Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s Interview with Errin Haines of “The 19th*” on the Occasion of International Women’s Day

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
March 7, 2023


QUESTION: So tonight, ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow, we are talking with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Thank you so much for making the time in your schedule to be here today, Ambassador. (Applause.)

Okay, so with that, let’s get into it. My questions are actually on this handy-dandy iPad. So I just want to start by asking you, Ambassador, how you would frame the progress and the challenges that are facing women and girls at this moment in our country, around the world. I know this is something you think about every day, but as we’re going into International Women’s Day, as we’re kicking off Women’s History Month, what do we have to celebrate and what do you see as the causes for concern?

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Today I spent several hours in the Security Council, and there were lots of speakers talking about Women, Peace, and Security. And we had the head of UN Women; we had Leymah Gbowee, who – Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner; we had the African Union special envoy and lots of other speakers. And what I left that discussion with was we are in a crisis.

We have accomplished so much in terms of women’s rights, but we have not accomplished so much for everybody, and there are people around the world who are still suffering, women around the world whose rights are still being restricted who don’t have the right to education, to work, to a livelihood, women in the United States who don’t have the right – reproductive rights in many states.

So the meeting was both one of joy, looking at the accomplishments, but also sadness to see that we still have so much more work to do.

QUESTION: Yeah, so much more work to do both domestically and abroad. I mean, as I see it in this moment, absolutely thinking that, yes, while we are making a lot of progress – increased representation, increased leadership – the fact of the matter is that there are many women in this country who are feeling in this moment less safe, less free, and less equal.

What is the relationship, do you think, between democracy and gender equality, and why does it matter that women are fully able to participate in society?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first and foremost, women’s rights are human rights. We know who coined that. And democracy is about human rights, and participation in democracy is important. And women participate even – even in this country, women participate more than men.


AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But I can tell you, going around the continent of Africa, Liberia: seeing thousands of women lined up to vote for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Looking – I was at the election in Nigeria in 2015 – women standing in line for hours with their children waiting to vote. Women vote.


AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Women participate. But the other side of that is they don’t always get the benefits from their participation.


AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They don’t get their rights from their participation.

QUESTION: I think you’re making such a good point about our increased representation, but how is that representation translating into policies that are really benefiting women, right? Because it’s not enough just for us to really have that seat at the table, but for us to really be driving an agenda that’s based on our lived experiences.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Driving the agenda and setting the policy goals and pushing the implementation of those goals. So sometimes the policies are good, but they’re not implemented. And so, you have to participate in every phase of the policy process.

QUESTION: Yes, that’s such a good point. You talked about the conversation and the status of gender equality both abroad and domestically. I want to ask you, I mean, do you think that America is losing ground in the fight for gender equity? And I wonder if you can talk – because I know this is something that you care about a lot too, the challenge for rural women as it pertains to that.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We are an example to the world. I can say that without any hesitation. When people look around the world and see the rights that we have been able to achieve – we’re an example. But then when you look under the rug, behind the curtain, you start to see that there are lots of problems, there are lots of issues, and particularly for women in rural areas where they’re dealing with issues of domestic violence, they’re dealing with issues of poverty, they’re dealing with issues of lack of access here in the United States.

Look at that in a developing country, and what women experience is tenfold worse because they’re starting from ground zero, and they have very few resources to help them move forward. But we know that if we give them just a tiny bit of resources, they accomplish extraordinary things.

QUESTION: You were just saying that other countries are looking to us as a leader in the fight – to be a leader in the fight for gender equality. What message right now are we sending, then, abroad in terms of our policies and our rhetoric?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I think if we look at our policies under the Biden-Harris Administration, our policies are strong. We’re sending the right messages about gender equality, about reproductive rights. But when we look at what is happening in our courts right now, we look at what’s happening in our education system – particularly if we look at the state levels. We look at so many challenges that are being put in front of women, particularly in states. I just saw something in the news yesterday that five women in Texas were challenging Texas laws about abortion rights. We’re having to go to the court system, but we’re not even sure that even in the court system we’ll succeed.

QUESTION: Real-time repercussions from that Dobbs decision as we are marking this International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.

I want to ask you about what your global counterparts are saying to you about how our country treats women, particularly on that issue of reproductive rights. Did that Dobbs decision undermine our credibility on this issue in any way?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: They are looking at that decision and worried about how that decision will impact our policies globally. And some of our policies have been in place previously, so we have been restricted from providing funding for abortions, for example. That’s been in place for decades.

But our policies in terms of funding, support for education, for health care, that funding is still there and it’s still important, and I think people are very, very appreciative of that. So, we’re sort of a double-edged sword when it comes to those issues overseas.

There’s a real respect for what we do and what we promote and what we believe in and real concerns about how that could change in the future.

