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Good afternoon, good afternoon. Thank you, Melanne for that very kind introduction, and for your extraordinary leadership, in a rather short tenure, you have already improved the lives of women not just in the United States, but of course, around the world. So thank you— for everything that you do each and every day.
I also want to thank Ambassador DiCarlo for welcoming us here today, of course my dear friend Susan Rice for her extraordinary leadership here at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
I also want to acknowledge our cosponsors for this extraordinarily important discussion, the Government of India. And we have just heard from Secretary Gangadharan of India, and India has taken extraordinary strides to further women's political participation, and we look forward to continuing to partner on this issue with you.
I also want to thank our panelists, who I had the chance to meet very briefly before we began today.
And finally, I want to acknowledge our public delegates. They are a truly remarkable group of women–and for the first time a man–all who are doing extraordinary work in rural communities, both in the United States and around the world. And if I could ask them to stand for a quick moment and be recognized.
As we kick-off this important discussion about the political participation of women, I’d like start by sharing with you my story that led me to public service.
When I graduated from law school, I was the first lawyer in my family, and I practiced law for six years at two of the top law firms in Chicago. I had moved up to the 79th floor of the Sears Tower, which is a great, beautiful office building in Chicago, and I had a fabulous view of Lake Michigan. To any outside observer, it would appear that my dream had come true.
But after my daughter Laura was born, I began to ask myself some tough questions: Did I truly have passion for my work? Was I making a valuable difference in the lives of others? Did I feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day? And the toughest question– when my daughter grew older, would she be proud of me? I knew that my family and many of my peers thought I had it all, but I still remember when I admitted tearfully to myself that I was miserable.
All too often we don’t trust that tiny voice inside of us, particularly women, especially when those we love or respect disagree with us. Well, because I did, I had the courage to take a giant leap of faith and join local government in Chicago. I moved into a tiny cubicle with a office window, I won’t even call it an office—a cubicle window facing an alley. But I have to share with you, from that first day, I felt that I was a part of something larger than myself—something truly important, and I learned so many lessons working for local government in Chicago—looking directly into the faces and hearts of the people whose lives government touched essentially each and every day. It was that path that led me here today as a senior advisor to President Obama, and I assure you that if I had stayed in my law firm, you would not have invited me here to speak today.
My parents raised me to believe that if I worked hard and I focused on my goals, there were no limits to what I could accomplish. My responsibility as the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls is to help ensure that all women and girls have that same opportunity.
I’m proud to be here today on behalf of President Obama who shares these goals. His steadfast commitment to improving the lives of women and girls really stems directly from his life experiences. As some of you know, the President’s mother was a researcher, and an expert in international development. She supported women entrepreneurs in countries around the world. The President recalls her telling him, “You can tell how far a society is going to go by how it treats its women and girls. And if they’re doing well, then their society is going to be doing well as well.”
Growing up, President Obama also saw women in his life struggle to be recognized and valued. His mother struggled to make ends meet and depended on food stamps for a period in her life when she was having trouble putting food on the table and taking care of the President and his sister. His grandmother, who helped raise him, became the vice president of a bank where she worked, but after that, she hit a glass ceiling. And in fact, for nearly two decades, men who she trained, leapfrogged above her for promotions.
When the President’s two daughters were young, he saw how challenging it was for our First Lady to balance the demands of her career with her family.
The President’s dream is for his daughters to grow up in a world where they can compete on an even playing field. A world where women have access to equal education, equal pay, and equal opportunity.
The President is determined that America will do our part to help empower women.
As Melanne mentioned, under the national action plan that the President created by executive order in December of 2011, all representatives of the United States government who serve in conflict areas will be responsible for making sure that women are a part of the peacemaking process.
USAID has launched a women’s leadership fund, and the State Department has created an initiative for women in public service. And last year, here at the UN, Secretary Clinton signed a new Declaration on Women’s Participation.
These are just a few of the many steps that we are taking, and we’re absolutely committed to do more. During President Obama’s address to the 2011 UN General Assembly, he reaffirmed his commitment to increasing women’s participation, and called upon member states to announce, within the next year, the steps that they are taking to break down economic and political barriers for women and girls. As a part of our contribution to this effort, the United States introduced the UNGA Third Committee resolution on “Women and Political Participation,” which calls on all states to end discriminatory laws and actively promote and protect human rights for women to take a part in public life.
