In mid-April, seven weeks into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the prime ministers of Sweden and Finland both announced they were considering joining NATO. Few, if any, stories noted that the leaders contemplating such a fraught decision—Moscow has threatened retaliation—are women. At the funeral of Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 at the Washington National Cathedral in late April, while the war in Ukraine raged on, she was celebrated for championing democracy—and breaking one of the world’s hardest glass ceilings. But fully breaking through in the United States has proved to be harder than many expected in 1997, when Albright became this country’s first female secretary of state. Angela Merkel stepped down last December after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor, and women are prime ministers of four of the five Nordic states. The U.S. has yet even to have a female secretary of defense.
For those of us who followed her career and followed her—I covered State for the Wall Street Journal—Albright didn’t make her ascent look easy. Washington wouldn’t let that happen. And she was too candid, too self-revelatory, and too determined to teach others—especially younger women—to gloss over the challenges, the slights, or her own missteps.
When she was asked—often—if she had been condescended to by leaders from male-dominated cultures, Albright said no, because wherever she arrived, it was “in a large plane with ‘United States of America’ emblazoned on the side.” She had more problems “with some of the men in my own government.”
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 votes during a Security Council meeting on April 14, 1995, to allow Iraq to export a limited amount of oil to cover the cost of humanitarian supplies for its population. Albright wears her iconic serpent pin.
Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images
During her annual January meetings at the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, which she and the College founded in 2009 (see “The Mentor,”), she would invite fellows to ask her any question. Saraphin Dhanani ’16, a former fellow and former member of the institute’s ambassadors council, remembers one student asking if Albright ever felt inarticulate. Albright “let out an emphatic yes. She shared how she’d only recently spoken at the U.N. and was met with blank stares. She said something along the lines of, ‘I thought to myself, is what I’m saying even making sense to these people?’”
I first got to know Albright by proxy in the mid-1980s. One of her best Wellesley friends, the late Emily Cohen MacFarquhar ’59, was my foreign editor at US News & World Report. A wonderful mixture of tough-mindedness acquired from years at the Economist and sisterly support—when I was in dangerous places, she ended conversations with “Be careful, I love you”—Emily was extraordinarily proud of Madeleine and kept me apprised of her rising Washington career. Albright only became newsworthy when president-elect Bill Clinton chose her as his ambassador to the United Nations and also named her to his cabinet and the inner circle that deliberated on national security options.
None of Clinton’s choices elicited great enthusiasm from the D.C. elite, but Albright came in for particular dismissal: She was seen as a Georgetown hostess turned political staffer, not as a strategic thinker. At a New Year’s Eve party, a conservative-leaning columnist from the New Republic sniffed to me that Albright wasn’t tough enough since she had opposed the 1990 Gulf War. Never mind that most key Democrats had also opposed the war.
Albright briefs First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in a ladies room during a trip to Prague in 1997.
Barbara Kinney/William J. Clinton Library
Four years later, when Albright was on Clinton’s short list for secretary of state, nobody questioned her toughness. She pushed Clinton to launch airstrikes to halt the Serbian rampage in Bosnia. At the U.N., she horrified old school diplomats and delighted everyone else when she denounced the Castro government for shooting down and killing two Cuban exiles flying unarmed Cessnas. “Frankly, this is not cojones. This is cowardice,” she told the U.N. Security Council. Miami Cubans put her quote on bumper stickers, and Bill Clinton described it as “probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration’s foreign policy.” He recounted the story during Albright’s funeral—probably the first time “cojones” was uttered from the cathedral’s pulpit.
Gender stereotypes still stalked her. An otherwise wonderful 1996 profile in the New York Times, “Madeleine Albright’s Audition,” begins with a cringeworthy description of her visit to Prague with then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69: “Two middle-aged American women in smart pants suits” strolling the city streets talking “about their children, the professors they had at Wellesley College, walking, eating, and vitamins.” It ends by handicapping Albright’s chances for the secretary of state job: If Attorney General Janet Reno “should leave, and if Clinton decides he needs a woman in a serious, front-line Cabinet post, Albright would have a clear shot.” Reno stayed, and Albright got the job.
