Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the one thing she refuses to do is become silent—and on Wednesday night, the 78-year-old stateswoman made her voice heard.
Clad in a maroon suit, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient was the first speaker for this year’s Council for Women of Boston College Colloquium. The event was open to the public as well as the students and faculty on campus, and tickets sold out within minutes after they went on sale. The evening included Albright’s talk, as well as a forum during which she had the opportunity to sit down with a student and answer several pre-submitted questions.
After Kathleen McGillycuddy, a 1971 graduate of Newton College of the Sacred Heart—which merged with BC in 1975—and chair of the CWBC, introduced Albright to the crowd, all whispers suddenly silenced.
“Thank you for telling everybody who I am, because not everybody always knows,” Albright said to McGillycuddy in front of the audience.
Laughter filled the theater as she smiled and then delved into a short story about her struggle with recognition in her everyday life. Then, once everyone settled, she expressed her appreciation for being invited to BC.
“I am thrilled to be here, and deeply honored to be the first speaker at the colloquium,” Albright said.
She continued to describe the immense respect she has for the University, and explained that she has had the pleasure of working with several BC alums in the past. One of these people was Amy Poehler. In sharing a memory of eating waffles with Poehler in an episode of Poehler’s show Parks & Recreation, Albright reminded everyone in the theater how important it is to “treat yourself.”
This was her first piece of advice, although the topics throughout her talk grew progressively more serious. She recounted her own life experiences, quickly touching upon what she considered to be the most significant stages, to provide some background on her journey to Washington, D.C. Albright was born in Czechoslovakia, moved to the United States, and fell in love during her time at Wellesley College. She got married and became a mother shortly after.
Discussing the difficulties she encountered as a woman, she recently read a letter she had written to herself when she was 24 years old, taking care of her twin daughters at home. In deciding how to move forward with her intended career in journalism, she found it to be a frustrating challenge.
“I had concluded I was naive in thinking I could compete in the job market on an equal basis with men,” Albright said in reference to this time in her life.
It was then that she decided to go back to school, and began waking up at 4:30 a.m. each morning in order to study and write her dissertation. She found herself getting involved with politics, and eventually took a job in Washington, D.C.
Albright went on to say that she knew her upward movement in the hierarchy of national politics was unusual for a woman.
“I wanted to do everything my predecessors had done, but also something more.”
Explaining that she will never forget her time as secretary of state, she reminisced about the time that Henry Kissinger publicly welcomed her to “the fraternity of secretaries of state.”
“Sorry, Henry, it’s not a fraternity anymore,” Albright said.
Reviewing her efforts to make women’s rights a priority in world affairs, she explained that her first step was to create a group of all the female prime ministers she could. She had done something similar with the 600 female ambassadors who served with her at the United Nations. This group that met at her residence consisted of women representing Canada, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, and Liechtenstein.
“I wanted to do everything my predecessors had done, but also something more,” she said. “I hoped to make efforts to lift the lives of women and girls part of the mainstream of American foreign policy.”
She then discussed world affairs, and, in particular, her encounters with men who considered female rights to be a marginal concern. In response to such propositions, she used Afghanistan as an example. In Afghanistan—which was controlled by the Taliban while she was in office—the treatment of women was not a side issue, but a symptom of something much larger. Women in Afghanistan were denied many of the simplest human rights, and consequently were driven to extremes such as suicide.
When she was in office, she visited a group of female Afghan refugees in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, and listened to their stories of suffering under oppressive regimes. One of the girls had recounted the story of her sister jumping out of the sixth floor of a building in order to escape rape. Right there, Albright told the girls that the United States would do everything it could to help them.
“World affairs can be extremely complicated, but when we see hope compete with terror in the eyes of a young girl, we should at least know on which side of the divide we stand,” she said.
Albright then recognized that gender discrimination is a global issue—it cannot be pinned down to any single country. Thus, she continues to demand a global response.
The former Secretary of State continued, for the remainder of the hour, to speak about the positive relationship between her teaching life and her political career, as well as provide some suggestions for women and students on how to become a successful leader. These included: not being afraid to interrupt, speaking before listening, ignoring the clock, and deciding your own future.
Albright ended with several words of advice for the largely female audience.
“Act out of hope, not fear, and take responsibility for whatever you decide,” she said.
Featured Image by Sarah Hodgins / Heights Staff