QUESTION: I guess to pick up on that point, as we’re seeing access to reproductive care curtailed in this country, does that make your job harder as ambassador when you’re going abroad, when you’re talking to world leaders?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There are a lot of issues that make my job hard. That’s just one of the issues. To be able to explain to the world the contradictions that they see in our system. I have to talk about racism in America when we’re pointing the finger of blame to other countries when they’re committing human rights violations. I do have to talk about women’s rights. But ultimately when I talk to people, they still look at the United States as a role model.

QUESTION: I want to talk about the situation globally now because it has been almost 18 months since the U.S. left Afghanistan, and many of those fears around what was going to happen with women and girls in terms of their freedom and access to education in the country have come to pass since we left there. Can you talk about the situation on the ground and really why it matters? Why we as Americans should care about what is happening in Afghanistan right now with women and girls?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Women around the world – we are all connected to each other, and we have to support each other. And right now, the women of Afghanistan need our support. They need our goodwill. They need the efforts that we are making to pressure the Taliban to reverse this horrific policy, barring women from education, from working outside the home, for doing anything – from doing anything that will give them a sense of hope, a sense of a future moving forward.

And so, we are working constantly to ramp up the pressure on the Taliban. We’ve brought in other countries around the region to increase that pressure. We supported and encouraged the deputy secretary-general to make a trip to Afghanistan where she engaged with the Taliban. They still have not reversed their policies. In fact, they have doubled down on their policies, but they can’t continue a process and a policy that limits and restricts 50 percent of their country from participating in the world and having a future.

And I am absolutely confident that we are going to be able to push back on them. In the meantime, Afghan women need to know the world is supporting them. They need to know the world is engaged on their issues and that we have not forgotten them.

QUESTION: Yes. And Afghan women are pushing back in this moment. We see Afghan women in the university system who are pushing back and even some men in Afghanistan who are in solidarity with them, and so that is important to point out that there are folks who are resisting the oppression that they are facing in the education system.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: But then we see people resisting, as we saw in Iran, and they are being killed in the streets.

QUESTION: I’m glad you brought that up, because it has been nearly six months since those Iranian protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini have brought worldwide attention to issues of freedom and gender, and Iran, with your leadership, was suspended from the Commission on the Status of Women. Can you talk about what else the United States is prepared to do to address the violence that women on the ground there are facing in response to these peaceful protests?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: First and foremost, we led the efforts to kick Iran off the Commission on the Status of Women. We felt that they were a stain on the Commission, and that there was no place for them to sit next to others who supported the rights of women. And we were successful in doing that.

We were also successful in getting the Human Rights Council to agree to a Commission of Inquiry and Investigation to go into Iran to look at the situation on the ground for women and report back to the Human Rights Council. And we’re keeping up the pressure on that government, and it’s not – we can’t do it alone. It really is a global effort, and that effort continues.

QUESTION: I want to also talk about – I mean, so many women really imperiled around the world. Last month marked a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and we’ve seen women bravely on the front lines of that conflict as well. We know that gender-based violence has become a weapon of war. What can the United Nations or the United States and our allies really do to hold Russia accountable and protect Ukrainian women?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: That is an ongoing effort. First, we were able – because Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, a fact that I can’t change, but what we were able to do is isolate them in the Security Council. And we took our resolution to the General Assembly, and 141 countries condemned what Russia has done, 143 countries condemned their attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory.

And just two weeks ago 141 countries supported the Ukraine’s peace resolution. So, they are feeling isolated; they are feeling the pressure from the international community; they’re feeling the pressure from the sanctions that we have imposed on them, and we’re prepared to do more sanctions.

What we have to do is continue to keep that pressure on until Russia makes the decision to pull their troops out of Ukraine. But the truth of the matter is they miscalculated – they miscalculated because they didn’t expect the Ukrainians to fight back. I think they thought they were going to go in in two weeks, bring the Ukrainians down to their needs, waving a white flag.

They didn’t really prepare for Europe to be unified, NATO to be unified, and not only unified but two additional countries have asked to join NATO. And they didn’t expect the world to condemn their actions. They are on their backfoot.

They’re still, unfortunately, pounding the Ukrainian people, particularly Ukrainian women.

I traveled to Kyiv a few months ago, met with women who had been raped and who were victims of violence, and there’s no worse discussion then to sit in the room with a woman who has been the victim of horrific acts and see that there’s no light in her eyes, there’s no joy on her face.

So the accountability part of this is really important, and these women need to know that we will hold Russia accountable for what they’ve done.

