Thank you, Presidents [Nancy Duff] Campbell and [Marcia] Greenberger for that kind introduction – and for your decades of unwavering commitment to the cause of justice and the mission of equality. I want to thank Board Chair [Jane] Sherburne for her tireless devotion to this organization; my former colleague Tony West for chairing this inspiring event; and our special guest, Roberta Kaplan, for being a part of this celebration. I also want to thank and to recognize our remarkable honorees – Representative Rosa DeLauro, Sherrilyn Ifill and Saru Jayaraman – for your tireless dedication and extraordinary achievements in the work that is our common cause. It is a pleasure to be here this evening, and it’s a privilege to join this group of passionate advocates and distinguished public servants as we recognize the accomplishments of three exceptional honorees; as we celebrate this organization’s immeasurable effect on the lives of America’s women and families; and as we rededicate ourselves to the ongoing work of creating a more just, more equal and more inclusive society for all Americans.
From its earliest days more than four decades ago, the National Women’s Law Center has helped lead a national charge to reorient the way our country and its institutions view women and the issues that affect them. You have held up an image of a society in which a woman’s presence in a boardroom, on a ballot, in a lab or in a uniform is the rule rather than the exception. You have fought for equality, for respect and for fundamental fairness regardless of gender, while at the same time leading a visionary campaign to transform the assumptions made about women and girls, to lift the burdens disproportionately placed on our shoulders and to unlock the opportunities we are too often denied. You have waged that campaign with tactical skill, impeccable credibility and unerring focus. And you have done so by making your voice heard across all three branches of government, as laws are being drafted, enforced and interpreted. You championed the Affordable Care Act in Congress and lent your voices to help defend it in court. You pushed for the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and helped make it the first piece of legislation President Obama signed when he took office. And for decades, you have worked carefully and consistently to make Title IX’s promise real for students and educators who deserve the equal treatment it was intended to provide. After 43 years on the front lines, you are a model for social justice advocates everywhere. You have achieved results that were once unthinkable, but are now undeniable. And you have steadily and deliberately built one victory upon another, constructing a record that stands as a towering legacy of equality, freedom and life-changing opportunity.
The fact that so many extraordinary, successful, accomplished women are here today – and the fact that I have the honor of addressing you as Attorney General of the United States – is a testament to those achievements. It is evidence of the progress we have made. And the importance of your example – as role models for other women and as exemplars of what is possible – cannot be overstated. But as you know all too well, we still have a great deal left to accomplish – because for millions of women across the country, success still feels out of reach; progress belongs to someone else; and the opportunities for growth and achievement simply aren’t available to all.
As a U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, and now as Attorney General, I have seen firsthand the results of that lack of opportunity. I see young women of color who face higher odds of suspension and expulsion as a result of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that cast them as criminals before they have a chance to become scholars. I see incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated women who struggle to access the tools they need to return to their communities, rejoin their families, restore their futures and contribute meaningfully to our society. I see transgender women and girls facing discrimination as they muster the courage to express their identity and live openly as their true selves. And I see women who endure threats to their safety and attacks on their agency – through violence, through sexual assault and through crimes like human trafficking. We cannot leave these women behind. For our country to rise, we all must rise. And I want you to know that the Department of Justice I am proud to lead is dedicated to these issues and determined to make real, positive and lasting change.
That change can take root during the earliest days of a girl’s development. That’s why we’re working to foster safe, nurturing and productive school environments through programs like the National Girls Initiative, led by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and our Supportive School Discipline Initiative, run in partnership with the Department of Education. We’re promoting school discipline reform through the National Resource Center for School Justice Partnerships – a training portal that brings together schools, mental and behavioral health specialists, law enforcement agencies and juvenile courts to enhance collaboration and encourage disciplinary alternatives to law enforcement referrals. And our Civil Rights Division, informed by the work of local community and school leaders across the country, is taking steps to help transform school districts with histories of discriminatory suspensions, expulsions and in-school arrests. For girls and women who do come into contact with the justice system, we are investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs as alternatives to incarceration; promoting sentencing reform that will reduce the reliance on mandatory minimum sentences; and easing the transition out of the justice system and into communities where they can grow and succeed. These policies are vital – and they make clear our belief that a woman in difficult circumstances deserves the same care, the same understanding and the same legal rights as anyone else.
That principle may seem obvious – but its application is hardly consistent. And we have seen, particularly with transgender women and girls, how the inexperience and indifference of others can lead to serious problems. That’s why the Department of Justice is committed to protecting the rights of all women to live their lives safely and with support. We have argued for basic respect and equal treatment – asserting, for example, that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. Since December of last year, when we announced our position that the protections of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 include a prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender identity, we have defended the rights of women who have been denied equal employment opportunity because of their transgender status. And with the passage in 2009 of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – which amended federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity – the Justice Department gained powerful new tools for pursuing those who commit hate crimes against women, including transgender women. During this Transgender Awareness Week, and just a few days before the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance – which sadly commemorates lives that have been lost to anti-transgender violence – we recommit ourselves to the principles that animate these efforts. No woman, whether cisgender or transgender, should ever be made to feel that simply being a woman opens her up to scorn, to abuse or to violence.
