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Madeleine Albright: What Women Need to Know


Last week, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spent time at the UN General Assembly. Her experience there reminded her how far both the US and the world have come—yet still have to go—on issues that impact women. Friday afternoon, she shared her thoughts at the 2015 CREW National Convention in Seattle.

We’ve achieved near-gender parity in education, halved extreme poverty and doubled the number of women in parliamentary positions, she said—but many countries at the GA were blasted for their poor women’s rights records back home.

Growing up, she was part of a generation of mixed attitudes. On one hand, they were part of a silent generation whose place was in the home; on the other, they were in transition, wanting to be judged as individuals. But Albright never considered being Secretary of State, because she never saw a woman in that position. On her first day, on the way to the office she passed through a long hall of portraits of her predecessors—whose only differentiation were whether they were clean-shaven or bearded. “I thought that when my portrait went up, the walls would shake, and they did,” she says. "But as women, our job is to keep the building from falling down."

Here are a few of the lessons this iconic American leader learned as Madam Secretary, diplomat, teacher, consultant, mother and more:

  1. Hard work matters: She discovered early there is room for mediocre men, but not mediocre women. It’s all about careful preparation. “Few people can have success with little effort.”
  2. Keep growing intellectually and professionally: Every step she has taken prepared her for the next one, so don’t discount any of your experiences. (For one, she laughs, her daughters gave her skills in mediating disputes.)
  3. Be brave in assembling a team: She went out and recruited the best talent she could find. Don’t be intimated, aim high, share the work and give credit where credit is due.
  4. Take initiative: It’s hard to have your own ideas picked apart and ripped to shreds, but that’s the price leaders have to pay, she notes. For instance, the media called US action on Kosovo “Madeleine’s War,” which she says wasn’t flattering. However, Slobodan Milošević eventually yielded. The Kosovar showered her with gratitude—and there’s an entire generation of girls in Kosovo now named Madeleine, she says. And its current president, Atifete Jahjaga, is a woman.
  5. Don't be obsessed with the clock: Madeleine was 55 when she became UN ambassador and four years older when she became Secretary of State. Most of Eleanor Roosevelt’s accomplishments happened after the death of FDR. “We live in a youth-oriented culture, but experience and character count more than an unwrinkled face."

Women need to work together for the common good and be major engines of social and political change, she says, repeating her famous quip: “There is a seat of honor reserved for women who help other women and a special place in hell for those who do not.”

She encourages everyone to speak about freedom, tolerance, justice and peace, as well as embolden young women to work hard and aim high. “Challenge the next generation of women to activate,” she says, repeating the conference’s theme. “Action creates transformation.”

Related Topics: CREW, Madeleine Albright