One hundred and fifty years ago, during the summer of 1848, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women of courage convened a women’s convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The convention's "Declaration of Sentiments" began with the words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal."
In that day and time, it was often said that a woman's chief job in life was to raise virtuous sons who would then go out into the world and do the right thing. And for many men, doing the right thing meant continuing to make the decisions for women -- who were then considered incapable of making decisions for themselves.
As is the case with most important things in life, change often comes in the form of one decisive moment. For women's rights, that took place seventy-five years later, when the suffragists faced losing ratification on women's voting rights by one vote. Then Harry Burn, a 24-year-oldlegislator from my home state of Tennessee, changed his NO vote to YES. Why? Because he had gotten a letter from his mother saying, "Be a good boy Harry, and do the right thing!"
Well, he did the right thing, and the rest is history. And yet, year after year, we continue to make history where women are concerned. Just last week, the State of California elected three new women to the Congress which has resulted in fifty-five women now serving in Congress -- the largest number in the history of our nation.
What exactly does that mean for us and the nation? Well, perhaps Bella Abzug summed it up best when she said: "In the 21st century, women will change the nature of power, rather than power changing the nature of women." Bella passed away earlier this month, and I know that I for one will certainly miss her vibrant spirit and quick wit.
I know many people feel disillusioned with politics today -- less inclined to get involved and even more tired than usual with partisan bickering and political mudslinging.
As more women become a part of the political landscape, they will bring many things to the process, not the least of which is a sense of civility. Politics as usual has become too much partisan bickering, too much negative advertising and too much finger pointing. All of which results in increased cynicism. This causes people to tune out and drop out. And itis precisely these thoughtful, sensitive and caring people that are desperately needed in politics because they can serve as agents for change.
I really believe that as more women participate in the political process, we can help elevate the level of discourse, inject language that unites rather than divides, and restore decency and dignity to political debate. And we all know how much that change is needed.
As we continue to encourage women to become involved in the political process, our strongest argument is to point to the concrete results already achieved by women. Everyone acknowledges the powerful and decisive role women played in the
92 and96 elections. And I'd like to point out the stark contrast that occurred in `94 when 48 million women did not vote. Results? A Republican majority in Congress dominated by extremists who want to turn the clock back on women's rights. Some simply cannot tolerate another election cycle where women sit on the sidelines. They must vote their interests!
There is so much to be encouraged about today. Most of us here today realize that our nation and our economy is the strongest it's been in generation. We have the lowest unemployment in 24 years; the lowest inflation in 30 years; incomes are on the rise and more people own homes today than at any other time in the history of our nation.
But do we realize how much of a role that women play in that success? Women have been a driving force in shaping our workforce and our economy. For example, did you know that?
- Almost 1 in 2 workers in America is a woman;
- Women are making 80% of all consumer decisions;
- Women-owned start-up businesses are outpacing all business growth in every state in the nation;
- Women in the workforce add $2.3 trillion annually to the U.S. economy;
- In more and more families, women are providing more than half the income; and,
- Women-owned businesses contribute more to our economy and employ more workers than the entire Fortune 500.
But the bad news is that women earn only 74 cents for every dollar men earn. An overwhelming majority of minimum age workers are women. Women are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have a pension. When a woman does get a pension, it's worth half as much as a man's. Women get lower pay and fewer benefits.
And the price of this unfairness is reflected in the lives of all families. This gender-based inequity denies our children adequate health care, it keeps thousands of young kids from going to college, and it prevents many women around the country from meeting their bills.
Earlier this month, my husband announced the Administration's support for legislation to improve enforcement of wage discrimination against women and to strengthen the law that allows compensation for those who have been discriminated against -- in other words, a strong stand for equal pay for equal work.
The struggle of equal pay for equal work has been a fight we have fought since before the birth of the feminist movement. Today we must add to the reality of the struggle, that women are living in a new and rapidly changing economy. It is an economy that is driven by information, research and technology. An economy that values knowledge and productivity above all else. It is an economy that holds out the promise of a better life for all women --but only if we prepare for it and give ourselves and our children the tools to make the most out of it. We already know that in many cases women must be twice as good to earn just as much as a man. Now we must learn, train and re-train, constantly, to support our families and succeed in the workplace.
