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Column: Madeleine Albright was a true trailblazer

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The approach of former secretaries of state in writing their memoirs “did not seem right for me,” Madeleine Albright thought. According to former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, “The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull.” Given that she was a stateswoman (rather than a statesman), “I didn’t feel bound by his prescription,” she wryly observed.

As secretary of state, Albright honored the dignity of the office. But she also was herself. “I could have shunned informal settings, dressed conservatively, and reined in my penchant for blunt speaking,” she has written. “But the job wouldn’t have been as enjoyable and I would not have been able to accomplish as much as I did.”

Albright, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State, recently passed away at the age of 84. As the first female secretary of state, she rose to a higher rank than any other woman in American history. Albright was a trailblazer in more ways than one, forging ahead in a male dominated space, balancing family and work life in a changing era, shifting U.S. policy priorities, and conducting herself in a professional yet open and at times vulnerable way atypical of high-level public officials.

Being in the minority was the norm for Albright. As a first generation Czech immigrant/student with a serious streak, she did not fit in well at school.

Even as a young adult at the all-women’s Wellesley College (where she found herself better fitting in) she was still in a minority — whereas most of the students were Republicans, she was a committed Democrat.

During her career, she often found herself to be one of the only, if not the only, woman in the room. When she arrived in New York as ambassador to the UN, she set out to meet fellow female ambassadors. To her surprise, there were only six others out of the more than 180 countries represented at the UN (and included in the six were some not-so-heavy geopolitical hitters such as the small island state Trinidad-Tobago and tiny Liechtentenstein).

She was the only woman at her first UN Security Council meeting. “If I lived to write my memoirs, I would call the book Fourteen Suits and a Skirt,” she thought (she later opted for the less cheeky “Madam Secretary” as the title for her first memoir).

After leaving government, Albright created an international consultancy group called the Albright Group (TAG). Whereas there were many such firms run by men, there was only one other at time that was headed by a woman.

On a return visit to the State Department, Albright was reminded, during her time as secretary of state, of walking down the halls lined with portraits of men and the diplomatic reception rooms that, except for two out of 40, were named after men. The two rooms named after women were both bathrooms.

Being in the minority was not only a numerical disadvantage — Albright also had to overcome well-established social norms. She had come of age at a time when women were expected to be demure. To be an effective ambassador to the UN she had to, as she has put it, “overcome 60 years of social training.” In sessions, rather than first listening to what others had to say and getting a feel for the room before speaking as she was accustomed to doing, she quickly realized that she would need to be proactively assertive and even willing to interrupt if necessary for her voice to be heard.

There were double standards that Albright had to overcome to rise through the professional ranks. When she initially attempted to start a career as a journalist after college, she was told during an interview that she could not work at the same newspaper as her husband due to company policy and could not work for a rival paper because it could harm her husband’s career. During a subsequent interview with Encyclopedia Britannica she was asked if she was going to get pregnant. It was an inauspicious start.

After spending years raising three children, earning a Ph.D., and organizing fundraisers in Washington, Albright was hired for her first professional job at the age of 39 as a legislative assistant for Sen. Ed Muskie. Though she got along well with him, Muskie doubted whether Albright was suited for a job that she was later offered handling congressional relations because, he said, most members of Congress were men. Albright found Muskie to be “unsure how to deal with professional women.”

When she was in the running to be nominated secretary of state, she ran up against old boys’ networks. One such rival camp publicly suggested that a female would not be able to work constructively with leaders of conservative Arab states.

Albright found, once she became secretary of state, being female did not necessarily inhibit her on the world stage. Representing the United States, the most powerful country in the world, brought with it cache, she wrote in her memoir. Contrary to those who questioned whether Arab leaders would be willing to work with her as an equal, Albright found, for most part, such leaders to be “gracious” (aside from an incident during a meeting on Afghanistan in which Iran’s foreign minister did not speak privately with her or shake her hand as he later did with Colin Powell when Powell was secretary of state).

Still, Albright felt that she had to stay attuned to gender stereotypes and to be careful not to play into them. During a speech in which she felt “flushed” under blinding lights, she feared how others would perceive her strength and fitness for office, given that she was a woman, if she passed out.

