It was a moment bound to give anyone second thoughts about Hillary Clinton’s nomination as secretary of state: Rush Limbaugh called it a “brilliant stroke.” If Rush, who had famously said America wasn’t ready to see Clinton age in the Oval Office, was ready to see her age at Foggy Bottom, what was I missing?

Of course, it turned out that Rush was being his old cynical self. He wasn’t praising Hillary’s talent, but Barack Obama’s cunning at keeping his enemy close.

So it went with much of the analysis before and after Clinton was chosen for the premier Cabinet post. The political story line asked if she would be a “teammate” or a “rival” in the “team of rivals” metaphor du jour. And was she close enough to the president to be his international right hand?

The psychological story line asked, however, whether we were getting yet another new Hillary. A National Review blogger described her as an “enigma who is best seen in stages; as a series of parts, not a whole.”

A series of parts? Not a whole? Hillary, lawyer, wife, mother, first lady, senator, presidential candidate, secretary of state. I was reminded of Mary Catherine Bateson’s classic book, “Composing a Life,” which describes life as the art of improvisation.

Life is not a straight and narrow march of achievement, but a quilt made of many parts. Reading the trajectory of many women’s lives with their interruptions and conflicts, twists and turns, Bateson saw creativity, not confusion. “These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined.”

Hillary Clinton wanted to be president and lost. But one of the lifelong commitments she will bring to her new role is to improve the rights and everyday lives of the world’s women. These issues will not be the “women’s page” in her portfolio, but integral to the way she views the world and, perhaps, to the way America can exercise its power.

Says Melanne Verveer, who traveled with first lady Hillary Clinton through more than 80 countries as her chief of staff, “she didn’t just drop by the palace.” She was always engaged in the struggles of women. In 1995, Clinton led the U.S. delegation to a U.N. conference on women’s rights in Beijing. There, she electrified the delegates and challenged the hosts, saying “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

Thirteen years later those words are still radical in parts of the world. We have learned from the Taliban and others that the enemies of American values take their first shots at the freedom of women. But the Beijing conference jump-started change. The world understands that rape is not a byproduct of war but a war crime. The U.N. now defines violations of women’s rights as an international security issue, and nearly 90 countries have passed laws against domestic violence.

Still, the new secretary of state will be operating in a world in which three-fifths of the world’s poorest people are women and girls. Seventy percent of the children not in school are girls. Half a million women die every year in childbirth. One in three women will suffer from the pandemic of violence — rape, honor killings, genital mutilation. But only 16 percent of legislators are women, and less than 3 percent of the people at the table when peace treaties are signed are female.

“What we are learning around the world is that if women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish,” Clinton said in Beijing. “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 do as well.”

Obama, whose own mother worked in microcredit loans for Third World women, gets it. Joe Biden, who co-sponsored the International Violence Against Women Act, gets it. But international activists are also looking to be guided by Hillary’s star power.

Part of a life? Or a whole life composed and recomposed? Well, Hillary regarded Eleanor Roosevelt as a role model. Mrs. Roosevelt’s second or third or perhaps fourth act was to get the world to agree to the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was adopted exactly 60 years ago this month. Now it’s Hillary Clinton’s improvisational turn.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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