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Hillary Clinton Recognizes Advances and Challenges to Women’s Rights

In keynote address for Women’s History Month at Montclair State University, Clinton shares concerns about future

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Woman speaks at a podium.
“It is a great joy to be part of such an uplifting, positive energized experience as we are sharing today,” HIllary Clinton told a cheering audience in Montclair State University’s Memorial Auditorium.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in celebrating Women’s History Month with a capacity crowd at Montclair State University, used the opportunity of a keynote address on Sunday, March 26, to both honor and reflect on the challenges confronting women and human rights.

“This is an incredibly important moment in our country’s history,” Clinton said. “For every advance that we have made … we are living now at a time when there is a concerted effort to push women aside.”

Clinton was the keynote speaker for the 12th Annual Evangelina Menendez Women’s History Month Celebration, hosted by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) in tribute to his late mother. The event honored five New Jersey women with Trailblazer Awards, recognizing their achievements as entrepreneurs, educators and social activists.

Senator Menendez and Secretary Clinton walking out onto the stage
For Women’s History Month, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, joins Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) on stage at Montclair State University’s Memorial Auditorium to honor New Jersey’s “trailblazing” women. Menendez referred to Clinton as a “living legend and icon of American history.”

“As I was sitting there, I was thinking in this beautiful auditorium of this exceptional university, that when I was in college, when I was in law school even, I could not get a credit card in my own name,” Clinton said. “I could not have borrowed money in my own name. If I had gotten pregnant, I would not have been guaranteed employment. There was no Title IX. There were schools that I could not be admitted to, jobs that I could not be given. And that was not that long ago.”

“All of the changes that we’ve seen have taken place in a relatively short period of time, it has been exciting to play a small role in that,” said Clinton, who has long experience in public service as a secretary of state, a U.S. senator and as a first lady, as well as her two presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2016. “But I come today with a sense of concern about what lies ahead.”

Montclair President Jonathan Koppell, in his remarks, noted the historic significance of the day for Montclair State University. “This is a university dedicated to public service. We are committed to designing ourselves to be accessible, inclusive and excellent while promoting service to the community as our core value.”

“Secretary Clinton,” he said, “has blazed a unique path of public service and provided a light for so many women and men to show what is possible if you dedicate yourself to the betterment of the community.”

“This is a banner day to be at Montclair State University,” said University President Jonathan Koppell. “Like so many universities that began as normal schools, the very premise of this institution was to be one that recognized that if we as a society were not to cultivate the talent, intelligence, dedication and resilience of women, we as a society would be deeply harmed and would not come close to achieving our potential.”

The Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Awards were created in tribute to the Senator’s mother, who came to the United States from Cuba to give her children a better life. “Like so many women before her, Evangelina’s quiet, often unsung life has truly had an outsized impact on the lives of so many,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ).

Montclair students served as event volunteers, ushering the nearly 1,000 guests across campus and to their seats in Memorial Auditorium. “I’m so grateful for the Senator’s staff for opening the door to students to help in any capacity,” said  AJ Ford, a senior Political Science major who interns in Sherrill’s office.

The students, many with aspirations of their own for political office and public service, said they were inspired by Clinton’s remarks. “She touched upon everything from the history of the women’s suffrage movement to her work advocating for women and human rights,” Ford said. “But the quote that stuck with me was, ‘We are not just fighting against these attacks on our right. We are fighting for a future where everyone has the opportunity to live up to his or her potential.’ The idea of reframing our energy and anger in terms of not being on the defense, but fighting for a better tomorrow, that was my favorite part of the speech.”

Kassandra Llanos Orellana, a junior majoring in Political Science, said she has been helping with event planning and coordinating student volunteers as part of her work as an intern for Menendez in his Jersey City Office. “As an intern the event was a success and as a college student it was almost unbelievable that I had this opportunity at all,” she said.

“I could not believe that I was even on the same campus as Secretary Clinton, let alone in the same room. As she stated in her speech, ‘women’s rights are human rights’ and I hope this is a message everyone in that room carries with them,” Orellana said.

Six girls on stage with hands over their hearts.
Breaking glass ceilings for daughters and granddaughters was a theme throughout the day, including for these Brownie and Daisy scouts who recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Her call to action in paving the way for future generations of women by breaking current societal barriers can help many women like myself envision themselves as pioneers in their professional and personal growth,” added Layla Odeh, a senior Political Science major.

The event lifted the voices of young girls, Brownie and Daisy scouts who won smiles from Menendez and Clinton as they walked onto the stage to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and showcased the talents of young women, including dancers who performed a piece choreographed to Amanda Gorman’s uplifting poem, We Rise. Five New Jersey women were honored for exemplifying what it means to be community leaders: Lourdes Cortez, Amanda Devecka-Rinear, Christine Girtain, D’Adorian Murray-Thomas and Debbie Walsh.

“As a woman of Muslim Arab American heritage, it is refreshing to see other women with minority identities receiving recognition for their accomplishments,” said Odeh, who will attend Montclair’s Law and Governance graduate program in the fall and who coordinated performers at the event as an intern in Menendez’s Jersey City office.

“This inspires me in the sense that your service to the community, whether locally or statewide, is what stands as a testament of your character. The honorees’ stories exemplified what it means to not only have a seat at the table but be the voice of reason and change at the table to empower others in our community,” Odeh said.

“Just as we celebrate 100 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed in Congress, we must redouble our efforts to protect fundamental rights that are under assault,” Menendez said. “Just as we honor five incredible trailblazers making a difference today, we must acknowledge that all of us have a responsibility to create the truly equal America that we deserve.”

Clinton received several standing ovations during her speech. “What has become clear to me is that recognizing women’s rights, even enshrining those rights in laws and constitutions, is not the same as achieving full equality. Rights are critically important, but they are nothing without the power to claim them. And that means power, not just on paper, but in the real world, in government, in the economy, in businesses and workplaces, in communities and the home. We must increase women’s representation and power in every arena from the classroom and the corner office to Capitol Hill, and yes, eventually, soon, I hope the White House,” Clinton said.

“I’m very confident that we will win this very important, almost existential struggle that we’re engaged in right now,” she concluded. “But only if we take it seriously, we speak up, we stand up, we vote and we make it very clear: We’re not going back anywhere.”

Photo Gallery

Montclair students volunteered to help with the event, including checking in nearly 1,000 guests at Memorial Auditorium. Other students directed guests across campus and to their seats, while others, who work as interns in legislative offices, helped organize the event and day, had key roles in coordinating with performers and speakers.
Woman speaks at a podium.
Township of Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese served as the event’s emcee.
A capacity crowd gathered to celebrate Women’s History Month at Montclair State University’s Memorial Auditorium.
Woman speaks at a podium.
U.S. Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) noted, “It’s because of so many of you and women like you that I entered Congress in the largest class of women.”
The event celebrated women in history, on stage and in fashion.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters and John J. LaRosa.