The Big Question: what was the greatest speech? Tina Brown's choice is Hillary Clinton's "battle cry for women" in Beijing, 1995
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
It was the speech that launched a movement. In September 1995, Hillary Clinton went to Beijing to host the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Preparations were fraught because of suddenly escalated tensions with the Chinese, and she was under some pressure to pull out. But she chose to defy her critics both in the media and in Congress. Speaking out for women was imperative.
The tensions, of course, increased the spotlight. The world’s eyes were on Hillary, in her pale-pink First Lady’s suit, as she entered the plenary hall. It was packed with delegates. She remembers feeling unusually nervous, afraid of letting down her country, her husband and herself. She was conscious that the tone and pitch of her voice had to be measured. "Like it or not," she was to say, "women are always subject to criticism if they show too much feeling in public."
She knew she had to send a message to China about its human-rights violations while also addressing the abuses of women worldwide. And so, after a clear call to hear the voices of all women, she launched a peroration that, nearly 20 years on, remains the defining battle cry for women. "It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution. It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small…It is a violation of human rights when young girls are brutalised by the painful and degrading practice of genital mutilation…" On she went with her killer list, before reaching her climactic conclusion: "If there is one message that echoes from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all."
The Chinese may have blacked out her speech on television, but the women of the world have never forgotten it. Earlier this year I introduced Hillary, now a former secretary of state, at the Women in the World summit at the Lincoln Centre in New York. She concluded her tour d’horizon of the challenges facing women with a reprise of her greatest line from Beijing. When she got to "once and for all", 2,500 women of every age and nationality rose to their feet with a mighty, affirming roar.
Tina Brown is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast and Newsweek
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