She was initially wary about writing a book about the pins she wore symbolically while secretary of state (the practice began when she wore a serpent pin after a poem printed in the Iraqi press referred to her as an “unparalleled serpent”), worrying that she would not be taken seriously if she wrote a book about jewelry.

As a mother and high-level public official, Albright was faced with, what she has called, the “classic women’s dilemma” of “juggling marriage, motherhood, and a profession.” It was something that she wrestled with her entire adult life, she has noted, first in regard to herself and later through her daughters and in solidarity with others.

Albright had always desired to be a wife and mother with a rewarding professional career. She married three days after graduating from Wellesley College in 1959 and quickly found how difficult excelling in both building a family and pursuing a career would be. She left good jobs as a result of relocating in support of her husband’s career. While she was raising her three children, she was unable to work fulltime. It took her 13 years to complete her Ph.D. She struggled with the emotional pain of having a still-birth and her husband leaving her for another woman.

Starting her career later in life, Albright found that she was often the oldest, or among the oldest, of those she worked with. As a senate staffer, she would go home immediately after work to attend to her family’s needs while her coworkers would socialize and network into the evening. She doubted she would have the time to progress very far in her career given her late start.

In her memoirs, Albright described the guilt associated with pursuing a professional career as a wife and mother of young children. Women often extend themselves too thin, she has noted, trying to do too much and inevitably feeling like they are failing at everything as a consequence. “Guilt” should be every woman’s middle name, she often said.

The conclusion that Albright eventually came to, was not that women could not “have it all,” but that it might not be possible to “have it all at once.” She had a demanding schedule, of course, as secretary of state, often arriving early to work and staying late. Working such long hours without feeling guilty, she has written, was only possible because her children were adults by then.

Albright has recognized that she likely would not have become secretary of state had her husband not have left her. After her divorce, though she struggled at first, she eventually learned how to be more independent and became more focused on her career pursuits.

As a high level female public official, Albright shifted U.S. priorities and affected change on gender issues. She served as chair of the U.S. delegation to the Fourth World Conference on Women. She founded the Albright Institute for training women to become global leaders at her alma mater Wellesley. Empowering women and promoting democracy were her two main goals during her time in office and after, she wrote in one of her memoirs.

As a public figure, Albright displayed vulnerabilities that male colleagues, fearful of appearing weak, often have tried to conceal. She has admitted to saying things that she should not have during her career, such as referring to the United States as a “deadbeat” (when it came to paying UN dues), using the term “assertive multilateralism,” and blurting out her signature “there is a special place in hell for women who do not support women” line at a rally during the 2016 primaries, which some took as being directed at female supporters of Bernie Sanders.

She regretted, during a time when she was coming under heavy criticism, of saying, “I’m not that smart, [but] I work very hard.” It was something that a man would never say, her friends told her. Her biggest regret, she repeatedly has admitted, was not responding to the Rwandan genocide sooner.

Albright revealed not only her professional regrets, but also her personal insecurities. When her fiancé got cold feet before their wedding, she struggled to understand why before pointing the finger at herself — “perhaps Joe was not the problem; perhaps the problem was me.” She felt inadequate as a role model to her female students at Georgetown due to having been divorced. After being attacked by the press, she admitted that her “personal confidence level was down.” She described herself as being “indecisive and vulnerable” initially after her husband left her.

Albright had a “natural proclivity to discount praise and magnify criticism” about herself, as she put it. In the end, she concluded, “there was no one tougher on me than me.”

Still, Albright remained positive. Feminism was not simply about patriarchy — it was also about women forming mutually supportive relationships, she felt. After making it to the top, women should not, “push the ladder of success away from the building.” “There is a special place in hell for women who do not support one another,” she often said.

Albright supported Hillary Clinton in her public pursuits. She pointed out that Clinton’s success could not simply be attributed to her husband, as some had alleged, given what Hillary accomplished prior to meeting Bill. If anything, Albright argued, marrying Bill slowed Hillary down.

On election night in 2016, Albright wore a pin depicting shattered glass expecting Clinton to become the first female U.S. president. But it was not to be. Upon losing, Hillary defiantly declared that the glass ceiling now had “eighteen million cracks in it.” It would have had far fewer had Albright not earlier made a few dents in it herself. And for that, I’d like to think, to flip Albright’s motto on its head, there is a special place for her in heaven.

David R. Dreyer is a political science professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Email him at


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