Remarks at Vicenza Military Community Women’s Equality Day

Ambassador Bell with U.S. servicemembers at the Air Base (Embassy photo)
Ambassador Bell with U.S. servicemembers at the Air Base (Embassy photo)

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your invitation and your warm welcome.  It is a great honor to be here with you today, and to be celebrating Women’s Equality Day with you.

Since it was first celebrated in 1972, Women’s Equality Day celebrates the date, ninety five years ago today, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally granted American women the right to vote.  It is hard to imagine now the arguments put forward to deny women the right the vote – that women weren’t intelligent enough to be trusted to vote; that they would only vote as their husbands or fathers told them, with no ability to choose for themselves; that giving women the right to vote would somehow make them unfeminine – that they would somehow not be women if they were treated as equal to men.

Much has changed for American women in the past ninety-five years.  Women not only vote, we run for office, we serve in the armed forces, and we work in public policy positions in every field and at every level of the U.S. government.  We continue to take strong leadership positions in civil society – through nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups that fight to make our communities a better place.

In my own case, I follow in the footsteps of women who paved the way for me.  The opportunities I have had — for my education, my work life, my family life, and my community activism – have all been possible because of the hard work of women in generations past, and the men in their communities who worked alongside them.

Today, I stand here before you as the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, a position that was unthinkable for a woman to hold ninety-five years ago.   In fact, we did not have a female U.S. Ambassador until 1949, when President Truman appointed Eugenie Anderson to be Ambassador to Denmark.  But now we have three female Secretaries of State, and more than 30% of U.S. Ambassadors serving today are women — I am one of 113 female U.S. Ambassadors currently serving all around the world, in every region, at Missions of every size, tackling every issue that we face as a Government.  We have shown that when opportunities exist, there are women who will step forward to serve our country in a variety of capacities, with the same pride and commitments as their male colleagues.

As we gather together today, we have a chance to reflect on the past, to celebrate what we have accomplished, to address current challenges, and to look ahead to what we hope to accomplish together.

We have a lot to celebrate.

Although we did not have the right to vote until 1920, there can be no question that American women have contributed to every aspect of building our society, despite inequalities we may have faced early on.  As our nation fought for its right to exist, American women worked shoulder-to-shoulder with their male relatives, neighbors, and friends.  We kept farms, stores, businesses, and families running while the men in the community went off to fight, facing hardships with dignity and pride.  And some American women even found a way to fight with the Continental Army, despite the restrictions and expectations of the time.

Growing up, we all learned the story of “Molly Pitcher”, who followed her husband to the battlefield to bring supplies to the artillery forces and to step in to operate the cannons when soldiers fell during battle.  Today, historians consider her story to be a legend rather than factual– not because there are no records of a woman doing what Molly reportedly did, but because there were many women who served with the Revolutionary Army under these circumstances, and it is hard to point to just one as “Molly Pitcher”.

Many of us also know the story of Deborah Sampson, who served in General Washington’s army disguised as a man for over a year before being wounded, discovered, and honorably discharged.  During the Civil War, Dr. Mary Walker earned a Medal of Honor for her work as a surgeon, one of a long line of American women who have distinguished themselves in the field of military medicine.

When American women were formally allowed to join the military during the last two years of World War I, 33,000 served and more than 400 died in the line of duty.  Over 400,000 American women served in the Armed Forces during WWII, with 88 captured and held as prisoners of war.

During both World Wars, all of us have heard – many within our own families – stories of American women again taking a leading role in keeping the economy going, to keep our communities functioning, educated, working, and fed.  Rosie the Riveter is another American cultural icon: Rosie represents the nearly 19 million American women who held jobs outside their homes during World War II.  Their work was critical to the war effort and to ensuring that our nation would have the strength to thrive during the peace that followed.

In recognition of women’s contributions during World War II, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 allowed women to be permanent military personnel, not just during war time.

During the Korean conflict and the war in Vietnam, among their other contributions, American women were a critical part of the medical corps.  While not able to serve as combat forces, American military nurses were right there, near the front lines, where they faced incredible personal risks and hardships.  It was during the Vietnam War that Anna Mae Hays, Chief of the Army Nurse Corps, became the first U.S. female brigadier general on June 11, 1970.  Elizabeth Hoisington, Director of the Women’s Army Corps, became the second.

The difference between combat and non-combat blurred during Iraq and Afghanistan.  I am sure everyone in this room knows women who have served with distinction as medics, military police, pilots, and in other roles in combat situations.  Women on female engagement teams and cultural support teams have even been attached to infantry and special operations units, participating in dangerous “outside the wire” missions, before the ground combat exclusion policy was formally lifted.  Two female soldiers died in separate IED attacks in Afghanistan, while serving as cultural support team members with the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Which brings us to this week.  Last Friday, two female soldiers, First Lieutenant Shaye Haver and Captain Kristen Griest, graduated from Ranger School, earning the right to pin on their Ranger tabs.

In the days following the news of this historic milestone, there were a number of doubters and naysayers – most, I think we can say, who have never come closer to Ranger school than a computer or television screen – who questioned whether these Rangers had truly earned their tabs.  And here is where the U.S. Army, where the U.S. military, really showed its leadership, taking a strong stand to reaffirm that these women had met or exceeded every aspect of the “Ranger Standard.”

I should point out that accompanying me on my visit today is Air Force Reserve Captain Annie Kleiman, who, while working on her graduate degree in international relations, is spending her summer as an intern in the Public Affairs Section in our embassy.  Annie was instrumental in the preparation for my visit to meet with you here today. Once again it shows the power and influence women have in today’s American life.

The common thread among all the women we have talked about today is a shared commitment to serve our country, despite all cultural, societal, and institutional discrimination.  Assessing their achievements, it is clear that motivated, qualified individuals should have a fair opportunity to serve our country in the manner of their choosing.  That is not only the hallmark of a just and fair society, but it will also make our military better.

We should all work toward a society in which someone’s aspirations are not limited by gender any more than by skin color, religion, or any other trait that makes them individuals – not lesser or greater.  Because being equal doesn’t mean that we have to be exactly the same – our diversity is our strength as a nation, and as a people.

We are gathered together today to celebrate progress towards equality for women, and to celebrate women’s achievements.  But it is not only women who have benefitted from our progress and achievements.

Men also benefit from more inclusive workplaces, and while family-friendly policies are primarily seen as benefiting women in the workplace, the reality is that they benefit men too.  We need to continue to ensure that our policies and our services allow both men and women to achieve their full potential while supporting, and being supported by, their families.  Every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine – and diplomat — would acknowledge the sacrifices of his or her family: we are proud of them, there is no question.  But being proud of their resiliency should never be an excuse to avoid taking an honest look at how we can reduce the hardships our families face as we serve our country.

Because as we reflect on what we’ve achieved, we want to make sure that our sons and our daughters have the best opportunities to pick up this mantle of service, if they choose, to the best of their abilities.

As we gather here today to celebrate Women’s Equality Day, I challenge all of you in this room to work toward a time when we can meet again to celebrate Equality Day – when men and women will have reached that goal together.  It will come.