Madeleine Albright's Potent Legacy for Women

By the time Madeleine Albright declared, in 2006, that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” her record spoke for itself. For Albright, this was not just a quip; it was a modus operandi.

I first met Madeleine Albright in 1988, when I was a very junior staffer on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign and she was one of his foreign-policy advisers, alongside Harvard professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr., who was already a star in the foreign-policy firmament. Madeleine was teaching at Georgetown, and was already a political veteran, having worked with Walter Mondale, Edmund Muskie, and Geraldine Ferraro.

Virtually anyone connected to the Dukakis campaign or Democratic foreign-policy circles would have predicted that Nye was going to become Secretary of State at some point, not Madeleine. But, eight years later, it was who Madeleine secured the post—the first woman ever to do so. She was working for a different president, Bill Clinton, whose wife, Hillary Clinton, was a passionate and effective feminist.

It was widely reported at the time that Hillary had lobbied hard for Madeleine’s appointment, just as of course men have lobbied for other men for centuries. But it was the first time I saw the power of networks of women in power, and it was a turning point for an entire generation of women in foreign policy.

Madeleine herself lived by the maxim she declared often, most notably when introducing Hillary Clinton at a 2016 rally during Clinton’s presidential campaign: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Susan Rice, who served as National Security Adviser under former President Barack Obama and now heads President Joe Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, was a mentee of Madeleine’s. So was Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. Suzy George, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s chief of staff, also worked for Madeleine for years. And there were so many more.

More broadly, Madeleine was always willing to give a talk, write a blurb, or put in a good word for a promising young woman aspiring to a foreign-policy career.

She mentored and advanced plenty of men as well, but for women of my generation, she was a both a public inspiration and a private booster.

Ironically, however, Madeleine did not focus on advancing women around the world as a foreign-policy issue. It was Hillary Clinton, who became the third woman Secretary of State, who did that. Both were graduates of Wellesley, one of America’s most distinguished all-women colleges, and strong feminists. But as the first female secretary of state, Madeleine needed to prove that she could be just as tough as the men.

Madeleine was known for being more hawkish than the military. As her successor Colin Powell recounts in his memoir, back when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they argued over whether to intervene in Bosnia. When Powell demurred, Madeleine retorted: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

A daughter of Czechoslovakia – a country dismembered by the Nazis and subjugated by the Soviets – Madeleine was a passionate champion of American global leadership in the service of democracy everywhere. In her experience, the United States truly was “the indispensable nation”—and she welcomed the responsibility and hard work that role entailed.

Indeed, while Madeleine was idealistic, she was also deeply practical. I often quote one of her many memorable lines: “democracy must deliver.”

Madeleine knew that people cannot live on ideals alone, and was prepared to get into the details of what a healthy democracy needs to survive, at home and abroad.

She wrote countless books and articles, delivered speeches, made investments, and served on several boards, all in the service of ensuring that ordinary people understood both the stakes and demands of the struggle for self-government and human rights.

Along the way, Madeleine’s gift for pithy phrase-making and humor, and her down-to-earth manner made her beloved by audiences. I heard her speak many times, and often saw people respond with unexpected delight. She spoke candidly about the human side of the foreign-policy business; for example, in her memoir, she describes the challenge of finding hairstylists during her travels. Her wonderful 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box explores how her carefully selected brooches helped make diplomatic history.

Madeleine understood the critical importance of helping ordinary Americans understand the world better. And unlike so many of her foreign-policy peers, she was not afraid to shed some gravitas to that end. That folksiness may explain why she was not really recognized as a foreign-policy thinker, as a strategist or theorist, by many of her peers. But she brought foreign policy home to people around the world.

Madeleine’s achievements – including those she racked up during her remarkable 20-year post-government career as an entrepreneur, investor, author, campaigner, counselor, and Elder – should inspire us all. She blazed not only a new trail, but a new style. For those of us who have tried to follow in her footsteps, her death leaves a gaping hole. I hope that she is now in that special place in heaven for women who help other women.

This article appeared in Project Syndicate.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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