What would you tell the first female presidential nominee for a major party if you could? Five trailblazing talents from this year’s 21 Under 21 list sat down with Hillary Clinton to tackle the issues facing women and girls around the world.
Hunter Schafer, Mari Copeny, Muzoon Almellehan, Nadya Okamoto, and Simone Askew. These are just a few of the exceptional individuals on Teen Vogue’s annual list of the young women and femmes who are changing the world — all under the age of 21. Taking action in STEM, the arts, social activism, and beyond, they are the brains, voices, and visionaries whose brilliance is helping to shape our future for the better.
Eighteen-year-old Hunter Schafer has made waves both in the courtroom and on the runway. As a trans model and activist, she’s walked for some of fashion’s most high-profile designers while also advocating on behalf of LGBTQ youth. In 2016, she served as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the discriminatory bathroom bill HB2 in her home state of North Carolina.
At 20, Simone Askew has already made history. Earlier this year, she became the first African-American woman to be named first captain of the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the highest position in the cadet chain of command.
Harvard sophomore Nadya Okamoto is working to normalize the conversation around periods, and through her nonprofit organization, Period, she provides menstrual products to those in need. But that’s not all. At press time, the 19-year-old was also running for city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after deciding the best way to effect the change she wanted to see in government was to be the change.
In 2016, then president Barack Obama visited Flint, Michigan, at the request of Mari Copeny. The pint-size activist, now 10, wanted to draw attention to her hometown’s water crisis and went on to become the youngest Women’s March youth ambassador, the national youth ambassador for the People’s Climate March, and youth ambassador for Equality for Her, proving that no voice is too small.
After fleeing Syria’s civil war and spending nearly three years in Jordanian refugee camps, 19-year-old Muzoon Almellehan settled in the U.K. and decided to dedicate her life to advocating for girls’ education. She has traveled the world on behalf of her cause, and this year she became the youngest-ever goodwill ambassador as well as the first with official refugee status.
Here, in an intimate conversation with Hillary Clinton, these five young game changers discuss everything from how more women can break into politics to the ongoing fight for female equality.
MARI COPENY: How did you know when you had found your purpose? Was there a moment? Did you have other childhood dreams?
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I had a lot of dreams when I was a child, but I think I found my purpose pretty early, which was to help other people in my community and make my world a better place. When I was little, I thought, Well, maybe I’ll be a reporter, a journalist, a doctor. I ended up becoming a lawyer. And I never stopped thinking about what I could do to give back to people. I think that’s the best way to have a meaningful life.
NADYA OKAMOTO: In the U.S., less than 20 percent of [elected congressional] positions are held by women. And when it comes to advocating and fighting for progress — whether it be reproductive rights, equal pay, or talking about menstruation — how do you approach working for that progress in a male-dominated space?
HRC: There’s that great line by Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president back in the 1970s: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” And that can be in terms of activism, building a platform for yourself, or in public service, government, or running for office. And there’s no substitute for being prepared, knowing what you want to say, and being brave enough to say it. It can be groundbreaking, and you might receive backlash — as I know you have online — but you just have to keep persevering.
SIMONE ASKEW: We had a women’s equality lunch at West Point a couple of weeks ago, and the speaker, in a very positive light, noted that women are required to perform twice as well as men for half of the credit. How do you acknowledge that but also balance the value of nonbiological ideals and capabilities when you are a leader?
HRC: This is the highest, hardest balancing act, Simone. I just finished writing a book about my life, but in particular my experiences in the 2016 campaign. In it I said I thought it mattered if we were pre-pared. And I worked really hard to prepare for the three debates because tens of millions of people were watching us. And one of the reporters who judged me as having won the debates actually said, “She seemed too prepared.” And I thought to myself, How do you seem to be too prepared to do the hardest job in the world? I want to underscore the importance of preparation and hard work. There’s no substitute for that. But I want us to get to a point where women are judged fairly and equally. You don’t have to be twice as good to do the job. You have to be good enough to do that job. Society has to recognize that we are losing a lot of great talent in elected office, in the military, in business, in every walk of life, because women are made to feel that they aren’t good enough.
HUNTER SCHAFER: I want to address how public schools in America are continuing to struggle with accommodating the bathroom needs of gender-nonconforming and trans young people. This was made evident in my home state of North Carolina when they passed the bathroom bill, House Bill 2. How can we as a society and even on institutional levels ensure the safety and comfort of gender-nonconforming students and children as they continue to come out?
HRC: It is an issue that really calls on people to be compassionate, kind, and understanding. We are at our best in our country when we treat people with respect as individuals and worry more about the content of our character, as Dr. King said, and have an open education system, an open society. I was very disappointed when the decision was made to reverse the openness of our military for trans soldiers who are serving our country. I think what happened in North Carolina should give you some measure of hope because there was such an outcry. It fundamentally struck people as wrong to discriminate like that, and there was an effort made to reverse the legislation. That doesn’t change attitudes overnight, but you’ve got to have the institutional barriers like the legislation and regulation come down first. Then you begin to hope people will be more under-standing and compassionate. In schools [is] where all of this has to start.
NO: Running for office is the most terrifying experience ever. It’s been challenging; I’ve dealt with everything from racism to constant questioning about my qualifications, even from my peers. How do you stay close to your values, stay confident in yourself and your motives, and avoid the superficial claims made about you, from what you’re wearing to your hair and makeup?
HRC: Whoa. How much time do we have? It can be, and usually is, terrifying the first time you run for office. And you’re knocking on doors, you said?
