Yesterday evening, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright captivated, entertained and inspired a full audience in Robsham Theater as she candidly addressed her personal background, her experience in office and her thoughts on women’s leadership for the inaugural Council for Women of Boston College Colloquium.
In partnership with Boston College’s Institute for the Liberal Arts, the Council for Women of Boston College founded the colloquium to establish BC as a leading voice in the dialogue concerning women’s leadership and role in confronting modern issues. Established in 2002, the CWBC is dedicated to furthering the role of women as leaders and active participants in the university, seeking to help shape the institution's future and to support its mission through the engagement of the women of BC.
As the first female Secretary of State, and, at the time, the highest-ever ranking woman in the history of the United States government, Madeleine Albright was a more than ideal candidate to be the inaugural speaker for an organization whose mission is to promote female leadership.
Tickets for the event ran out in under a half hour—a testament to the celebrity of Albright's name. The colloquium brought together students, alumni and the public alike for this rare opportunity to hear from such a highly respected female figure, and the audience began excitedly filing in almost an hour before the event began.
After being introduced by both Father William P. Leahy, S.J., the President of BC, and Kathleen McGillycuddy, CWBC Chair, Albright came to the podium and was met by a long, welcoming round of applause. Within a few seconds, she had engaged the audience with an amusing joke and a pop culture reference to her short acting career on Parks and Recreation, in which she ate waffles across from the show's star and BC alum Amy Poehler.
Albright’s experience teaching college students at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service has given her a keen insight on connecting with members of the current young adult generation. She even cited her undergraduate experience at Wellesley College as falling sometime “halfway between the invention of the iPhone and the discovery of fire.” Her light hearted and humble sense of humor was appreciated by the audience, made evident by the roars of laughter that followed each of her one-liners.
As she described her post-graduate experience (which consisted of getting married three days after graduation and having twin daughters soon after) she mentioned that she was in a transition period during which women were beginning abandon being silent in favor of speaking up. Still, Albright faced gender discrimination and patronization as she aspired to be a journalist in Chicago.
Eventually her plans changed, and she turned to working on her dissertation while her daughters were only one-year-olds. Though she woke up at 4:30 every morning to work on her paper and study, she always made time for her daughters, even when she was on the Senate floor.
Albright never imagined she would be Secretary of State, not because she lacked ambition, but rather because she had never seen a Secretary of State “in a skirt or with ruby red shoes.” But she forged her own path and became her own role model, establishing herself as someone women and girls could look up to and emulate. With Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton later serving as back-to-back Secretaries of State, Albright joked that “we might now say that John Kerry is a source of inspiration to little boys everywhere,” once again lightening the seriousness of the talk with perfectly placed humor.
During her time in office, in response to the “self-proclaimed experts” who thought women’s rights were a marginal concern compared to the “hard issues” of power politics and the military, she pointed to how the Taliban in Afghanistan made women “silent, invisible, illiterate and unemployed."
When she visited a group of female Afghan refugees in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, they told her how they were forced to be accompanied by an adult male at all times, and how one girl’s sister died after jumping from a sixth floor window to escape being raped. Albright never forgot the stories of those she met, and they hugely impacted her worldview and foreign policy initiatives.
In regards to the current state of the global treatment of women, Albright said, “Even if the law in the books are changed, the reality in villages and communities are not. So appalling abuses are still being committed against women, and these include coerced abortion and sterilization, female genital mutilations ... and the killing of infants simply because they are born female. Some say all this is cultural and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. I say it’s criminal and we each have an obligation to stop it.” The audience responded to her sincere matter-of-factness with generous applause.
Albright was a trailblazer for women’s leadership in U.S. government, but recently women have served as Presidents or Prime Ministers in Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Argentina, Norway and Liberia. America has yet to follow suit. And “contrary to the stereotype, the five countries with the largest Muslim populations have, in the recent past, been lead by a woman,” Albright said.
People still remain skeptical of a woman’s capability to rule, but she pointed out that it has already been established that women have what it takes to govern. Just a few of the historical examples she included were Cleopatra of Ancient Egypt, Catherine the Great of Tsarist Russia and the Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. Although many historians discount these past queens and empresses, attributing their power to purely familial connections, Albright said, “That is frankly a double standard, after all kings and emperors too were most often born into their job.”
Beyond exceptional individual women forging into leadership positions, Albright stressed the importance of female solidarity and community for promoting equality.
Women such as the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared learned to organize and bonded together out of necessity, survival and justice, developing skills and confidence along the way. Of course the experience of the Mothers of the Disappeared are vastly different from the experience of women in the Chestnut Hill area, but what unites both is the “ability of women to come together and work towards the common good.”
Albright went on to directly address all the women in the audience who were in school, beginning their careers or already well-established.
“In our era, it is better to risk being thought rude, than to give the impression that you have nothing to say,” Albright said. While teaching at Georgetown, she noticed that girls in her classes would be too polite, allowing boys to dominate the conversation by blurting out and interrupting others. So she told the women to feel free to interrupt: "Be confident in [your] experience and risk disagreeing with others around the table."
She also said “not to be obsessed by the clock.” Albright was 39 when she got her first professional job, 55 when she became Ambassador of the United Nations and 59 when she became Secretary of State. We live in a youth-centric age, but as Albright said, “When it comes to generating results, experience and character count far more than a wrinkle-free face.”
Finally, she advised women “not to let anyone else tell you what you can do and where you belong. You may have ambitions that go beyond what others expect, but you have to decide whether to let others define the boundaries of your life or to chart your own course even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going. Act out of hope not fear, and take responsibility for your choices.”
In one particularly poignant moment, Albright expressed, “There is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men; there is no room for mediocre women, and so we really do have to work extremely hard and know what we are doing ... but if you are someone who can be depended on to do what you are asked to do, you will move ahead.” In this statement, Albright stared head-on into the unequal condition of women. Her words revealed the stark reality, as she perceives it, of how women are judged far more harshly than men are and that hard work, passion and dedication are how women will get ahead in this male-dominated world.
In closing, Albright remarked, “When I look around the world, I can see that we need every available voice speaking up for democracy and tolerance, human rights and peace, and whether you’re in the Boston area or nations abroad, we need every voice encouraging young women and girls to believe they can be anything they want to be as long as they are willing to work hard.”