A cast of upper-crust Hudson Valley residents, adorned in their Sunday best and imbued with philanthropic spirit, gathered Sunday at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Val-Kill cottage in Hyde Park to celebrate the annual awarding of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal.
The five honorees—including former first daughter Chelsea Clinton—“reflect Eleanor Roosevelt’s desire to build a better world through humanitarian and human rights efforts,” said Val-Kill Board of Directors Chair Kathryn Reed. Executive Director April Gozza added that the honorees “have made great progress on bridging social and economic divides on women’s rights, education, global health, and gender diversity.”
Past medalists have included New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Queen Noor of Jordan, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and Gloria Steinem, among many other renowned figures in art, politics, and activism.
Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, President and CEO of luxury cruise line Celebrity Cruises, was honored as a trailblazer for women in her industry. Lutoff-Perlo, whom captain Kate McCue described as what a “boss lady looks like,” said that when Lutoff-Perlo first ascended to her position, she was saddled with unfair burdens as the only female executive, but “decided to turn that annoyance into positive energy.”
Lutoff-Perlo made it her mission to bring her company closer to gender parity in an industry with a significant gender hiring gap. She went on to hire McCue, the first-ever female cruise ship captain, as well as the first African woman to work on a cruise ship, and helped bring the number of women on her bridge team from three percent to 23 percent.
The next two recipients were honored by former Hyde Park Town Supervisor Pompey Delafield. He described John Golden and Gloria Kidd-Golden, married nearly 70 years, as “Mr. and Mrs. Hyde Park,” a reference to Golden’s lifelong Hyde Park residency, his time at the helm of Golden & Golden Building Company, Inc., and the couple’s prolific local philanthropy.
Delafield noted Golden’s relentless activism for causes he cared about, primarily “revitalizing the town center where he had grown up.” This even included Golden advocating for a building project while in a hospital bed following a medical emergency.
The 95-year-old Golden spun the tale of his business-savvy decision to take advantage of the King and Queen of England’s visit to Hyde Park to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt by turning his house into a makeshift parking lot and charging $1 per car. Kidd-Golden, for her part, spoke of her family’s close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi-American humanitarian, bestselling author, and founder of the charity Women for Women International, was also among those honored. “Many people lead with their heads or their hearts,” said Becca Heller, executive director of the International Refugee Assistance Project. “Zainab leads with her soul.”
Salbi, who immigrated to the US nearly 30 years ago, told of her experience in an abusive marriage in war-torn Iraq and her eventual escape before becoming a renowned activist, which included a trip to the Clinton White House. She extolled the American values of kindness and generosity, and described freedom as “like a taste of chocolate.”
Women for Women International has grown from helping 30 women in Bosnia and Croatia to half a million women around the world, and Salbi praised the many American women who contribute to the organization. “It is no longer enough for women to only survive,” she concluded, “it’s now for us to lead—to make the 21st century the women’s century.”
Hillary Clinton, herself a recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in 1995, presented the award to her daughter, making them the first mother-daughter recipients in the award’s three-decade history.
The former Secretary of State said America has “an obligation to stand up for those who are under assault here at home and around the world.” She decried recent Turkish violence against the Kurds, and in particular against female Kurdish fighters. She also lauded Roosevelt’s “commitment to human rights” as “so deep and so far ahead of her time, that we are still playing catch up.”
She said of her daughter, with whom she recently co-wrote The Book of Gutsy Women, that she “understands, at the core of her being, that the truest test of society is how we treat the most vulnerable among us.” She noted the Chelsea’s work in support of HIV/AIDS medicine at the Clinton Foundation, her child development project Too Small To Fail, and her role as a global public health advocate.
The younger Clinton, like the speakers before her, lauded the achievements and deeds of the award’s namesake. Eleanor Roosevelt, she said, “fundamentally believed that if children could understand what human rights are, why they are important, and why we each only have them, ultimately, if we all have them.”
Chelsea drew a comparison between herself and Roosevelt. “We had to inculcate that understanding and that commitment to—with the protection and advancement of the defense of human rights—kids. That’s why she wrote children’s books. It’s also why I write children’s books.”
The ever-elusive first daughter didn’t speak about any future plans she may have, though she has been rumored to be a potential candidate for New York’s 17th Congressional district in light of incumbent Nita Lowey’s announcement that she will retire next year. Chelsea Clinton snuck out before question time, making it anyone’s guess where she goes from here.
Andrew Solender is a political reporter based in Kingston. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSolender.