It had been an empowering, world expanding 10 days. I listened to women wanting to be both faithful and feminist, demanding full human rights, protesting globalization and its representative Ronald McDonald, celebrating the power of “Grandmothers for Peace,” selling and singing, cooking and eating, walking and talking. And, everyone was talking about the keynote speaker for the closing event: Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the U.S. First Lady.
The weather did not cooperate. Rain. Icy cold rain. The venue, 30-some miles outside of Beijing, was nothing more than a building or two and a large field–now a large muddy field–populated with tents. Because of the weather, the closing event, including Clinton’s speech, had to be moved indoors to a small auditorium.
My two traveling companions, Glenndy and Betty Lee, and I arrived on the steps outside the auditorium almost three hours before the doors would open, adding our umbrellas to the colorful sea. Drizzle alternated with downpour. Just when you thought you couldn’t get wetter, water coming off a neighbor’s umbrella would run down your back.
Finally, something was happening. Were the doors opening? Wait…what? We watched as a line of young men with linked arms–military police–took their places along the full length of one step. I’m not sure who first figured out what it meant, but soon we all understood.These young men formed a human barricade. The women behind them would be able to enter the auditorium. The women in front of them, including Betty Lee, Glenndy and me, would not.
There was a stunned silence as this sank in. The young men, trying to stand stoically, were shaking. They were cold and wet and fearful of the sea of cold and wet women in front of them.
And that’s when I witnessed a transformational act. Without a word, an older woman (I think of her as a grandmother) placed her umbrella over one young man’s head. In seconds, each man had a personal valet holding an umbrella over his head.
Nothing was different–some would get in the auditorium and others would not–and nothing was the same. The tension was gone.
With a host of others, we made our way off the steps to find someplace dry and warm to celebrate the last day of the NGO Forum and the first day of the rest of our lives.
P.S. The Internet is an amazing resource. Years after that wet day in Beijing, I found the text of Hillary’s speech (http://gos.sbc.edu/c/clinton.html). “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference,” she said, “it is that human rights are women’s rights–and women’s rights are human rights. Let us not forget that among those rights are the right to speak freely–and the right to be heard.”