Remarks by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Washington, D.C.
March 15, 1999

Thank you so much. I am delighted to be here in front of all of you. As I look around this room I see so much energy and commitment and leadership, and it is a very exciting sight to behold. I want to thank Laura not just for that introduction, but for the work she does every day on behalf of issues that affect women and men, that affect people who deserve to have their voices heard to make sure that how they live and the needs of their lives are taken into account in our political system. And what Laura and her organization have done over the last 20 or so years now is to help give low-income women the tools they need to become their own best advocates. That is really our goal here -- to see how we can continue to work together to empower women to make decisions that are best for them and their lives.

And there are many people who we have to thank in this gathering: Susan Bianchi-Sand, I want to thank you for your hard work and your leadership; Ellie Smeal and Pat Reuss, for their tireless work in organizing this Women's Equality Summit. And we are grateful to the NEA, Bob Chase, and the entire leadership for letting us meet in this beautiful auditorium.

It is very fitting that we would be gathered here at the end of this century that has seen so many changes in women's lives. I'm just marveled when I think back about what women's lives were like at the beginning of this century. We couldn't vote. We were likely to die in childbirth or earlier from an infectious disease or some other kind of ailment. We were not permitted to hold many professional positions or jobs that were available to men. We were not given the full range of educational opportunities that we now take for granted.

Although the laws were slowly changing, they had not changed enough. So women were, in many respects, living in the worst of both worlds when it came to work because the women who did work outside the home worked very, very hard. There is a great myth about women only having begun working recently, and until that African American women who...(inaudible).

There are many changes that we can all be grateful for, and we can thank those who came before us. I was privileged to speak in Seneca Falls for the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Sentiments. And when you think about the work that those women did -- knowing that they probably would not see the fruits in their lifetime, that they were advocating for such radical changes: the right to vote, to inherit property, to be able to be the custodian of one's children in the event of divorce -- the things that we now can look back and thank them for.

But they were doing it not for themselves, but for the next generation and generations of women and men to come. Because these issues that we are talking about -- which we will be addressing in this next year and particularly in this Congress -- which have brought us together in this gathering today, they do have a disproportionate effect on women. But I want to make it very clear that these are human issues. And I say that because there is a recent trend in political commentary claiming that talking about child care or after-school care or the impoverishment of women on Social Security -- that addressing those issues somehow leads to the feminization of politics. Now I'm not against that, but I think it is fairer to say that we are attempting to bring about the humanization of politics.

Now you will hear from three women in a minute who have a lot of expertise and who will address specifically some of the issues that I'm going to just touch on. And they are three women whom I admire and call my friends: Secretary of Health and Human Services -- the longest serving secretary -- Secretary Shalala; and of course, those who follow what happens in Washington, we know also a crimebuster. The Secretary of Labor who has done a superb job in bringing to the table issues that affect pay equity and workers' rights and safety and occupational health -- a woman who served a great position in recent Democratic administrations, but particularly in the White House during the first term of the President and then as the Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman. And Barbara Kennelly -- I don't know if there is anyone here who is lucky enough to be represented in Connecticut by Congresswoman Kennelly, but for our first contingent, I'm sure it's represented here. But Barbara Kennelly served for years on the Ways and Means Committee, and while there she was a very strong advocate for fairness in government programs, particularly Social Security. And I'm delighted that she has been asked and that she has accepted the very important position in these times to be counselor to the Social Security Administration. So we're delighted to have her expertise here today.

I believe that some of you participated in the 1997 Women's Economic Leadership Summit in the White House, and today those of you who were there and those of you who have come to this meeting are building on the blueprint that many of you laid out at that important gathering. And the participants that are here represented by the National Council of Women's Organizations have a special responsibility because you are really standing in for congresswomen who couldn't be here -- certainly women whom you may know, whom you work with, who are in organizations that are part of your advocacy network -- but you're also standing in for women who will never know your name, will never know the name of your organization, will probably not know much about the debate that's going on here because they are struggling vitally to keep body and soul together. You know, they're getting up, getting kids off to school, getting to clock in on time, getting to the office on time, trying to figure out what happens when their child care arrangements fall apart, struggling to be paid equitably for the work that they do. They are there on the job, building America and taking care of the next generation of Americans, but they are not fully participating in the political process and they therefore -- as we always have in America -- are going to rely on people who understand them, empathize with them, and can represent them as you do so well. So this is an important gathering for those who are here, but it may even be more important for those who are not here, because many of the issues that we are talking about here today are ones that hold special meaning for people who are really struggling, who are trying to make sure that they have their shot at the American dream in the years to come. And the decisions that are made in Washington will, in very large measure, impact on how well they are able to do.

