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Remarks by
Ambassador Victoria Reggie Kennedy
Gender Perspectives in Security and Defense
Theresian Military Academy Wiener Neustadt
Austria November 22, 2022

Good afternoon, everyone!

First, let me thank Major General Pronhagl and course director Major Spannbauer, for inviting me to be part of this outstanding weeklong curriculum on gender perspectives in security and defense. I understand that the Theresian Academy is among the first in Europe to offer this curriculum, and I am delighted to participate and to address this international group of future military leaders.

On so many levels, this subject matter is as timely as it is important. Let me tell you a brief story.

Just recently, I was scheduled to give welcoming remarks to a group of security professionals from the U.S. and Europe who were meeting here in Vienna. I was unfortunately a few minutes late in arriving – a traffic accident along the way – and immediately went up to the head table to apologize for my tardiness. One of the head people was a retired, very high-ranking military officer from a country that is a good friend to all of us
here. When I apologized, he immediately said, you’re not late, we’re still waiting for the Ambassador. At that very moment, I was introduced and called up to the podium to speak. You should have seen his face. I thought he might fall out of his chair.

He clearly would have benefitted from your curriculum.

In a very serious way, I’m a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in all facets of our lives and am proud to say that gender equity also has been a priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. In the Biden-Harris Administration, we have the first ever woman – and woman of color – as Vice President of the United States, the first ever women to serve as Treasury Secretary and Director of National Intelligence, the first Native American woman to serve as a Cabinet Secretary, and the first African American woman to serve as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court. President Biden also named four-star Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost to be the 14th Commander of USTRANSCOM, and Army General Laura Richardson to lead SOUTHCOM and to receive her fourth star.

When women achieve high positions, they help pave the way for future generations of women and girls to follow in their footsteps. But they can’t do it alone. Like so much in life, teamwork is important. We need and want our male friends and allies to join with us to open opportunities for everyone.

There is public service announcement that aired on U.S. television this year, and the message was as simple as it was powerful: “If you can see her, you can be her.”

I understand the power of those words from the experience of my own life. When I was in college in the 1970s and making decisions about my future career, the women’s liberation movement in the United States was in full swing. I thought I could do absolutely anything, and it was thrilling. But, as I came to learn, I hadn’t really thought of everything that I might do. I never thought of being a lawyer. Why not? My dad was a lawyer. I knew lots of other lawyers. But none of them were women. I didn’t see her, so I didn’t know I could be her.

It took a male professor of 18th Century British Literature to open my eyes.

He told me the story of Carla Hills, a female lawyer who had just been appointed by the then president of the United States to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

My professor challenged me – if she can do it, he asked, then why can’t you. And with that simple question, he changed my life.

Just look at how lives are being changed right now in Ukraine, where women are fighting alongside men for their right to freedom and self-determination. And they’re fighting with strength, resilience, and courage. After the fighting is over, these same women will be indispensable in the eventual negotiation of a lasting peace. And data tells us that when women participate in peace negotiations, the resulting peace deals are 35 percent more likely to last 15 years or longer.

Think of the difference these women are making. And think of the generations of women they’re inspiring. They can see her, so they can be her.

The United States and the Department of Defense are committed to advancing gender equality at home and abroad through the Women in Peace and Security Strategic Framework and Implementation

Plan that calls for women’s meaningful participation throughout the department of defense and seeks to encourage the same level of participation for women in partner nations at all ranks and in all defense and security sector occupations.

Indeed, the United States is the first country in the world with both a comprehensive law and whole-of-government strategy on Women in Peace and Security, and we are very proud of that. But we are not taking victory laps yet. Far from it. We still have significant challenges to overcome.

For instance, women have only been allowed to attend U.S. service academies since 1976, and the first women officers graduated from West Point in 1980, only 42 years ago. And even after 42 years, women only make up 16 percent of the United States armed forces.

The numbers are much lower for the highest levels of military leadership. The first woman became a four-star general in 2008, and since then, only five more have reached that high rank. In stark contrast, during that same period, approximately 100 men were promoted to four star general. We most definitely still have work to do.

As you will be discussing over these coming days, all too often, it’s unconscious bias that holds women back from the highest ranks. So, we need to challenge ourselves and our unconscious assumptions. Like that retired military officer who couldn’t imagine that the U.S. Ambassador to Austria could possibly be a woman, we must remind ourselves that each of us, man or woman, can be anything. And we must work together to make it so, just as my literature professor did for me.

After all, we all have a better future when women and men together work for peace and security in our world.

Thank you very much for inviting me to be with you today. It has been my great pleasure, and look forward to your questions.