‘It’s important to have more than one woman in the room.’
Before I became Secretary of State, when I was teaching at Georgetown University, I always told my female students to be prepared to speak and to interrupt when necessary. When I walked into my first meeting of the United Nations Security Council, there were 15 seats and 14 men—all looking at me.
I thought, Well, I don’t think I’ll talk today. I don’t know who everybody is … I want to figure out if they like me, and I want to kind of get a feeling for things. Even though I had advised all of my female students to speak, I myself hesitated. You are worried that whatever you say could sound stupid. Then some man says it and everybody thinks it’s brilliant, and you think, Why did I not talk? Which is why I used to advise my students all the time to be ready to interrupt.
That day, I looked down at the table and saw a plaque that read THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And I thought, If I do not speak today, the voice of the United States will not be heard. When I finally did speak, it was the first time that I represented the country of my naturalization, the place where I belonged.
An experience I think all women have, and I have often, is of being the only woman in the room. But if we are in a meeting, we are there for a reason—not to just sit there and absorb but to state what we believe in. We can and should contribute. If you do not, then you should not be in the meeting. If you are there but you are not speaking, you may create the impression that you are not prepared to be there or that you have no business being there. Then you are made to feel inferior, because you are just a fly on the wall.
If you are going to speak, you need to know what you are talking about and you need to do it with a firm voice. And if someone disagrees with you or you disagree with them, try to understand where they are coming from—compromise is not a bad word. But I do think that women have to earn respect. It is unfortunately true that there is plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women.
It’s important to have more than one woman in the room, because we can agree with each other. What men do is say, “As Bill said …,” which strengthens them. With another female voice in the room, we can act as a team.
I went to an all-girls high school, which I loved, and then to Wellesley, which continues to be a premier college. Being at a women’s college meant that we had leadership roles and felt we could really run things. We worked very hard in the classroom, and our views were respected—you did not have to hide your light.
There were periods of my life when I was not sure if I would be able to carry out the desires that I had when I was in college. I had twin daughters when I was 24—they were born prematurely—and I initially stayed at home with them. But as much as I loved being a mother, I could not figure out why I had gone to college just to figure out how to get them in and out of the apartment or give them baths. I went through a time when I did not see any value in what I had done. I recently found a letter that I wrote at the time:
When I stepped off the platform after accepting my B.A. degree, I was confident that I was stepping into one or a series of interesting jobs. It was not the life of a career girl I was after, exactly. I was already up to my ears in plans for my wedding, three days hence. Still, I believed that in the natural course of events it would not be difficult to find interesting work that fit in with my political-science major. Two years later, I’m obsolete. Now it seems incomprehensibly naive for me to have thought a woman could compete on an equal basis with men for interesting jobs.
My desire had been to become a journalist. I worked on my college newspaper as an editor, and while my husband was in the Army I worked at a small newspaper in Missouri. When we moved back to Chicago, where my husband already had a job as a journalist, we were having dinner with his managing editor, who said, “So what are you going to do, honey?” And I said, “I’m going to work at a newspaper.”
He responded, “I don’t think so. You can’t work at the same paper as your husband because of labor regulations.” I mentioned that there were three other papers in Chicago at the time, but he said, “You wouldn’t want to compete with your husband.” I know what you are thinking, and I know what I would say now. But at the time I simply saluted and went to find another life.
Other women were very critical of me when I was in graduate school, saying things like, “Wouldn’t it be better if you were in the carpool line instead of the library?” And that my hollandaise sauce was not as good as theirs. And then, when I was working full time, they wondered what I was doing. That is where my statement originated—there is a special place in hell for women who do not help each other. We have to give each other space to be able to do what makes us feel that we are responsible and helping others, and doing what we want to be doing. We need to support each other in the lives that we have chosen. Men do not do that to each other, in terms of projecting their own ideas of weakness. Women need to take advantage of being women.
Albright served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. from 1993 to 1997 and U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001.