As for what it took to become secretary of state, Albright’s typical answer was that it was hard, even for a woman with a great education and, after she married into wealth, huge privilege and good child care. She was self-deprecating about her own qualities: “I was the world’s perfect staffer.” “I did the best with what I was given.” “I’m not that smart. I work very hard.” Albright later wrote that she “was truly furious” with herself for that last comment, but also recalled hearing Sandra Day O’Connor expressing doubts about her own qualifications to become the first woman on the Supreme Court.
I asked Wini Shore Freund ’59, Albright’s closest Wellesley friend, who was the most ambitious of their crowd. She said, “Emily. She was the one who wanted to be the journalist; she was out there fighting to make it.” Albright “was never gunning to be on the cover of Time magazine,” but her ambition grew as she moved up in Washington. Albright, of course, made it onto the cover of Time during the Kosovo War, “Madeleine’s War.” As for how Albright handled all the skepticism and the sniping, Freund said she “developed a thick skin.” Outside the cathedral before Albright’s funeral, I heard two women recalling some of her greatest lines, including her observation to Oprah that “the reason I look fatter is I’ve developed a thicker skin.” I’m skeptical. Albright could be snappish at even implicitly critical coverage, but unlike many of her colleagues, her annoyance never lasted long.
Albright’s joy in the job was also infectious, especially for those of us who had covered her predecessor, the gentlemanly but completely opaque Warren Christopher (“almost lifelike,” Albright once joked at the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner). On her first foreign trip—11 days, nine countries, Italy to China—she seemed to charm everyone with her multiple languages and her retail politicking. She posed for photos with a family on the street in Rome and drew an excited shout—“I know her!”—from a woman on the Kremlin grounds. The press corps, usually a cynical lot, printed T-shirts with “ … IF YOU’VE GOT THE STAMINA!” on the front. At Albright’s funeral, Hillary Clinton described her as “irrepressible” and “wickedly funny” and said Albright brought the same energy to her friendships as she did to her diplomacy. “Yes, it’s true, she did teach the foreign minister of Botswana the ‘Macarena’ at the U.N. Security Council meeting, and snuck off early from an official event to do the tango in Buenos Aires,” Clinton said. Her tribute drew laughter and applause.
Soon after Albright died, Harvard Law School’s Negotiation Journal published an analysis of Albright’s negotiating style. It argues that women are often caught in “a punishing double bind: They can be perceived as likable and communal and be taken advantage of at the table, or they can be perceived as assertive and trigger a backlash that disadvantages them at the table.” Albright offered “a new model” by “leveraging” female stereotypes and “thoughtfully framing assertiveness.” (In a meta moment, the article quotes from a Wall Street Journal piece a colleague and I wrote about the effectiveness of the “overt femininity” and “flirtatiousness” Albright brought to the male-bonding State Department during her first year there.)
Albright wooed Sen. Jesse Helms, the GOP chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a fierce critic of all things multilateral, touring his alma mater hand-in-hand, and she held candlelit dinners for Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Helms agreed to allow the U.S. to start paying off its arrears to the U.N. Primakov, a former spy chief, was tougher to crack. The Negotiation Journal article also notes that pulling all this off isn’t easy—it sounds exhausting—and isn’t fair, since it places the burden on the women who must adapt to, confront, and change stereotypes “amidst a minefield of triggers.”
Albright didn’t always get it right. During a 1996 interview on 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl said that half a million Iraqi children reportedly died as a result of U.N. sanctions and asked Albright, “Is the price worth it?” Albright responded, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.” That number has been debated by researchers, but the Iraqis’ enormous suffering is undeniable, and Albright would write that she instantly regretted words that were “hasty, clumsy, and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people.” When she died on March 23, mixed in with the countless admiring obituaries were some vitriolic attacks focused on that ill-considered comment.
After Albright’s tenure, two of the next three secretaries of state were women—Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. In September 2012, as Secretary Clinton prepared to leave office, Foreign Policy carried a piece headlined, puckishly, “Is America Ready for a Male Secretary of State?” (They have since all been men.) Thanks to Albright, Rice, and Clinton, no one is questioning women’s toughness or fitness to hold the top diplomatic job. Yet 25 years after Albright broke through, there are still plenty of glass ceilings left to crack.
Carla Anne Robbins ’74 is Marxe Faculty Director of the Master of International Affairs Program at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A longtime journalist, she was chief diplomatic correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times. She is also a former member of the Albright Institute’s ambassadors council.