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Thursday, November 19, 1998

It is a special privilege for me to join you for this 26th annual dinner. For no organization has done more than the Women's Law Center to open doors that had been barred shut; to smash through the glass ceiling that still exists in far too many places; to heed the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls, 150 years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal."

For me, that cause has always been very close to home. Some of you may know that my State of Tennessee was the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment -- giving women across this nation the right to vote. A legislator named Harry Burns cast the deciding vote. He was planning on voting "no." But then he got a letter from his mother, which read: "Be a good boy, Harry, and do the right thing." He did -- and the rest is history.

Thanks to so many of you, we have come a long way in the struggle for full and equal opportunity. It was just thirty years ago that a prominent sociologist wrote: "By the turn of the century, if anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women."

And it was just a few years later that the administrative staff of the Center for Law and Social Policy looked out on a world where equal pay wasn't even a goal, where the newly-enacted Title IX was hardly enforced at all, and where pregnancy didn't mean maternity leave, it meant job discrimination. So those determined young women presented their male colleagues with a few simple demands: better pay, the hiring of women lawyers, a new focus on women's rights, and no more serving coffee. That is how Marcia Greenberger became the first lawyer in Washington to work full-time on women's issues. And that is how the Women's Law Center was born.

Since then, the law has been a mighty lever -- and we have seen so many barriers come crashing down. Women now earn more college degrees than men. Women outnumber men in graduate school. And I am proud that, under the Clinton-Gore Administration, more women-owned businesses have been created in each of the past five years than ever before, and they are growing at twice the rate of all businesses -- contributing a whopping $2.3 trillion to our economy. The facts are clear: we would not have the strongest economy in a generation without the women of America.

And I am proud that President Clinton and I have appointed more women to high positions than any administration in history. Forty-one percent of our appointees are women. And we are one of the most successful administrations in history not in spite of our diversity -- we are successful because of it.

But for all our progress, equality is still as much a goal as a reality.

Women still earn just 76 cents on every dollar men earn. That's a disgrace -- and I applaud your strong leadership on this issue. Imagine if our nation told women they could only vote in three out of every four elections. We need equal pay for equal work in this nation, and our families can't afford to wait any longer.

While we must fully and fairly compensate work, we must also recognize the challenges of balancing home and work -- and the dual responsibilities of caregiver and breadwinner. And this isn't just a women's issue -- it's an issue for the whole family. In fact, it's a challenge Tipper and I have worked very hard to address through the Family Conferences we hold in Nashville each summer.

That's why I was so proud that the very first bill President Clinton signed back in 1993 was Family and Medical Leave. As many of you know, I co-sponsored that bill in the Senate, and was grateful for your powerful voice in that debate. We were all disappointed by the previous administration's veto. But we did learn an important lesson: if you can't beat the administration, you might as well be the administration.

Now, millions of American workers have been able to take time off to be with a sick child, parent, or a newborn, without fear of losing their jobs.

And with leadership from the Law Center and Duffy Campbell, we're fighting for historic investments in child care, and we secured the largest ever investment in quality after-school care -- to give children a safe, supervised place to go in those crucial hours after the school bell rings, but before the work whistle blows.

Our goal is to make sure that as we knock down the barriers that prevent equality, we continue to build the support that ensures it.

We have a lot more to do. Together, we must work to save Social Security for future generations. And we must recognize that Social Security is especially important for American women -- because women live longer, they earn less, and they often retire with smaller pensions and fewer savings. That is why it is so important that your voice is heard as we move forward in this critical debate. Together, we have an obligation to save Social Security, and to do it in the right way.

We're working for a healthier future for women and families.

We made regular mammograms more affordable for women on Medicare, and more than doubled research for breast cancer. And we have made important progress -- identifying the first breast cancer gene, and launching the clinical trials that will some day prevent this painful and all-too-common disease.

Now we want to make sure women take advantage of these stunning medical advances without fear of discrimination. We are fighting for new laws that would stop health plans and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic information.

We also need to make sure women get the best health care, not just the cheapest. Studies show that women are less likely to be referred to specialists, and three times as likely to be told their medical condition is "all in their head." That's why we fought so hard in the last Congress for a strong Patients' Bill of Rights -- and we're going to keep fighting in this new Congress.

We must continue to confront the silent but sinister threat of domestic violence -- a plague which touches 840,000 women a year -- but which ripples out much further, wounding families, communities, and our national spirit.

I remember, during my days as a cub reporter for the Tennessean in the early 70's, being shocked by the number of calls about acts of domestic violence. And back then, America was simply not meeting this challenge -- not because we lacked the will, but because people often refused to even acknowledge the problem.

We've come a long way since then. We enacted the Violence Against Women Act, which provided more support for the victims of domestic violence, and tougher punishment for the perpetrators.

And just two weeks ago, I was proud to announce new measures to protect the victims of domestic violence -- by helping police departments enforce protection orders from other states, and by making it dramatically easier to obtain new Social Security numbers -- for the thousands of women for whom safety can only be found in starting over.

Of course, there is no more fundamental challenge than protecting a woman's reproductive health. That means guaranteeing a woman's right to choose -- and making abortion safe, legal, and rare.

I want to thank Duffy for mentioning my role at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development -- where we shaped an action plan for family planning, education, and the empowerment of women around the world. And every time Congress has tried to play politics with a woman's right to choose -- imposing gag rules, and attaching anti-choice language to any bill they can think of -- we have fought to stop them. And if they try it again, we'll stop them again.

You see, some of us still remember the days when ending a pregnancy often meant risking one's life. That is why we cannot bow to those who would chip away at these freedoms through legislation, intimidation, legal challenges, and illegal protests.

We have met every challenge, just as we will meet every new threat. We passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law, to protect women's access to clinics -- and to protect them from violence.

But the recent, hateful clinic bombings and the brutal, shameless slaying of Dr. Slepian make us realize that we must do more. That is why Attorney General Reno created the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers -- to work with the nation's U.S. Attorneys to make clinics safe and secure. To us, freedom of choice also means freedom from fear in making that choice.

And reproductive freedom is also about the right and responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That is why we insisted on an increase in funding for family planning services -- while fighting back restrictions that would have required parental consent. And as the nation's largest employer, we are setting an example by requiring the 300 federal health plans to cover contraceptives. Women must have the right to choose. But let us do all we can so they don't have to make that difficult choice.

In all of these areas -- in opportunity and in fundamental fairness, in health care and in reproductive choice -- together we have made great strides.

But some of our greatest challenges are challenges not just of law, but of the human heart and mind. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said: "a mind...whose aspirations and ambitions rise no higher than the roof that shelters it, is necessarily dwarfed in its proportions."

We must strive toward the day when all Americans see one another as equals -- and when we realize that women's interests are national interests. We must widen the boundaries of our own imaginations -- and deepen the meaning of justice and fairness.

For more than a quarter-century, the Women's Law Center has given voice to those aspirations. You are proving that "with the law on your side, great things are possible." And with the hard work and dedication of the people in this room, I believe they're not just possible -- they're inevitable. So keep up the good work -- and let's keep working, for the next 26 years. Thank you.



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