Symbols and Strength: Women in the World

Article excerpt

Byline: Tina Brown

When Hillary Clinton travels around the world as secretary of state, she is a global celebrity of the first rank. But that's not how she felt when she went to Burma for the first time in 2011 to meet with the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi. One of the greatest living human-rights campaigners, Suu Kyi had chosen to endure--for the sake of the Burmese people--the daily threat of death and 15 years of house arrest, cut off from her husband and children. "It was, 'Oh, my God, I cannot believe I am with Aung San Suu Kyi," Ambassador Melanne Verveer told me of Clinton's emotion on her two-hour talk with Suu Kyi in the house of her long captivity.

How does a great moral symbol transition into a working politician, burdened with people's tawdry demands and irrepressible expectations? That's the new hazard for Suu Kyi. As Burma inches toward its first taste of democracy after years under a merciless junta, she is running for Parliament in April. Can she preserve her stature as an icon, as Nelson Mandela did when he became South Africa's first black president? Or as, to a lesser degree, did Vaclav Havel (with whom Suu Kyi corresponded during her years of confinement).

Neither Suu Kyi nor, for that matter, Clinton is content to be a symbol. There are too many other women depending on them for change. Women like 36-year-old Zin Mar Aung, who endured 11 years in jail for her pro--democracy student activism. The sacrifices they make are inconceivable as we take our Western freedoms for granted--and steel us not to do so. Last year, in a move targeting Planned Parenthood, the Texas Legislature slashed family-planning funding by two thirds. Now the Texas Taliban is on the verge of eliminating -reproductive-health care for 130,000 poor women who don't meet narrow Medicaid requirements. …