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HHS Women's History Month Celebration

March 29, 2011
HHS Great Hall

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thanks for the kind introduction, Ned.

I want to thank all of you for joining us to celebrate Women's History Month. As you know, this year's theme is "Our History Is Our Strength."

Last week, our country lost a woman who personified strength and toughness: Geraldine Ferraro was a trailblazer who cleared the way for future generations of American women to serve their country at the highest level. She was also a great advocate for the health of all Americans. We will miss her, and our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

Here at HHS, the legacy of female leadership goes back as long as our department has existed. We're reminded of that legacy every day when we walk into this building. And today, it's worth reflecting on the extraordinary lives of these trailblazing women whose pictures we walk by every day.

Oveta Culp Hobby was the first Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Before that, she was first commanding officer of the Women's Army Corps, chairman of the board of the Houston Post, and the Parliamentarian of the Texas House of Representatives at age 20. When she left her post at this department, the Treasury Secretary called her the “best man in the Cabinet”.

Patricia Roberts Harris was the first African-American woman to join the Cabinet. Earlier, she had become the first-ever African-American ambassador. And even as she rose to the heights of power, she never lost sight of the people she was working for. When a Senate committee asked her how a woman who had reached her position could represent the disadvantaged people of this country, she reminded the committee that she was the daughter of a dining car worker and a woman who needed a scholarship to make her education possible. “If you think that I have forgotten that,” she said, “You are wrong."

Margaret Heckler was a pioneer. She was the only woman in her class at law school. Then she ran for Congress as a Republican in Massachusetts. When she won and came to Washington, she found that there was no congressional caucus for women. So she started one. When she left the House to become HHS Secretary, she was the most senior Republican woman in the House of Representatives.

Donna Shalala became Secretary of HHS in 1993 and served for all 8 years of President Clinton's presidency. Many of you served with her. She was also one of the first ever Peace Corps volunteers. She helped save New York City from bankruptcy, and has led three major universities. Donna is someone who doesn't take no for an answer. In 1951, she was told she couldn't play first base for her softball team by the college student who was coaching at the time. She lobbied him until he eventually gave in. That college student went on to become the owner of the New York Yankees and later said, "What she lacked in size, she made up for in feistiness."

These extraordinary women shared incredible talents and a commitment to using those talents to improve health and opportunity for their fellow citizens.

And as we continue to pursue those goals, they are a model for all of us in a department that depends on tens of thousands of women every day.

Six of our agencies are led by women, from FDA to the Administration on Aging. And seven of the ten regional offices, from Boston to Seattle, are led by women.

We have a woman serving as the nation's doctor, our Surgeon General, and we have women leading divisions in charge of responding to disasters, developing a budget and protecting civil rights and health privacy.

But this is just a tiny part of the contribution that women make to our department. Nearly two thirds of our colleagues are women and they are an important part of everything we do in this department from helping families and seniors get the care they need, to pursuing the cures and treatments of the future, to making sure our children start school ready to learn.

As we do this work, we are also helping improve the health and opportunity of women across the country so they can reach their full potential.

At NIH, we're leading the fight to reduce the risk of heart disease for women.

At CDC, we helped get the word out to pregnant women on how to prevent and treat the flu.

And through the Affordable Care Act, we will end the practice of charging women more than men for the same health insurance and make it easier for women to access key preventive services – like mammograms – free of charge.

So this Women's History Month, I want to acknowledge all our extraordinary women employees for the work you do to add to our department's great legacy of female leadership.

And I want to thank everyone who works here at HHS for the work you do to create a better future for women and all Americans. Thank you.