Passage Through India

HILLARY RODHAM Clinton's voyage through the Indian subcontinent winds up this week after stopovers in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In the middle of very populist political whirlwinds at home, the first lady has attracted some ridicule on talk radio for visiting what may seem like out-of-the-way places to many Americans.

Actually, Mrs. Clinton took abroad some of the best of what the United States has to offer -- a voice on behalf of women, in a region that does need to hear that message. America has long been a beacon of women's reform, dating at least to Alexis de Toqueville's 19th-century observation that in the New World, ''the mother has more authority.''

Americans ought to be supportive and even proud of the first lady and newly emerging first daughter (who really did her homework on South Asia), and their quiet but firm voice on the universal rights of women. The issue is too important to be ignored, particularly in persistently rigid patriarchal societies.

While Hillary, if we may, was received by the political elite in her host countries, and while there was time for sightseeing on elephants and the other somewhat expected exotic delights, the president's wife spent just as much time with grass-roots women's leaders.

There is something exactly right about the example of an educated first lady -- a lawyer in her own right -- finding interest in the work of small, non-governmental groups set up to help women get educated, feed and care for their children, and demonstrate a degree of independence and autonomy. As Hillary said to one woman in Bangladesh, remarking that work after marriage ought not be taboo, ''I earn my own bread.''

Americans, weaned on rights and fairness, can be partly oblivious to the context they speak into in other countries. But in a sense, this can be a strength. Not many other female world figures have visited the heart of Muslim and Hindu social patriarchy, and made such statements.

Women's intelligence, resourcefulness, and strength are a reformatory power in any society, as their example has increasingly shown in the 20th century. These gains should not be taken for granted; they should be enlarged. Holding the idea of women up, from the first lady of the most powerful nation in the world, makes Mrs. Clinton's trip well worth it.

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