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First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Beijing today for a week-long visit, which White House aides have been careful to note is a cultural, not political, trip. Almost twenty years ago, another influential first lady arrived in the same city for a visit that quickly did turn political.
In September of 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to China for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. Ahead of the trip, the first lady’s press secretary, Lisa Caputo, stressed the need to focus on women’s issues in a private memo that was recently released along with other Clinton presidency documents: “Throughout your trip, it is important for us to underscore your longstanding work and advocacy on behalf of women, families and children.”
In her speech to the conference on Sept. 5, 1995, Mrs. Clinton went further: As Tom Brokaw said on NBC’s Nightly News that night, “In her own way, she made a direct hit on the Chinese.” She passionately outlined struggles and abuses women faced throughout the world (mentioning many practices that took place in China), criticized the decision to limit women’s access to the conference, and famously declared “women's rights are human rights”.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who traveled to Beijing with the first lady, noted on Nightly News the same night that it was “highly unusual” for a first lady to practice high-level diplomacy.
Of course, Hillary Clinton would go on do so in an official capacity years later, as Secretary of State. You can watch NBC’s full report from Sept. 5, 1995, including excerpts from the speech, in the video below, courtesy of NBCUniversal Archives.