This resolution was adopted with over 130 co-sponsors, and I think that’s terrific news. This week, we’re looking forward to identifying new partners who will help us deliver on the President’s challenge, and join us in our commitment to women around the world.
This is not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. We know women’s participation affects global stability. It affects national security. And as we pursue our broader foreign-policy goals, it’s imperative that we incorporate the perspective of women.
The President intends to lead by example here in the United States, by harnessing the extraordinary talents of women and girls, as we create an America that’s built to last.
Over the last three years, I have met so many amazing women who have deeply inspired me to work harder and harder on their behalf, including three remarkable women that I met when the President gave his State of the Union just a month or so ago.
First, there was Lori Kilker, a chemist from Brighton, Colorado. Last October, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission investigated sex discrimination at her former employer, and she was awarded back wages that she so rightly deserved.
There was Jackie Bray, a single mother from North Carolina. Jackie was laid off from her job last January, but because of her ambition and determination, she enrolled at a community college, mastered new skills, searched until she found a job, and is now a process operator at an energy hub in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And finally, Mahala Greer, a student at the University of Colorado-Denver. She majors in English, and she will teach in a public school next year. However, when she graduates in May, she’ll have more than $35,000 in student loans.
Lori, Jackie, and Mahala each have the kind of determination, resilience, and optimism that enables countless Americans to make a real difference in our country, and honor the promise that no matter who you are, or where you come from, you can make it if you try.
I believe these women remind us of the millions of women around the country and around the world who have limitless potential, limitless potential. And they also remind us, that as they work hard to reach that potential, government can and should play a vital role in helping them succeed.
This is why the very first bill that the President signed, when he came to office, was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps protect women and their right to equal pay for equal work so that people like Lori have a remedy to discrimination.
It’s why the President has taken steps to increase student loan awards, and reduce repayments, in order to make college more affordable for young people like Mahala.
And it’s why he has invested in science and technology and engineering and math for young girls, so that more women have the capability to compete for jobs like Jackie, the jobs of the 21st Century.
And it’s why he’s promoted workplace flexibility so that parents can successfully balance their careers with their families. It’s why he has committed his administration to ending domestic violence and human trafficking. And it’s why he signed the Affordable Care Act that provides for health insurance for all people of the United States and it prohibits insurance companies from discriminating against women and provides women with the kind of preventive care that they need without (inaudible), so that we don’t have to choose between paying our rent and taking care of our health
He has placed women in many of the highest positions within his administration including the Secretary of State, the UN Ambassador, the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Labor. Nearly 50 percent of his appointees to district courts are women, by far the highest percentage of any President in American history. He has already appointed two women to the Supreme Court, including our first Latina. And he has recently nominated the first woman to be a four-star general in the history of the Air Force.
The President knows that empowering women is key to the competitiveness of our country. When women succeed, society succeeds.
When the President congratulated the 2011 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, “When women and girls have the opportunity to pursue their education and careers of their choosing, economies are more likely to prosper. And when women assume their rightful place as equals—in the halls of government and at the negotiating table, and across civil society—governments are more effective, peaceful resolution of disputes are more lasting, and societies are more likely to meet the aspirations of all of their citizens.”
That’s a goal that I know we are all here to share.
There is much work left to do, so we must be vigilant, and continue to challenge ourselves to develop new strategies to improve the quality of life for women and girls.
If you represent an NGO, you have the power to lift up women’s voices from rural Oklahoma to Punjab. If you are part of the private sector, you can reinforce Women’s Empowerment Principles launched by UN Women, by committing your company to action. And if you’re a delegate here on behalf of your government to the CSW, then I reiterate President Obama’s challenge from the general assembly – let’s work together to take tangible steps, sustainable steps— to increase the number of women who participate in public life.
I began today by talking about my daughter Laura who is now twenty-six. I know that’s hard to believe I can have a twenty-six year old daughter. I will digress because everybody always jokes about the President’s grey hair, mine’s not so funny.
I’m just as committed as ever to doing work that makes her proud, committed to ensuring an easier path for her and for her children.
If we remain dedicated to our goal, we can and we will continue this progress, each and every day. We can give women opportunities that were out of reach for their mothers and their grandmothers. And we can leave behind a world that is more fair, more safe, more just, and more prosperous than the one we inherited.