including President Ruth J. Simmons of Smith College, Rutgers labor historian Alice Keller-Harris, and Yale history professor Nancy Cott were invited to speak and to answer questions input by the public.
Hillary Clinton said that women today face a “constant stream of choices” that their mothers and grandmothers never had. She explained that many of women’s decisions regarding work and family still “exact consequences down the road,” given that child-rearing is still undervalued in our society. Clinton stated that women who take time off from work or reduce their hours to care for children still must face the possibility that they will face discrimination when they try to re-enter the workforce full-time.
Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Cott and others also expressed regret that some women and girls still shy away from calling themselves feminists, despite the fact that believe in women’s equality. “That word has taken such a beating,” said Clinton.
Another topic that came up during discussion was the size and relevance of the political “gender gap.” While several of the scholars noted that men and women do vote differently, they also indicated that the gap has been small and relatively insignificant. President Clinton piped in with his own perspective on the gender gap, saying “I would not be here if it did not exist.”
At one point in the discussion, the president was asked a question that was submitted via the Internet. The question asked what Clinton planned to do to help the women of Afghanistan, who are barred from work, education, adequate medical treatment, and mobility under the repressive Taliban regime. The President condemned the Taliban’s treatment of women and dismissed claims that the Taliban’s actions are based on Islam. “It is simply not acceptable to say that this is nothing more than an expression of religious conviction,” he said. President Clinton pointed to Iran, another fundmentalist Islamic state, and declared that Iran’s recent municipal elections included “hundreds of women candidates.”
President Clinton said that he hoped to do more to call attention to the Taliban’s abuses and urged participants to join the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campaign to Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan.