Remarks at the Knowledge is Power Conference at AUB

Good morning, everyone!

On behalf of U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard and the Secretary of State’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, I’d like to extend warm greetings and reiterate my government’s support for this path-breaking conference and the aims of the Knowledge is Power project to promote gender equality and end sexual discrimination and harassment in Lebanon.

I would like to express my thanks to the Knowledge is Power coalition and the American University of Beirut for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today about gender equality.  On International Women’s Day, I had the opportunity to meet some of the extremely talented women that play an important role in Lebanon.  In a reception hosted by Ambassador Richard, I spoke with a number of female judges who make up 45 percent of the judiciary in Lebanon.  It is clear from their work that the women of Lebanon have the abilities needed to shape the future of the country.  It is incumbent on us to ensure that they have the tools and opportunities to do so.

President Khuri, as KIP project director Dr. Charlotte Karam and her team have surely informed you, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues “Full Participation Fund” devoted over $332,000 to your university’s efforts to enlist academe and civil society in a joint effort to guide policy on gender relations.  At stake is a more just society for all Lebanese, women and men, boys and girls, alike.  Such a society is bound to be more prosperous, stable, and democratic.  Ensuring that women and girls are empowered as equal citizens is a hallmark of successful societies.  I’d like to retrace the career of one woman, considered among the top 25 American women since World War II, to illustrate how important it is that women and girls be accorded equal rights and opportunities to the benefit of their countries.

For decades there was no more passionate and courageous journalist in America than Helen Thomas.  At a time when women journalists were few in number and in prominence, this remarkable daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Mary and George Antonious (whose name was Anglicized to Thomas) from Tripoli, was arguably the most gallant, contentious, and contrary print journalist of her era.

Known for her fearless questioning and probing of people in power, for years Helen headed the White House press corps and, as a result, given the honor to ask the first question of the President at his press conferences.  Over her long career, she asked the tough questions of eleven presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama:  Questions that other reporters simply did not have the courage to ask.

From a humble Kentucky family of nine children, Helen Amelia Thomas broke down gender barriers to ensure that other women print journalists would not face the arbitrary discrimination that she confronted.  She was the first woman journalist to become a member of the heretofore men-only National Press Club.  She later became its first female officer.  She was the first woman admitted to the Washington Press Club, more commonly known as the Gridiron Club and the first woman to become the president of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  Described as the “First Lady of the Press,” Helen Thomas would be a senior correspondent for United Press International for 60 years and in 1970 was the first woman to be named UPI’s White House correspondent.  She would head the White House press corps for nearly 30 years.

Although seen in some quarters as the “feisty scourge of presidents,” Helen Thomas gained admirers for also showing deference to America’s Commander-in-Chief by closing each White House presidential press conference with a straightforward, “Thank you, Mr. President.”  Even an adversary like former President Richard Nixon respected her professionalism, so much so that he invited her to go with him on his historic trip to China.  President Obama saluted her as a true pioneer.  Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather hailed Helen Thomas as “a hero of journalism.”

Helen Thomas – her life speaks to what the Knowledge is Power project intends to accomplish: helping Lebanon evolve into a country whether there are no arbitrary barriers to any citizen, male or female, Christian or Muslim, urban or rural, being able to enjoy his or her rights to make the most of life.  Arbitrary discriminations – especially those binding women and girls to inferior status – are not only wrong at the personal level, they are also harmful at the societal and national level because they prevent a country from benefitting from the talents, knowledge, creativity, and resolve of its women members.  Their potential contributions to the common good are forfeited.  Conversely, countries prosper best when women are full partners in political and socioeconomic development.  Gender equality and women’s empowerment are critical to building resilient, democratic stable societies.  As Ambassador Richard recently remarks, “No country can succeed if half its population is not really empowered, and half its population’s talents are not being used.  When women gain the same status as men, everyone benefits.”

Everyone benefits when women – like Helen Thomas – are afforded the same opportunities as men.  Let me share two or three personal anecdotes.

Like many people, I have selected my own mother as a model guiding my own growth and beliefs.  Born in 1917, she was constantly ahead of her times.  Raised by a strong mother and grandmother, until she was a teenager she believed that women were in charge of the world.  Lucky enough to find a husband who shared her vision that men and women are created equal, my mother has followed her dreams all of her life.  First a teacher, then a college professor, she broke many barriers in her career.  When she married my father, she defied the rules requiring all married women to quit teaching school.  When she was expecting her first child, again she refused to follow the regulations that said that pregnant women could not teach.  She was the first family member in her generation to earn a master’s degree and the only one to earn a Ph.D.  She continued to teach university until her late 90s and has served as a model for hundreds of men and women teachers alike.  My father, too, was a strong role model for me.  When I was only four years old, he told me that I would be the first woman president in the U.S.  Although my interests lie elsewhere, his strong support allowed me to follow by dreams to be a diplomat.

The lessons that I have taken from both my parents is that women and men alike have the power within them to accomplish great things, as long as they have hope and belief in their abilities.  It is incumbent upon us, as leaders in society, to give the next generation the support needed to accomplish their goals.

In closing, I ask that you reflect on Helen Thomas and the other women I discussed to strengthen your conviction and resolve to create a Lebanon where women and girls are full and equal partners, both loved and respected.