NEW YORK — In a rousing speech Friday about improving the future of women across the globe, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave no hint of plans for her own personal future. But that didn't mean everyone in the audience wasn't thinking about it.
"Of course, the big question now about Hillary is what's next," quipped Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, as she introduced the former secretary of state and possible 2016 presidential candidate to the annual Women in the World summit. The crowd at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater responded with cheers.
Two months after stepping down as secretary of state, Clinton re-emerged this week with two major speeches — one in Washington Tuesday, and Friday's address to this high-profile women's conference, also attended by celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey. The speeches coincided with the announcement Thursday of her new memoir about her years as secretary of state.
But rather than speak of her career, Clinton addressed the subject that she talks about each year at this summit: the state of women's rights. She concluded with her famous rallying cry: "Let's keep telling the world over and over again that yes, women's rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights, once and for all."
But Clinton also stressed that despite the huge difficulties women and girls face in places like Pakistan, where teenager Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating for girls' education, there is also work to be done at home in the United States.
"If America is going to lead the way we expect ourselves to lead, we need to empower women here at home to participate fully in our economy and our society. We need to make equal pay a reality," Clinton said, pointing to the need to extend family and medical leave and encourage women and girls to pursue careers in math and science. "We need to invest in our people so they can live up to their own God-given potential."
"This truly is the unfinished business of the 21st century, and it is the work we are called to do," Clinton added. "I look forward to being your partner in all the days and years ahead. Let's keep fighting for opportunity and dignity."
The former secretary of state wasn't the only Clinton onstage Friday: Daughter Chelsea moderated a panel on technology. Also appearing, at a lunch for delegates to the conference, was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who addressed concerns about North Korea and challenged the notion, raised by interviewer Andrea Mitchell, that the Obama administration marginalizes women. "In my experience, that's a bogus criticism, to be quite honest," Rice said.
While Clinton was clearly the main attraction on Friday, another celebrity getting huge cheers was Winfrey, who interviewed once again the woman she said had been her favorite interviewee in her career hosting more than 4,000 shows — Tererai Trent of Zimbabwe, who revolutionized education for girls in her home village and beyond.
Trent got the audience's attention when she said she was focusing on boys' education as well — because, she said, "When we educate boys, they'll be respectful of girls."
The education of girls was a theme of the two-day summit, especially on Thursday evening, as Jolie presented a video message from Yousafzai, 15, who has been recovering and attending school in Britain.
"Today I'm going to announce the happiest moment of my life," the girl said, dressed in a bright red headscarf, at one point shyly covering her face with her hands. She said that thanks to the new "Malala's Fund," which she will administer, a new school in her homeland would be built for 40 girls. "Let us turn the education of 40 girls into 40 million girls," she said.
Clinton also referred to Malala in her speech. "The Taliban miscalculated," she said. "They thought if they silenced Malala, and thank God they didn't, that not only she but her cause would die. Instead, they inspired millions of Pakistanis to finally say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Malala has garnered huge global attention since she was shot in the head in October by Taliban attackers angered by her activism. After undergoing skull reconstruction in Britain, she has now signed a deal to write her memoir.
Jolie gave a poignant rendition of her story. "Here's what they accomplished," she said of Malala's attackers. "They shot her at point blank range in the head — and made her stronger. The brutal attempt to silence her voice made it stronger."
After Jolie's introduction, Brown, who created the Women in the World summit, told the audience that Jolie had just committed $200,000 personally to the fund, which was established by the Washington group Vital Voices, with a donation from the Women in the World Foundation.
Streep was there to honor another activist, Inez McCormack of Northern Ireland, who died in January of cancer. At the first summit in 2010, Streep had played McCormack in a short play, called "Seven," with McCormack herself watching from the audience. Streep spoke some lines from the play on Thursday evening in a flawless Irish accent.
And late Friday, Hanks was honoring Nora Ephron, the late writer, filmmaker, journalist and author of his new play on Broadway, "Lucky Guy."
But clearly Clinton was the headliner of the event, with the audience excitement over her potential future plans. As she concluded her speech she told the crowd: "I look forward to being your partner in all the days and years ahead." She didn't, though, say in what capacity.