“The idea of using pins as a diplomatic tool is not found in any State Department manual or in any text chronicling American foreign policy. The truth is that it would never have happened if not for Saddam Hussein.”
— “Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box”
Yes. That much is true in this opening line of Madeleine Albright’s book about the pins that she wore on her suits as U.S. secretary of state. But she’s being modest. There’s another truth about the beautiful exhibit on display at the Truman Museum.
Jewelry used as a beguiling method of messaging would never have happened had the secretary of state not been a woman. And Albright was the first woman to hold that position, from 1997 to 2001, easing the way for Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton to follow.
Albright had long worn pins as personal jewelry. But as the nation’s leading diplomat, she took a centuries-old fashion statement and elevated it to global significance.
The first time did involve Hussein. It was 1994, during talks after the end of the Persian Gulf War. Albright was critical of Hussein’s refusal to comply with inspections and to disclose Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Newspapers in Iraq printed a poem that compared Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to an “unparalleled serpent.”
So for their next meeting, Albright pulled a gold pin in the shape of a serpent coiled around a branch from her jewelry collection. She refers to her use of the brooch that day as “fun,” a bit of biting repertoire that became her signature.
Albright, 77, visited Kansas City last week to open the exhibit at the library. She also was the keynote speaker at a sold-out luncheon for the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
The foundation released its latest study on the status of women in Missouri to precede Albright’s remarks. A major finding is familiar to Albright: pay inequity.
In Missouri, women working full time earn 29 percent less than men do for the same work, the study found.
“I don’t understand the backlash,” Albright said in an interview before arriving in Kansas City. “Everybody has a mother, or a wife or sister or daughter. My own sense is that things are improving for women, slowly, but surely.”
The foundation plans to use the data to help formulate legislative policy. Fittingly, Albright’s career often found her as “the only woman among men.”
She can argue the point any number of ways, depending on who needs convincing. But she rests firmly on her statement: “Societies are just better off when women are politically empowered.”
She also believes that women should aid other women. One of her favorite often-quoted lines is: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
The early days of Albright’s career were in south-central Missouri. Her then-husband was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood.
Indicative of the era (1959), a man she tried to buy a car from initially suggested that she could work in a local tattoo parlor, at least until the man realized she was married.
Instead she was ushered toward the town’s newspaper, the Rolla Daily News. Albright had graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts with a degree in political science.
In Rolla, she wrote for the society page and took classified ads for about seven months. She can still recite a favorite: “Cemetery plot for sale, owner must move, selling at a sacrifice.”
Albright and her husband, both journalists, later moved back East and had three daughters. Albright returned to school, eventually earning her doctorate. Her career in politics began after working as the chief legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine.
Her visit to the Kansas City area marked her third trip to the Truman Library. While there, she remarked that Truman was president when the Prague-born Albright immigrated in 1948 to the United States.
As Albright guided a private tour of her pins, she was a woman sorting through her jewelry box, rushing to point out favorites, with comments that only she could offer.
More than 200 pins are displayed in cases and categorized: insects and fauna, hearts, American flags, flowers and instruments (many are saxophones, as she was appointed by President Bill Clinton).
Many are costume pieces, found in flea markets or received as gifts. But they were all worn for a reason, even if it was just Albright’s mood on a particular day. Balloons and butterflies were reserved for happy days. Spiders were reserved for tense, difficult days.
Turtles, she said, often were worn during talks in the Middle East. The reason, she remarked dryly: “They never moved.”
Insects are a favored category. After the Russians were caught bugging a State Department conference room, Albright wore a huge bug on her suit for the next meeting with Russian officials. “They knew,” was her comment.
Many of her remarks reflect the glass ceiling that she shattered. One abstract piece, which she keeps a copy of for herself, is shaped to imply glass breaking. It’s made of fused glass with a 22-karat gold strip across the top.
Men at diplomatic events often will break the ice by commenting on each other’s ties. Albright said she found her pins offered her an opening line.
Many of the pieces on display are treasured gifts. A gold dove and a companion necklace are remarkable for their connection to Leah Rabin, widow of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Leah Rabin gave Albright the necklace of many gold doves, with wings touching. It was accompanied by a note acknowledging that peace, like spring, is not signaled by one bird alone.
Some pins accompany searing memories.
In February 1996, Cuban fighter pilots shot down two civilian planes over international waters between Cuba and Florida. Three American citizens and one legal resident died. Albright said she had transcripts of what the pilots who shot them down were saying at the time.
One word, in Spanish, stood out: cojones. The Cuban pilots were bragging that they were the braver men.
“It’s not cojones, it’s cowardice,” she said as part of her official remarks about the attack. She wore a bluebird pin for the event, positioned with its head diving downward, in homage to the fallen pilots.
Initially, the argument against her appointment as secretary of state was the fear that Arab leaderships wouldn’t accept her. But that halted when a coalition of Arab leaders issued a statement saying they found no problem with Albright as U.S. ambassador and anticipated none should she be named secretary of state.
“I had more problems in our government as a woman,” she said.
Knowing that her name was in the running, Albright bought a special brooch on the “off chance” that she was chosen. Because it was an antique, the clasp was complicated and Albright didn’t get it secured. During her swearing in ceremony, the pin hung sideways, and Albright feared the jeweled eagle of rose-cut diamonds would come off her suit.
But it didn’t fail. And neither did Albright.
500 W. U.S. 24, Independence
“Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box” will be on display until Feb. 22.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $8, adults; $7, seniors; $6, students; $3, ages 6-15; free, 5 and younger