Before a group of high school students last week, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recalled her first day as the U.S. representative to the United Nations.
“The Security Council has 15 members on it, and I was the only woman,” she said. “I’m there the first day, and there are 14 men staring at me.”
She thought initially that she wouldn’t speak that day, so she could “see whether people like me and see who is who.”
“And then I looked at the sign in front of me, and it said the United States, and I thought if I don’t speak today, then the voice of the United States will not be heard,” she said.
She had to take her own advice on that occasion: Summon the courage to speak up, especially if you’re a woman.
Albright, who was the nation’s first woman secretary of state, spoke Thursday at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum to about 450 high school seniors taking government classes in the Independence School District.
She spent time with the students in conjunction with the library’s new exhibition of Albright’s more than 200 pins and brooches. She wore the jewelry as a diplomatic tool, often for humor but sometimes to send a sharp-edged message.
“The whole purpose of the pin exhibit is you,” Albright told the students, “because I wanted to do something that was fun and educational and made foreign policy less foreign, and was able to tell stories that explained what foreign policy was about.”
The key requirements for a diplomat, she said, are empathy for counterparts, thorough knowledge of the subject at hand and the willingness to speak up.
In response to a question from the audience, Albright said she hadn’t faced a situation in which she had to set aside her beliefs for the sake of diplomacy.
“But the question is how and when to voice them at a particular time,” she said. “One of the things that is complicated and very hard to do is to realize that when you are negotiating diplomatically, in order to get anything done, you have to put yourself into the shoes of the person that’s on the other side of the table and try to figure out what their national interests are, just as you’re talking about your national interests.”
Albright was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, and she was the U.S. representative to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997.
She started teaching in the 1980s at Georgetown University, “and I said it was very important for people to listen in a way as though they were going to interrupt, and that every woman had to learn to speak in meetings.”
“I called it active listening, and you also have to know what you’re talking about, and you have to have a strong voice and you have to speak up,” she said. “When I started teaching, I said nobody should raise his or her hand. Everybody should learn to interrupt … It’s much more like real life.”
Many women and girls want to speak up in meetings, she said, but they tell themselves that “everybody will think it’s really stupid so I won’t say it.”
“And then some man or boy says it and everybody thinks it’s brilliant, and then you’re really mad at yourself for not speaking.”
William Chrisman High School student Rachael Mallinson said Albright’s message “teaches us young girls to have a voice in anything we do.”
Zack Rellihan, who attends Truman High School, said he especially liked that Albright “wasn’t afraid to bash foreign dignitaries and current political figures.”
Another student asked whether Albright had “any advice for some of the young women in this room as we get ready to graduate from high school and enter the work force with men.”
“My advice to you is to continue getting a really good education … and to work very hard,” Albright said. “You are going to have to work harder than the men. There is no question … There is plenty of room for mediocre men. There is no room for mediocre women.”
Albright also said that women should “be good to each other.”
“I find this always very hard to say, but I had some hard times with other women,” she said. “And also get used to the fact that your middle name will always be guilt, because you will always have questions as to whether you’re in the right place and whether you should get married and have children and be with them or go to the office or try to do everything at the same time. And the people that will make you feel the worst about it are other women.”
A student asked Albright what words she had for people who’d doubted her.
“They were wrong.”