You know, sometimes I am a little bit taken aback and even bewildered when I hear people talking about politics as though it were the problem of somebody else, somewhere -- when we know that it is grassroots activism, it is citizen participation, it is the voices of all of us that have to rise in a crescendo of chorus to be heard by people who make decisions, that really has always made America move forward. If politically elected leaders were left to themselves, we wouldn't have suffrage, we wouldn't have a lot of the changes that happened at the end of this last century and the beginning of this next. Those were not ideas that flowed from the very closely held power of elected office; those were ideas that came from the grassroots by people just like us. And it is because of that that it is critical that we once again re-energize the women of America and the men to understand what it will take to move into this next century with the kind of confidence and energy that we should have. Because just think about the relative handful of women and their male allies, at the end of the last century, who made so many of the reforms possible that we have come to take for granted.

I recently read the galleys of a new biography of the early years of Jane Addams. She forged a new pattern, along with other women who were like-minded, who fought and struggled and advocated for legislation that would get children out of factories, give women a decent shot at a 40-hour week, not a 60- or a 70-hour week. They cleaned up the slums of Chicago or New York or a lot of our other cities where immigrants were just herded in and tried to be kept in their places. So there was a lot of work -- important work -- that was led by, that was given voice by women at the end of this last century.

I think we have just the kind of opportunity to do that again now. Because look at the situation we're in. We have a lot of blessings to be grateful for right now in our country. I'm very pleased that we have the kind of economic recovery that has made it possible to create many new jobs. I am pleased at how we are beginning to see the fruits of those economic changes really spread into the lives of people who are left out or marginalized. I'm delighted by what I hear about the expansion of health care to children that was passed through the balanced budget. I rejoice in the declining of crime throughout our country because we adopted new strategies and people work together at the community level. So we have a lot to be grateful for, but that is not just a time to rest on our laurels, that is a time to say, "Well, what do we do with those blessings? How do we make sure that they are truly, really, once and for all embedded in the bedrock of our society, and then made clear that they are available to everyone?"

Well, there are some particular issues that we have to be addressing right now, and we finally have the tools and the resources -- if we can summon the political will -- to address. Now what are some of those issues? Well, clearly, the debate about the Social Security system is going to be one that will have profound effects on how we live into the next century. Social Security was, first and foremost, not a legislative program, not an economic decision; it was a statement of values. How will we treat people as they age? How will we take care of them in their later years? What kind of society will we be if we turn our backs on our mothers and fathers and our grandmothers and our grandfathers?

So we took that value statement and put into effect a program. The Social Security program is our nation's solemn pledge that Americans can and will grow older with dignity. It's a commitment that our parents and our grandparents have been able to rely upon. But it is not just a retirement program, and this is a particular point that I wish to stress today -- almost one-third of the beneficiaries of the Social Security system are not retirees, but they are severely disabled workers, they're children, survivors of workers who've died in an untimely manner, including millions and millions of young people.

So in a very real sense that statement of values should be expanded beyond what we usually say -- namely, that it is a pledge to our older citizens -- to really be seen as a pledge that there will be a family protection system to guard against what a wonderful man some of you may have known and worked with, Arthur Fleming, used to say, "to guard against the hazards and vicissitudes of life." And whenever I would hear Arthur say that in his inimitable manner as he stood on the front lines of social justice for 90 plus years before his death a few years ago, I used to think about how, as you're younger, you don't think about hazards and vicissitudes often; as you get older you think more about hazards and vicissitudes. And there are so many young people who have been protected by and who could benefit in the event of a tragedy or catastrophe, that may not even know that.

One of the messages that I would like to see us get out through our grassroots efforts is that this Social Security system, this family protection system, is just as important to someone in their 20s as someone in their 80s. There are many of you, as I look out, who are more in the category of 20s than 80s, and you and your friends may not know what the Social Security system means to you. I've heard many stories about young people who have suffered serious accidents, or the death of a parent, who have been able to go onto college, been able to have a decent standard of living because of the Social Security system. Just today I met a woman from Silver Spring, Maryland. Ruth is a widow whose husband died when she was only 39 years old -- something she certainly never expected -- leaving her with two small children to raise. She now receives her own retirement benefits as well as a portion of widow's benefits. She's been able to send both of her children through college.

