Madeleine Albright – diplomat, trailblazer and giant of global politics – shares her thoughts on the transformational power of women’s leadership.
Madeleine Albright recently learned that her youngest granddaughter is unimpressed by her illustrious career. “What’s the big deal about Grandma Maddy being Secretary of State?” she asked. “Only girls are Secretary of State.”
In 1996, when Albright was nominated to become the first female head of America’s State Department – then the highest US government post any woman had occupied – it was a history-making event. ‘They never thought it would happen,’ wrote one Boston Globe columnist. ‘Half of Washington is in a state of shock.’ Now that two of her three successors have been female, the phrase ‘Madam Secretary’ is no longer a novelty.
Women may have stalled in their quest for the White House, but the sight of a woman at the forefront of American foreign policy has become routine. The work of three women in particular – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; UN ambassador Susan Rice; and Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights director Samantha Power – has played a pivotal role in the decision-making process regarding Libya and other key international issues during the Obama administration.
Albright shattered the glass ceiling so thoroughly that it’s hard to remember how improbable that feat once seemed. She’s still acutely interested in the transformational power of women’s leadership, but not because she buys into sentimental theories about women’s peaceful and cooperative nature. “Anybody who believes that has forgotten high school,” says Albright, sipping black coffee at a conference table in the Washington, DC, offices of the Albright Stonebridge Group, her global strategy firm.
Rather, she thinks that the unique complexities of women’s lives – their balancing of biological versus professional imperatives – help prepare them to function amid chaos and uncertainty, whether they’re in government or business. “This is a gross generalisation, but men focus more on one thing,” she says. “Women are much better at multitasking and peripheral vision. I think that’s important in business, so that you’re looking at the whole picture of what’s going on in a company.”
Besides, she says, when it comes to prestigious, high-pressure jobs, the world has a way of winnowing out all but the toughest and most ambitious women. “I believe that women work harder,” she says. “There is no room for mediocre women. There is plenty of room for mediocre men.”
One of the most winning things about Albright, now 74, is how forthright she’s been about the brutality of her own climb to the top. Her 2005 memoir, Madam Secretary, is rich in detail about foreign policy debates and the daily work of diplomacy, but it’s also surprisingly candid about what life was like as a working mother helping to run the world.
“People need to understand that it is not simple to be a woman,” she says. “I have three daughters. They’re all married, they all have jobs and they all have children. And they all have the same discussions about how to balance it.” Nevertheless, she thinks that the tension between different aspects of women’s lives can be fruitful. “Our lives come in segments, due primarily to biology,” she says. “And instead of bemoaning it, we should take advantage of it. The truth is, I’ve often watched men get bored in what they’ve been doing.
We have the advantage of switching from one thing to another, and you can say it’s because ‘I want to have kids’, or ‘I want to spend more time with them’, or whatever.” Albright herself didn’t hold a government job until she was 39, when, after fundraising for Senator Ed Muskie, she became his chief legislative assistant. Originally, she’d wanted to be a journalist – editing her school newspaper and working as a reporter while her husband was in the army. But when they moved to Chicago so he could take a job on the Sun-Times, his managing editor ordered her to shelve her ambitions. “You can’t work on the same paper as your husband because of guild regulations, and you wouldn’t want to work on one of the competing papers and compete with him,” he told her. “And instead of saying what I might say today, I saluted and went and did something else,” she says.
As Albright was developing her career, women weren’t always her allies (indeed, she says, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”). But her allies were often women. When she became America’s ambassador to the United Nations, she developed a network of other female representatives, though there were only seven in the 183-person body. Powerful DC women, including then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, lobbied on her behalf for the Secretary of State position.
Even at the pinnacle of her profession, Albright says she sometimes second-guessed herself when she was the only woman in the room. In meetings, she’d be about to speak up, only to silence herself, thinking, ‘That will sound really stupid’. Then, almost inevitably, a man would pipe up with the same observation, “and everybody thinks it’s brilliant, and you are so mad at yourself.” There’s something both reassuring and discouraging about the fact that a Secretary of State makes the same sort of mistakes as an ordinary professional woman. Reassuring, because she was a spectacular success despite them. Discouraging, because it suggests that no amount of success ever really makes deep-rooted insecurities go away.
“I believe that women work harder. There is no room for mediocre women.”
Yet if being female had its drawbacks, it also had its advantages. “I think women are better at personal relationships,” she says, and such relationships are fundamental to diplomacy. Countries, of course, make foreign policy according to their own interests, but “the role of individuals is very, very important,” Albright says. Her own friendship with Joschka Fischer, the onetime student radical who served as German foreign minister in the 1990s, “made a huge difference” during NATO’s bombardment of Kosovo, which Time magazine once called ‘Madeleine’s War’.
The first time Albright met Fischer, he said to her, “I can’t believe I’m sitting in the office of the Secretary of State of the United States in a three-piece suit talking about NATO.” She was fascinated by his own political journey, which had been inspired throughout by a revulsion against Nazism.
As a leader of the Green Party, his passionate advocacy of force to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo helped shore up liberal European support for the military intervention. It was Fischer who quashed a proposal to suspend bombing over Easter, asking why they should pause in honour of one religion in order to kill people of another. “Because of his personality, and because he was so smart, people listened to him in a different way,” Albright says.
She makes no secret of the fact that she misses her old job. “I would have been happy to be Secretary of State every day of my life,” she admits. “Being Secretary of State was the best job in the world. But you know from the minute you start that you have to leave it.”
Still, Albright remains heavily involved in foreign policy. She’s chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organisation that does work to support and strengthen democratic institutions around the world through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government. “We have people in 65 countries, and at the moment in a lot of places in the Middle East,” she says. At the request of Secretary Clinton, a close friend, she’s chairing a new group called Partners for a New Beginning, a public-private partnership to promote economic development and technological innovation in Muslim majority communities in places like Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, the Palestinian Territory, Pakistan, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Albright wrote her doctoral dissertation about the role of the Czechoslovak press in the 1968 Prague Spring democracy movement – few have a deeper understanding of the role of civil society in resisting authoritarianism. Still, she says, the lessons of the Cold War aren’t necessarily applicable to the Middle East. “The similarities are that people got fed up with the system and they took to the streets,” she says. “It was like an avalanche.” But while leaders in countries escaping communism were eager to align themselves with the United States, those involved in what has been known as the Arab Spring were less willing to associate themselves with America and the West.
At the end of the Bush administration, Albright foresaw a great challenge in restoring the good name of democracy. “With democracy militarised in Iraq, it had undermined the concept,” she argues. In Egypt, the United States had to find a way to support democracy without the appearance of undue influence. Thus, when NDI was asked to consult on the writing of the Egyptian constitution, they made sure it didn’t only have an American imprimatur by bringing in a Chilean who had worked against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, as well as people with experience of the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe. “It’s not just the American model,” she says. “This is not America’s story. This is their story.”
Naturally, Albright sees expanded roles for women as central to the future of the Middle East, as well as other developing regions. “In all countries, women represent more than 50 percent of the population, and if you are not using that resource, employing women economically or politically, you’re undermining the stability of your own society.”