NO: Every day.
HRC: Then there’s a very simple answer: If you’re eligible to run for office, you have every right to run. You’re making your case. You are presenting yourself. And people have the opportunity to support you or not. And at the end of your campaign, you’ll find out whether you were successful. But you shouldn’t allow anybody to undermine you and go after your confidence or your commitment to doing this. Easier said than done because it is incessant. It’s hard for any first-time candidate, but it is harder for women. Wear what you want to present yourself to the voters because that’s who you are. You will be criticized no matter what you do. The fact is, people should be much more interested in hearing what you would do, so you have to get through the superficial judgments and constant second-guessing. That’s one of the reasons when I started running for office — and the whole time I’ve been in the Senate, secretary of state, running for president — I adopted a uniform. For me it was pantsuits. After a while, people get bored talking about it and don’t really pay much attention to it.
SA: You are a leader, and I am the commander of the entire corps of cadets. And there is value in your being a woman and in my being an African-American as well as a woman. How have you aimed to be an inclusive leader expressing and promoting the value of all people while acknowledging your personal connection to minority groups?
HRC: Well, it’s really an important question, Simone. And you’re living it. So many of the articles that were written about your becoming the commander of the brigade pointed out that you were the first African-American woman to hold that position. It’s an important statement, but that’s not all of who you are. You are a scholar, an athlete, a leader. This new position gives you a chance to demonstrate the inclusivity, to demonstrate high standards without discrimination and bigotry.
I think it was clear to anybody in this past election: There are a lot of Americans who are uncomfortable with progress that’s made by African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, people with different ethnicities. We have to demonstrate that we’re better and bigger than that bigotry. Not by just talking, but by demonstrating. One of my favorite people that I’ve ever met and one of my favorite people in history is Nelson Mandela. I got to know him in 1992 alongside my husband and my daughter. We had watched him as he had come out of prison. [He] negotiated to end apartheid, and he could have been very negative toward the Afrikaner white population, justified on so many grounds. But he wanted to be a leader for all of South Africa. I was privileged to attend his inauguration on behalf of our country, and we were invited back to the president’s house for a lunch. There were hundreds and hundreds of leaders from around the world, and President Mandela stood up and said, “I’m very honored to have all of these VIPs, kings and queens and presidents and prime ministers and distinguished people from around the world here. But there are three people I want particularly to recognize. I want them to stand.” And he called out their names. They were three of his white jailers from Robben Island. He said, These men treated me with respect. I was a prisoner. I was working in the stone quarry. I was treated brutally and badly by many. But these three men showed humanity. And I want to thank them.” That’s leadership.
SA: It’s deliberately choosing to seek out the positive even in an adverse situation.
HRC: That’s right. And lifting people up. And you’re supposed to lead everyone, not just people who agree with you. And to bring people together, not further divide them. That’s going to be especially important in our country, but even in the world, in this century.
MUZOON ALMELLEHAN: When I was in the refugee camps, I saw many refugees who had given up on their dreams and become so hopeless. I told them that when we think this is the end of our stories, maybe it is the beginning of our stories. So if you had a piece of advice that you could provide to children all over the world, especially girls, what would this be?
HRC: Well, you said something very important, Muzoon, and that is everyone has a story. And history is about our collective story. We need to make sure people are given the chance to tell their individual story. Through your work with UNICEF, [people] see you. They listen to you and think, I didn’t know that’s what a refugee would say or look like. I went to a refugee camp when I was secretary of state in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a part of the country that had been subjected to a brutal conflict in which more than 5 million people had been killed. And girls and women were particular targets for abuse, and terrible atrocities were committed. I met with a group of adults there and asked them, “What is the most important thing that we could do for you?” One of the mothers in the camps said, “I want my children to learn. Their only way forward is if they get an education.” That is the fundamental hope of families everywhere — whatever your background [or] your income, people want the chance to see their children educated. So you being a voice for children who are living in refugee camps will make a big difference because people will see them as individuals, not just as numbers.
HS: On a different note, I wanted to address how climate change is affected by corporations and industries — particularly the food and drug industries — and how that is connected to our own government on a financial and social level. I’m wondering if you think we can create change through the government or if it needs to happen on a more social level?
HRC: It has to be both. And it has to be not only national governments; it has to be local governments. There has to be international cooperation. But it also requires that communities and individuals see this as the great threat that it is. As you point out, agriculture and pharmaceuticals have a role to play, but the principal problem is the way we produce and consume energy. The production of greenhouse gas emissions has been warming our climate and oceans, which contributes to more intense, stronger, and frequent hurricanes. Clean, renewable energy is the key; there are energy sources that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There are more people [working] now than there were five years ago in solar and wind energy. And we need to keep up that momentum. I think there’s an unfortunate willingness by some in political leadership positions to deny signs in order to satisfy powerful interests that support their political ambitions. But we need to get back to addressing it with seriousness because we’re losing ground and time. I was very proud when the United States under President Obama’s leadership signed the Paris Agreement because I’d worked with the president when I was secretary of state to begin that process. I knew how hard it was to convince countries to get on board. Currently, our new administration is not abiding by it and doesn’t want to. I think even they are going to have to be realistic about what it’s going to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate our efforts, because we’re going to be paying hundreds of billions of dollars in storm damage and rising water damage.
MC: I want to run for president in 2044. Do you have any advice for me?
HRC: You’re doing so much of what you need to do. You are learning a lot, and that’s great preparation. I would be excited if you ran for president in 2044. Gee, how many years is that from now? I hope I’m around!