I met a young man, just 31, who had a debilitating stroke -- something he never could have dreamed of. And thanks to Social Security, he was able to piece together enough resources to keep his family in their home and to keep living as they had lived pretty much before the stroke. Now I would imagine that there are many such stories in this room, and those stories should be told. Because it is really by stories that we identify more and learn more about what it is that we are trying to save or promote or protect. Just saying Social Security may not ring a bell; talking about an elderly relative or a young friend who has had a disaster, by whom we can then make Social Security seem alive, is a much clearer way to make the point.

There is another way which Social Security is a family protection, and that is that were it not for Social Security, half of all American women over 65 would be poor. Now think about that. And what I've tried to do is -- as I travel around or even sometimes as I look out the window of the car I'm in -- I look at women and I think to myself every time I see a woman over 65, and then another one, that one of those two, were it not for Social Security, would be impoverished. That's a stunning statistic. And it means -- as I know it would mean in your life -- that were it not for Social Security, many of us would be supporting our parents. We would take them in, we would do what we needed to do to try to provide the resources they required to stay above poverty, to live as comfortably as we could afford. And that would cause a lot of difficult decisions in our lives, wouldn't it? There would be many families who would have to choose between supporting a parent -- an elderly parent -- and sending a child to college.

It becomes even more pronounced if we add Medicare into that equation, because most families already try to do everything we can emotionally and financially to support an older relative in whatever way is necessary. And particularly when it comes to health care we would certainly do all we could to make sure that a mother or a father or a grandparent had the health care that was needed. And that would mean an economic responsibility and an economic burden that we would feel required to shoulder.

So in a very real sense, Medicare and Social Security say to our older people: We're going to help you remain independent, and by helping to support you because of what you've done for our country -- the families you've raised, the jobs you've held, the incomes that you've contributed to the United States, the wars you've fought -- we're going to help, as a nation, to support you. And by doing so, we're going to free up the resources that might otherwise have to come directly to you from your family, so that they can do what you did -- raise the next generation, send their children to college, hold down the jobs that enable them to move forward.

So this is in a very real way, a totally interdependent system. And it needs to be seen in that way, because once it is seen in that way, then the debate about Social Security is not some abstract discussion that affects older people, the debate about Medicare is not somebody else's health care needs; it is how we all take care of each other and how we each fulfill our obligations to both the younger and the older generation.

And when the President proposed in the State of the Union that he wanted to set aside a large portion of the budget surplus to preserve and strengthen Social Security well into the 21st century, it was a way of saying, "Let's take this money that we have been able to save because of budget decisions -- tough budget decisions that were made earlier in this Administration -- and let's use it to start solving a problem that if we solve now, will be easier and less expensive to address, and if we wait, will become more difficult and more costly to address." That 62 percent figure that the President said would be necessary to take from the surplus and use for Social Security would go a long way towards strengthening the system.

With respect to Medicare, he proposed 15 percent of the surplus to help expand and extend the life of Medicare. And that too is a way of saying to older Americans, "We want to ensure that your health needs are met." Because, after all, if we are able to expand and extend Medicare, we will be providing health care to older Americans who are the most expensive people in the system -- which is just a natural cause of aging -- but for whom the provision of Medicare is getting increasingly more cost-effective. Thanks to HHS under Donna Shalala's leadership, we are beginning to really see tremendous progress in getting the fraud and the abuse and the waste out of the Medicare system. But we already have a very low administrative cost in Medicare. So a dollar in Medicare actually goes further in providing real services to patients than a dollar in private insurance where money has to go to overhead, profit, and things like that. So Medicare -- if it is handled correctly -- can be there well into the future for all of us.

Now that is not the place to stop, however -- although that will be probably the most contentious and difficult of the debates we face as we close out this century. But I see it is a continuum of the work that Jane Adams and others started a hundred years ago to get to that point where Social Security remains safe and secure, and where Medicare is there for all of us as we reach our older years.

But one of the ways we could make life easier for women and families right now is to do more to close the pay gap between men and women. The AFL-CIO just released a report that highlights the critical importance of equal pay, and makes clear that we all pay a high price when equal pay is denied. According to the study, an average working family loses more than $4,000 a year because of the wage gap between men and women. Now that not only hurts women, it hurts single mothers, it hurts working couples, it hurts families, and it hurts our nation's economy. And then, in this interdependent web that we are all part of whether we admit it or not, it hurts our Social Security payments. Because if we don't get paid what we're entitled to be paid, then when we retire, our Social Security payment is less than it should be. So all of this is connected with the very fundamental goal of providing economic security to working people and retired people.