QUESTION: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned being on the ground in Kyiv just a few months ago. I know that you had an encounter with a young girl, but I wonder if you could share with our audience, that stuck with you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: This young girl, I think she was about 10 years old – Milena. And she asked me if I could end the war in Ukraine. And that’s one of the most difficult parts of this job, is because people think you’re all-powerful, and you’re not. And so I said to her: “What would you do if the war ended?” And she said: “All I want to do is go back to school and see my best friend.”

And that just gave me a sense of hope, that she had not given up hope. She didn’t say: I’m never going to go back to school; I’m never going to see my friends again. What she said was: I can’t wait to go back to school and see my best friend.

And so, everything I do every day to try to end this war is for Milena.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s really – I mean, the bravery and the hope in the women and girls of Ukraine has certainly been something that we have seen over the past year amid the conflict that is ongoing there.

Well, I know a lot of what we know, too, about what’s happening in Iran, what’s happening in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, is a result of technology, right? We know that technology can be a catalyst for gender equality, it can be a catalyst for democracy and for really getting women’s rights and the struggle for equality out there. Talk to me about the administration’s efforts around technology and gender, how you see technology as both helpful and harmful for women and girls in this moment.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. Technology is a tool for all of us. The fact that we have people listening to us virtually from all over, I don’t know from where – that’s the kind of technology that is extraordinary.

What young women can do if they are introduced to STEM education – I was in Nigeria a couple years ago and saw young women, teenagers, who were working on robots that actually worked. And watching how excited they were to be engaged in technology. These are programs that the U.S. Government supports all over the world. I focus on Africa, and I saw it all over the continent of Africa.

But the other side of that double-edged sword is technology being used to terrorize women, to bully women, to discourage women from being active participants in the world. And that side of technology we have to do everything to stop. And this is something that the Administration has engaged on actively, and we’re working with the rest of the world to also engage in that area.

QUESTION: Well, speaking of technology, we’re going to be taking some questions from people around the world who have questions for you in just a minute. But I want to ask you, before we do that, about the leadership of women, and women of color, which is at record highs in this country. Obviously, that includes you, that includes our Vice President Kamala Harris. You spent your career advocating for women and girls, and I want to really ask you about what you have learned about why that leadership, why that representation matters, and really what from your lived experience you think you bring to this role?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I heard someone say one day, “If you see it, you can be it.” And I never saw it when I was growing up. I didn’t see UN ambassadors, and certainly not one of color. I didn’t see women in positions of power. I grew up in the rural South, in a segregated area. My mother was a maid, and then a cook. And she was an incredible cook but that was her work. My father was a laborer.

And so not seeing it, you don’t know what you can be. And I would always say I didn’t even know to have ambition. I didn’t know what ambition was. But I did know that I wanted to do something, I wanted to be something, whatever that was going to be, I didn’t know what it was.

Fast-forward to me today: I want to be that something that young girls see that they can be. And I do that every single day. If I can go and speak at a high school, I will speak at a high school. I’ll speak at a high school before I speak at a college. My communications people want me to do universities; I want to go to an elementary school.

QUESTION: Yes, start that pipeline early; plant the seed.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, and really encourage young people to see what the possibilities are out there in the world for them.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I know that we’re running short on time, but we’re going to bring in a few questions from those of you here in person and from our viewers online. Let’s see here. Luis Andre (ph) from Dallas asks, “How are U.S. gender activists generally perceived abroad, and maybe particularly in Mexico or Latin America?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, this is one of those areas where there’s two sides. Gender activists are welcomed by women abroad. They know that they have supporters, they have advocates for them, and they are embraced.

The other side of that, sometimes you’ll hear from governments – mostly men – that we’re trying to impose our culture, we’re trying to impose our values on their society. And I always say, “So your value is violating women? Your value is forcing women to stay home, not to allow them to have access to medical care?”

I always throw it back at them when I’m told that I’m imposing values, or that U.S. organizations are imposing values. Because the values we’re talking about are human rights, and those are values that anyone, anywhere, should respect.

QUESTION: Absolutely. Questions that need answers. Well, I have another one here, and this is actually one that I’m very interested in as well, because we at The 19th* are absolutely thinking about the Equal Rights Amendment, which a hundred years ago that legislation was first proposed. And Emanuella Grinberg wants to know, “Is an Equal Rights Amendment still considered viable or a necessary goal in the fight for gender equity in the U.S.?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m old enough to remember when we were watching states ratify the ERA, and hoping that we could get there, and we didn’t. But what we did is we found another way around that. And the other way around it was to just demand our rights. And I think we’ve seen many of the provisions of the Equal Rights Amendment have been implemented. But implementation, of course, requires commitment. And even if we had the Equal Rights Amendment, like we had the 19th Amendment if it’s not implemented for everyone, it doesn’t really matter to you.

