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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks, Testimony, and Releases from the Under Secretary > 2002

Women Leading the Nation Into a New World

Paula J. Dobriansky, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs
Remarks to the Womens Bar Association of the District of Columbia, 2002 Annual Awards Dinner
Washington, DC
May 16, 2002

Thank you. What a pleasure it is to be with you tonight at the Annual Awards Dinner of the Women’s Bar Association and Women’s Bar Association Foundation of the District of Columbia. I am especially honored to speak to you on this occasion which is truly momentous for your organization and for women lawyers in the area -- your 85th anniversary. Your organization has been a great facilitator for the advancement of women in the legal profession and is to be commended for its distinguished history of service.

Tonight, we gather to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the WBA, to honor the achievement of Carolyn Lamm, and to reflect upon the myriad ways in which women and women lawyers are leading the nation into a new world. However, I don’t think that one can fully appreciate what the WBA and Carolyn have accomplished in the legal profession without remembering where women started in this field. Many of you know the story of Belva Lockwood, a woman about whom it could be said that if the word "trailblazer" had not already existed, it would have to have been created for her. In 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court, as well as the first woman to argue a case before the Court, and she would eventually run for President on the Equal Rights Party ticket. Her tenacity and ability have inspired many women to a life in the law -- a fact that this group recognized by presenting a bronze bust of Belva Lockwood to the United States Courthouse in 1965.

When she first applied to become a law student in 1869, she received this letter from the President of the Law Department of Columbian College in Washington, D.C.: "Madam, the Faculty of Columbian College have considered your request to be admitted to the Law Department of this institution and after due consultation, have considered that such admission would not be expedient as it would be likely to distract the attention of the young men." Not bad for a woman who was about to turn forty. However, Belva Lockwood was not put off by her rejection at Columbian College -- or at Georgetown or Howard. She was eventually accepted to what would later become the George Washington University National Law Center and would go on to an illustrious legal career.

Tonight we honor women lawyers who are helping lead this nation into a new world in the best tradition of Belva Lockwood. And it is an undeniable fact that we are living in a new world, a post-September 11 world. When I was sworn in as Under Secretary for Global Affairs in May of 2001, I knew that I was entering a job of immense challenges. I would be responsible for four bureaus: the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor; the Bureau for Population, Refugees & Migration; the Bureau for International Narcotics & Law Enforcement; and the Bureau for Oceans, Environment, Science & International Health. In addition, I was also to oversee the Office of International Women’s Issues and the Office of Trafficking in Persons, as well as handle duties as the State Department’s Senior Coordinator for Tibet. Through these responsibilities, I knew that I would confront some of the most intricate and important issues in the world -- such as humanitarian and environmental issues, HIV/AIDS, and many others.

But when I took office in May, I had no idea how dramatically the world would be altered a few months later. While the issues I just described have remained important, the September 11 attacks naturally and necessarily redefined America’s foreign policy priorities. Our focus became the global war on terrorism, the first phase of which was a campaign to free Afghanistan from the repressive rule of the Taliban regime. But while our foreign policy priorities have shifted to reflect the urgency of fighting global terrorism, the core values of American foreign policy have remained the same -- dedication to promoting democracy and the rule of law and advancing human rights throughout the world.

As attorneys, you realize the importance of democracy and the rule of law to a society and the empowering effects of these values to all people -- men and women alike. Today, in the face of the ongoing threat of global terrorism, the importance of promoting democracy and the rule of law is more pressing than ever. Nations firmly established on a foundation of democracy are not easily shaken by extremism. Terrorism’s life blood is repression, intolerance, and a contempt for law and order. Democracy chokes off this life blood by giving people freedom and the opportunity to determine their own destinies and the destinies of their nations. Repressive regimes breed discontent that is easily exploited by terrorist organizations, as we saw all too well in Afghanistan. By contrast, democracy offers to the forces of extremism the powerful antidote of self-determination because its people are driven not by desperation and fear but by their liberty and individual gifts.

Perhaps most crucial to the task of bringing freedom and prosperity to the new post-September 11 world will be a commitment to firmly establishing the rule of law across the world. The rule of law will provide a lasting restraint on the ambitions of would-be tyrants and their regimes. Thus, it is vital that nations develop a strong framework of written law so that their societies are governed by laws and not men. Moreover, a strong judicial system is essential to maintaining any hope for lasting stability. And in all nations -- particularly those that have for so long denied the worth of half of their populations -- equality under the law must be guaranteed for all people -- including women. As President Bush stressed in his State of the Union address, "Respect for women is one of the non-negotiable demands of human dignity on which America will always stand firm."

As we look at the new world dawning in Afghanistan, we see that women there are making their first steps toward equality. Women are slowly being reintegrated into Afghan society as decision makers, organizers, and political leaders. They are going to school, often for the first time in their lives. Possibly the most visible sign of change is the appointment of women to important political roles after a long period in which women were not permitted to have any part in public life. The next step in securing freedom for all Afghans will come in June at the meeting of the Emergency Loya Jirga where a transitional administration will be established. We expect that a large number of Afghan women will participate in this historic meeting and some will eventually assume positions in the new government.

In nations like Afghanistan, our goal is to help women tear down the insurmountable barriers that prohibit them from participating in the political life of their nation. In other countries where there are not insurmountable barriers, our task is to improve the engagement of women in public affairs. Each has its own set of challenges, but the reward is the same -- a free and democratic society where all people can truly flourish.

As we strive toward this reward, I think that it is important to remember that we will not reach it through the efforts of government alone. The proliferation of freedom requires the effort of individuals, corporations, and non-governmental organizations in a public-private partnership to advance freedom and prosperity across the globe. In many ways, that type of public-private partnership is exemplified in this room by tonight’s gathering of lawyers from the public and the private sectors. It is exemplified by a woman like Carolyn Lamm whose career in international law has helped promote trade and investment worldwide.

As I was preparing my remarks for this evening, I came across a fascinating book by Karen Berger Morrello called The Invisible Bar, and in it was an excerpt of a speech given to another group of women that I would like to share with you tonight. I think it captures very well the progress that women have made in the legal profession. It is the 1898 commencement address to the East Florida Seminary for Women given by Judge Horatio Nelson. I hope that you have found my words tonight somewhat more inspiring than his were. In part, Judge Nelson’s exhortation to the graduates was this: "And now young ladies…although you may have no desire to be orators, statesmen or scientists, a well-stored mind will be a most valuable companion in your journey through life. The circle of women’s sphere is rapidly extending. Within the last month, for the first time in the history of Florida, young ladies have been examined and licensed to practice law. Whether they will make a success of it is yet to be determined. … But publicity is not your true sphere. It is a sun that while it warms, scorches and blisters. ‘Seek to be good, but aim not to be great, A woman’s noblest station is retreat…’ ."

I rather doubt that Judge Nelson or his contemporaries could have imagined that someday women like Carolyn Lamm would not only make a success of practicing law but would have legal careers that literally span the globe. Truly, she and other women like her are leading the nation into a new world. Thank you.

Released on May 16, 2002

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