The study also found that over half of the two-earner and single mother households across the country now living in poverty would be lifted out of poverty if equal pay policies were enacted and enforced at the state level. Now that is a stunning statistic. Again, let's just put a mental picture in our heads. I have stood at factory gates with people coming to work at five o'clock in the morning with little babies -- and pick-up trucks that had to be then driven somewhere -- until they could be taken to day care or school. I've been in lots of offices where young women and older women are working very, very hard, and I've seen a lot of people who are working hard -- 40 hours a week -- and still below the poverty line. Now that is something that should be unacceptable in America. Everybody who works full time should have a wage that is above the poverty line, and we could get closer to that goal if we enforced equal pay. Now that is just a simple question of fairness and equity with great economic consequences.

Now there is another piece of this economic security pie, and that is what do we do to make sure that women and men who are raising families have the supports they need so that they're able to do the best job they can at home and at work?

Now just a few weeks ago, I was in Brooklyn at a YMCA where I had a fascinating and moving roundtable with six women. There was a single mom there who has really worked her way up in the corporation where she is employed. She now makes $30,000 a year -- she gets no child support from the father of her child -- so that is the income that she is using to raise her son and support herself. Now after she pays taxes and rent and utilities and food and all the things we have to pay for, she has no money left to afford child care because she makes too much money to qualify for subsidized care. I see lots of heads nodding. And that is the case of literally millions of women around our country. And so this woman is in a state of constant anxiety as she tries to juggle where to put her son and make sure that her child care arrangements don't fall apart, because she can't afford to lose this job that she has worked so hard to achieve.

Now we need to do better and do more in this country to make sure that every working parent has access to good quality, affordable child care. And I'm pleased that tomorrow there will be the introduction of some pieces of legislation. I believe Representative Ellen Tauscher of California and Representative Ben Cardin of Maryland will be introducing important child care legislation and holding the first child care hearing. Now I hope that these initiatives signal that we are going to get some action on this issue.

We're also fighting to dramatically increase after-school programs so that working families don't have to worry about where their children are in the hours between 3 and 6 p.m., when so many problems arise with kids -- the times when more crimes are committed and more other kinds of difficulties occur.

We're also committed to expanding and extending the Family and Medical Leave Act so that more working families can take time to care for their sick child or aging parent -- and still keep their jobs.

Now this is just part of a broad agenda for working men and women, and for working families, so that we can begin to make good on the promises that the end of this century hold out to us. I am so pleased that I could be standing here in 1999 before this audience of advocates and people who understand what's happening in the lives of Americans, and talking about what we have to be grateful for. But I hope that in the next couple of years we could have a similar meeting where we talk about what we've achieved on the rest of this agenda, so that we will be able to look back and say we have made good on the promise of Social Security and Medicare; we finally have a system of affordable, quality child care and after-school care; we have paid attention to our public schools; we have given our public schools and their teachers the support, the dignity, and the respect they deserve to have to do the most important job.

Now it is never easy, and this is an ambitious agenda. But I am very confident we can achieve these goals. I'm also very sure it will be difficult. But as I look back on this century and I think about the achievements that have really moved us forward as women, as Americans, as human beings, I know that it takes concerted effort. I know that it takes a lot of people making their contributions.

As I read this Jane Addams' biography, I encountered the names of women whom I have not heard of before, women who are critical to doing things like the first garbage inspection tour of a ward in Chicago to force the political leadership to clean the garbage up out of the alleyways and off the street corners; and there was a women who got into a cart every day and she went around and took notes about where the garbage was. Well, that led to changes in how garbage was collected. It led to public health changes about how we understood what spread disease and what hygiene meant. And so I saw the names of people that may not ever have their own biographies written about them, but who were part of a movement that made a difference in our lives.

Now we're having at the White House a series of Millennium lectures and events under the theme of "Honor the Past -- Imagine the Future." Well, yes, we can and should honor the past. We should especially honor those women and men who were on the forefront of change, often at great cost to themselves. Think of the names that they were called, think of the isolation that they suffered, think of the fingers that were pointed at them because they stood up for women's suffrage or they were the first to try to get a job that others had held before and only men were permitted. Think of all those people and, yes, let us honor the past. But we also have an equal and, I would argue, an even greater obligation to imagine a future where the work of the past and the work of the present combine to create changes that will truly set the stage for the kind of country and world we want to inherit in and live in. Each of you is playing a role in that, and I am grateful and thankful that you are standing in the shoes of those who have come before. And who knows? In a hundred years someone may be standing here, or probably in a virtual room somewhere, talking about some of you and also talking about all of you -- some by name -- but all because you have made a decision to help set us on the right course for the future.

Thank you all for having me.


[Footer icon]

[White House icon] [Help Desk icon]

To comment on this service,
send feedback to the Web Development Team.