This Administration is committed to insuring that women and their daughters are able to learn and stand toe-to-toe with men in this new economy. That is why President Clinton's balanced budget included the greatest single increase in helping people pay for college since the G.I. Bill of Rights fifty years ago --making it possible, for the first time in history, for any American to attend college, regardless of financial means. In addition, helping people in the workforce pursue lifelong learning through our "lifetime learning" tax credit.
Later this year my husband, Vice President Gore, will convene a major summit on lifelong learning where leaders from business, labor, higher education, government, and philanthropy will come together to make commitments that will help Americans get access to quality lifelong learning. I am pleased to work with him to insure that our children understand the value and importance of education and women understand the opportunities available to them today. I truly believe that lifelong learning is essential for good living, as well as a good standard of living. And that's why we're fighting to make education a national priority.
One of the most difficult things that women in our society face today is the pressure of balancing the demands of work and home. Let's face the facts. Women are our country's traditional caregivers and, as such, continue to struggle with the basic questions of family and community. They ask the questions: How will my kids earn a good living? Can my family afford a doctor if someone gets sick? Is the water safe to drink? The air to breathe? What about the products we use and the food we eat? What about my kid's safety at school, my own safety from domestic violence?
Many women today feel as if they are members of the sandwich generation --squeezed between caring for young children and elder parents. They are faced with difficult health care decisions that include navigating the managed care system, with all its complexities.
How many have seen the movie "As Good as It Gets?" [Show of hands.] How many remember the scene when Helen Hunt shares her frustrations with managed care? [Show of hands.]She speaks for many of us.
And that is why the Clinton/Gore Administration, with the encouragement and support of women, is demanding that Congress pass legislation to ensure that medical decisions are made by doctors and nurses, not accountants and bean counters! The Administration has taken on many of the health issues affecting women that have been given far too little attention for far too many years:
Breast cancer strikes down 44,000 women a year. This Administration has expanded federal funding for research from $90 million to more than$500 million and we must continue that trend. The progress that has been made against this disease to date is significant -- with mortality rates dropping at measurable rates in recent years. We must redouble our efforts to increase funding for research, increase educational outreach to promote early detection, and broaden support services for those dealing with the disease. Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death among American women. The Administration has taken a strong role in leading the fight against an industry that targets women and children.
Up to 50 % of people do not use medicines as prescribed which results in preventable illnesses which cost us all more than $75 billion a year in dollars and much more still in pain and suffering. "Take Time to Care" Is a program sponsored by the Food & Drug Administration targeting women, since they are often the primary caregivers. The program was launched nationally here in San Francisco last month and will be traveling across the nation in the coming weeks and months.
And, recent studies have shown that fitness and nutrition, long overlooked with regard to women, are key factors to both physical and mental health. Along with the Department of Health and Human Services and the President's Council on Physical Fitness, I will be working to promote greater participation of women and girls in physical fitness, sports and nutrition.
Given today's society, it is imperative that we recognize and amplify the importance of women's roles in setting our national agenda -- an agenda that must continue to include the important issues that impact women, children and families. Issues like health care, the environment, education. I am proud that this Administration has brought these "women’s issues" to the front burner and kept them there. With your help, this focus can continue.
And we can all envision a world where women have an equal share and unequal role in the economics and decisions that shape our lives. When Mrs. Clinton addressed the historic conference in Beijing several years ago, she noted: "What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If women are free from violence, their families will flourish. If women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish. And when families flourish, communities and nations will flourish."
One hundred and fifty years ago, brave women stood up and informed the nation that they too were a part of the human society. Today, we can do no less. We must take our place in shaping the future. We must continue to do the right thing and urge others to do the right thing. We must remind all those in positions of leadership that women's rights are human rights. And, as Bella Abzug so rightly pointed out -- our very involvement will change the nature of power and the future of our nation. The future is very much in your hands.