What Hillary Clinton's Longtime Friend Thinks We're Getting Wrong About Her

Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts her arm around Melanne Verveer, the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, during a swearing-in ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department.
She may not have the name recognition of a Gloria Steinem or Hillary Clinton, who just happens to be her close friend, but Melanne Verveer belongs to the same time-honored, battle-tested group that has worked on the front lines for equal rights.

For the many years that she has worked in Washington — as Clinton’s chief of staff when she was first lady and as the first U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, appointed by President Obama in 2009 — Verveer has been a stalwart proponent and defender of the rights of women and children. And although she says there is still a long way to go, she is encouraged by what she sees in the young people around her.

“I love the confidence of young women,” Verveer says. “I love the fact that they see a bright future. That is the way to be — with confidence. But with that confidence comes obligation to do all we can, to continue to address the issues.”

Verveer spoke to Refinery29 from her office at Georgetown University, her alma mater, and where she currently serves as executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She is also cofounder, with Kim Azzarelli, of Seneca Women, an international global strategy firm.
How did you meet Hillary Clinton?
"I was at Georgetown with her husband-to-be, and over the years he used to say, ‘You have got to get to know Hillary.’ We had lunch on one of her trips to Washington from Arkansas. She was in town because she was the chairman of the board of the Children’s Defense Fund, and she was very active in anti-poverty issues and working on better futures for children. We started to talk, and the conversation sort of never ended because we had such a similarity of views on so many issues we both cared passionately about."

We call them women’s issues — child care, parental leave, equal pay for equal work — but I think sometimes when we say women’s issues, we marginalize them.

During her confirmation hearing, Clinton said, ‘I want to pledge to you that, as secretary of state, I view [women’s] issues as central to our foreign policy.’ Was she effective in what’s become known as the Hillary Doctrine?
"She was extremely effective. She put a lot of issues on the map, first of all, as first lady. We talk a lot about girls’ education today — we know that when you educate a girl, you educate her family and community. We know it’s one of the single best investments that can be made. But in those White House years, two decades ago, it wasn’t on the map the way it is today. And she had a lot to do with that.

"In many ways, in those years she was creating a global agenda and catalyzing a movement beyond where it had been with her [historic women’s rights] speech in Beijing. The work didn’t begin and end with her speech — it went on and grew and was built upon. By the time she was in that confirmation hearing, she had seen firsthand, and was deeply committed to, the fact that, if we don’t invest in women and girls, we are losing the prospects to create vibrant economies, the kind of world we all want to see…and it is in our foreign policy interest. No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind."

Are these achievements and continuing goals at the fore of her presidential campaign, or are they getting lost?
"I don’t think they’re getting lost. I think there are so many issues that one has to address, from the deep economic inequalities of this country to our strong security position against the kind of extremism we see to the fact that we need to be whole in America in our diversity. And she has reached out to women, clearly, on many of the issues. We call them women’s issues — child care, parental leave, equal pay for equal work — but I think sometimes when we say women’s issues, we marginalize them. They do affect women, but they are issues that, if not addressed, inhibit the progress of all people."
Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Melanne Verveer is the executive director of the Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University.
In your book, Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose, you cite a survey in which 60% of millennials describe a "sense of purpose" as [the reason] they work for their employers. This translated to overwhelming millennial support for Bernie Sanders, but not for Clinton in the primaries. Why?
"I have found it utterly confounding that her story has not really been a story they’re familiar with: her commitment to social justice. The work she’s done all her life, including what she did as a college student in terms of her engagement against the [Vietnam War]. She could have had any major job she wanted — she was viewed as brilliant — and she went to work to help poor kids, disabled kids who were not in school, to get them in school. To get black children better quality education when they were being hugely discriminated against. This is who she is.

"Millennials are committed to diversity, to inclusion, to social justice. And in her they have somebody who is an echo chamber for these values that they hold dear. I have to believe there is that disconnect, and much of it, I think, has been the way she has been pummeled and characterized. Some say she’s just ambitious. That’s really not understanding her. Her ambition is about trying to make this a better country and to do right by people here and around the world. She is truly motivated by her faith credo: Do all the things you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can. This is the woman I met all those years ago."

Is this "disconnect" because young women don’t think the struggle for equal rights still exists? Or applies to them?
"I think many young women today see barriers falling, see multiple cracks in that glass ceiling, see the achievements they’ve had in college, maybe in getting that first job. But the reality is they’re going to come up and be bumped again against that barrier. She will be with them. [Clinton] says, ‘You may not be with me. I will be with you.’ She will be with them because she understands these barriers and she’s been working to break them down and to be that assist for women everywhere.

"There has been progress, and we should not for a nanosecond dismiss that progress and the hard work that went into it, but we’re still on a journey. Look at senior management in corporations, boards of directors, women hugely entering the workforce in top professional jobs and then not getting the kind of opportunities that are commensurate with their skills and experience. You see it in a lot of the put-downs of women, and domestic violence. There’s a lot of work still to do."

Some say [Clinton is] just ambitious. That’s really not understanding her.

Last month, 29 companies, including Facebook, Apple, and Google, signed a pledge committing to close the gender pay gap for employees. What can be done so more companies follow suit?
"This example is incredibly important. I think work can be done within the company to push for this. I remember when Gap did it fairly early on, it was part of the ethos of the company. More examples of very forward-leading companies in this space can’t happen enough. And I think work both on the inside, as well as on the outside, to keep demonstrating why this matters, is critically important."

Will having a woman president — this woman president — really help?
"I think very much so because I don’t know of any leader who is so conscious of what the key issues are and why they matter. If you look at our Congress, which has so few women compared to other nations, yet time and again the women — Republicans and Democrats — have crossed that aisle, they’ve come together, and because of that, on key issues from Title IX to domestic violence to so many health issues, they’ve brought along their male colleagues and have blazed progress for this country. I have no doubt that [Clinton] will make some of these issues seen for what they are — as not marginal, but mainstream."

Why should people vote for your friend?
"She is one of the most experienced and qualified individuals who has ever run for the presidency, if not the most qualified. These are very, very tough times at home and around the world. To say you don’t need to know policy, you don’t need to understand how to move ahead and work with others, is not to understand the job and America’s leadership today.

"As a human being, she is deeply committed to social justice. She is compassionate and she’s also tough. I think you’ve got to be tough in a job like this. But you need to be understanding of what is affecting the lives of so many. She didn’t come out of great wealth. She had to work her way through school. She had to always deal with the kinds of challenges that many Americans have today in terms of getting a quality education and working hard to get where they need to be. And I also think that she has a tremendous work ethic. She will constantly do everything she can to always maintain and demonstrate a commitment to America’s values and provide the kind of leadership we need in our world today."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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