What we have to do is make sure that the policies that are put in place are implemented and available for everyone. And so I don’t know the answer to the question of whether we actually need an Equal Rights Amendment. What we need are equal rights.

QUESTION: I want to ask some questions from some of the folks that are attending here in person today. Victoria Clark (ph) asks, “What is a small step that attendees here can take to increase gender equity in the world?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Help one person. My feeling every single day, which is why I get up and I’m sitting at my desk at 7:30 in the morning and I’m sending text messages from my bed at 6 o’clock a.m. is because I truly believe, and I’m very, very humble, but I do have this belief that what I do makes a difference in people’s lives. But my view is you only have to make a difference in one person’s life, because that one person, if you make a difference in her life, she’ll make a difference in somebody else’s life and will pay it forward.

I know we do it every day for dozens of people. But if you just focus on one little girl who you can serve as a role model to, you can be a person that they can turn to when they are dealing with cyberbullying and they don’t want to tell their parents, when they’re dealing with identity issues. If you can help that one person, that’s the first step that you can do. And it’s the most important step.

QUESTION: Yeah, you don’t have to be an ambassador to help somebody.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You don’t have to be an ambassador.

QUESTION: Absolutely. This question is from Cevan Kelly (ph), who says, “Seventy percent of the global health and care workforce are women, yet the majority of them go underpaid or unpaid for their labor. How is the Biden-Harris Administration Global Health Worker Initiative prioritizing expanding opportunities for women to be paid fairly for their health care and work, particularly on the countries’ government payroll?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s not just health workers, unfortunately, women who are underpaid. It’s across the board for women in every single sector.

QUESTION: Absolutely. Equal Pay Day is this month as well.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. And the Biden-Harris Administration, they have focused attention on fair pay for women. And I know that that is a priority, and they are moving forward on that, but it, again, requires implementation at every single level of our government and every institution.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, we’re going to take one more, and this is from Debra Marquart (ph), who is a Luminary guest. “My daughter is entering college in the fall. For students interested in international affairs and women’s rights, where would you like to see more graduates focused? And when you and your colleagues are looking for staff, what skills and experience would you like to see more of?”

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, on where they should focus – just focus on what you’re interested in. Because sometimes young people kind of check boxes, and it’s like I’m interested in international affairs, so I have to go to this college; I have to study this; I have to have this professor. You don’t have to do any of that. And I hope the parent doesn’t mind, because I would be upset if I heard someone say this – you don’t even have to go to college. And it’s true. Because everyone doesn’t have access to college. But you can still be involved in international relations regardless. You can work in a skill that you can use anywhere around the world.

Actually, I was listening to an interview, a podcast a few days ago, and a New York Times editor was being interviewed. And he dropped out of school because he said he couldn’t – he felt like he wasn’t getting what he needed at school, and he went to a local newspaper, and started working on a local newspaper. I don’t know if he ever got his college degree, but he ended up being an editor at The New York Times. You just have to be committed. You have to want to change.

But if you are in college, start volunteering early. Start volunteering with refugee organizations, immigrant organizations.

And my best advice to everyone, advice that no one gave me: join Peace Corps. Because it’s two years of really giving your all. And what you gain from that you can use anywhere – you can use working for the United Nations, you can use going into the Foreign Service, working for USAID. It just requires a commitment and a strong belief in what you’re doing.

And it doesn’t matter what you major in. I was majoring in prelaw. I wanted to be a lawyer. Well, I failed. (Laughter.) But as long as you want to be something, you’ll end up being something.

QUESTION: Well, I think as we close this out, I would love it if you could just share with everybody watching, and in the room here, as we are marking International Women’s Day, one thing that keeps you up at night and one thing that keeps you hopeful in this moment around gender equity and the status of women in America and around the world.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We always worry about where the next conflict is going to be and where the next disaster is going to be – and you never know what it’s going to be. None of us could have predicted the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. None of us would have predicted the war in Ethiopia.

So, I worry about the unknown – the crisis that’s not on my radar, that I’m not working on. Because if you’re working on a crisis, you don’t worry about it. But it’s the ones you just don’t know – you don’t know it’s going go to happen, and when it happens it can be really horrific, such as the earthquake.

Now, what has me hopeful are young people. I am amazed at the intelligence and the commitment, the extraordinary work that young people are doing across the globe. When I travel on the continent of Africa, the median age – 19 – very young people there doing extraordinary things.

And what we have to do is harness that extraordinary and help them really accomplish all of the things that they want to accomplish in the future. And as my generation, I think, has failed in making this world a better place, but where we succeeded is that we have produced a generation that can accomplish what we failed to do.

QUESTION: Well, I think that that is a very hopeful note to end this on. Thank you. That is all the time that we have tonight. Ambassador, I so appreciate being in conversation with you.