That includes sexual violence, and violence from an intimate partner – crimes that for too long were swept under the rug, that for too long were ignored or downplayed and that for too long placed blame on the victim, rather than on the perpetrator where it belongs. Here, too, the Department of Justice is determined to ensure that all women – yes, all women – are supported not just with words, but with actions. Our National Institute of Justice is providing law enforcement with the funding, research and data it needs to better understand and more effectively combat sexual assault. Our Office on Violence Against Women offers grants and technical assistance programs designed to improve how the justice system handles domestic violence and sexual assault cases – including through the Sexual Assault Justice Initiative, which was announced earlier this fall and will give funds to eight pilot sites to implement effective practices for sexual assault prosecution. We worked with Congress to strengthen the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, particularly through a set of historic provisions that empower Indian tribes to hold non-Native offenders accountable for abuse. My former colleague Tony West, who is here tonight, was a leader in that fight, and in making good on the department’s promise of justice for native women. To say that our nation’s debt to Native American women is both deep and overdue is to utter a profound understatement. I am proud to lead a department of justice that is committed to ensuring that the first American women have equal access to the justice that every American woman deserves. We have also partnered with state and local authorities to address the kinds of training gaps, resource deficiencies and inadequate coordination that can lead to gender bias in policing.
After all, we know that when federal and local authorities work together to tackle gender-based bias and violence with the seriousness they demand, we can make a real and significant difference. In 2013, a Justice Department investigation found that the University of Montana-Missoula; its campus police; the Missoula Police Department; and the County Attorney’s Office were not meeting their legal responsibilities in responding to sexual assault complaints. In one instance, a campus officer taking a report from a victim of sexual assault failed to note any of the woman’s physical injuries – but did manage to note that her breath smelled of alcohol. Two campus police officers responding to a different case used the term “regretted sex” rather than “assault.” And some officers reportedly used their initial encounters to assess whether an allegation was “provable,” rather than simply gathering facts and treating survivors with a trauma-informed, victim-centered approach that is a hallmark of good policing. As a result of our investigation, we reached four settlement agreements with local entities – and thanks to the outstanding cooperation and proactive desire for reform, including from the local police department, Missoula has since made extraordinary progress, from improved victims’ services to increased confidence in the results of reporting assault. Missoula’s example not only serves as a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country – it also demonstrates the lasting progress that we can make when federal and local authorities work collaboratively to ensure that sexual assault cases are properly investigated; that wrongdoers are held fully accountable; and that victims receive the support and care they deserve.
That same victim-centered approach characterizes our work on human trafficking – one of the most devastating crimes facing women today, and one of my top priorities as Attorney General. Earlier this year, I was proud to announce that we would be expanding the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Team Initiative – an innovative program launched by my predecessor, Attorney General Holder, which created specialized units of attorneys and agents from across the federal government, enabling us to more effectively identify, apprehend and prosecute human traffickers and those who offer them material support. That expansion will introduce the initiative to new cities and bring to bear the full weight of our law enforcement capabilities and investigative expertise. And on top of that, the department’s Enhanced Collaborative Model Program – which is jointly administered by our Bureau of Justice Assistance and our Office for Victims of Crime – has been able to give tens of millions of dollars in grant funding to municipalities throughout the United States to help coordinate the efforts of law enforcement and victim-services providers so that the needs of trafficking survivors stay front and center as we work to bring their tormentors to justice.
With all of these efforts, in all of these areas, we are sending a message to every woman in this nation who has been let down, left out and left behind: you are not alone. You are not forgotten. Your struggle is our struggle. And we will never leave your side. After all, for the Department of Justice, for the advocates in this room and for this extraordinary organization, the fight for women’s rights is not just about some of us breaking a glass ceiling – it’s about elevating all women, empowering all women and making our progress real for them, too. That is our challenge today. Because when women succeed, America succeeds. When women succeed, the world succeeds. Because when we empower women, we empower a family, a community, a nation. When just 10 percent more girls attend school, a country’s GDP increases on average by three percent. When women in agricultural communities own the same amount of land as men, they obtain over a 10 percent increase in crop yields. And when women control more household income around the world, children and families benefit from increased spending on food and education.
This group knows quite a bit about empowering women, and what we can achieve. Four decades of excellence from the National Women’s Law Center have shown us that we can make a difference. But the struggle continues. We need your efforts more than ever to conquer the challenges of the day. Thanks to the work of so many women in this room tonight, and many more far beyond it, we won’t be starting from scratch. Each of your successes is a plank in the platform we now must raise. Each policy you have fought for is now a tool we can deploy. And each person whose mindset you have shaped through your leadership, your persuasion and your passion is another set of hands to join our collective task. We simply can’t let up. The stakes are too high for too many of our sisters. Like the women who have gone before us – from pioneers who fought for the right to vote, to trailblazers who pushed forward on civil rights, to the women of the Center for Law and Social Policy who refused to let their future be determined by their gender – we cannot be satisfied. We cannot rest on what has already been accomplished. And we cannot shrink from the challenges ahead.
I have no illusions that our mission will be easy – it never has been. But I also have no doubt that we are equal to the task. I want you to know that the Department of Justice will stand with you – and I will stand with you – at every turn, and in every instance, as we continue the progress that our country needs and bring about the future that our citizens deserve. As I look out at this extraordinary gathering, I am optimistic about what we will achieve. I am excited about the progress we will make. And I am confident that we will draw closer to the world that our predecessors imagined in 1848 at Seneca Falls, when they rewrote Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words to say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
Thank you, once again, for your devotion to this effort. Thank you for your unwavering commitment to our cause. And thank you for your partnership in the work still to come.