Secretary Madeleine Albright on Her Legacy as a Women’s Rights Champion: ‘I Decided I Would Make Women’s Issues Central to American Foreign Policy’

“I know that when women are politically and economically empowered in societies, the situation is better. And it’s in America’s national interest.”

Madeleine Albright, the first woman U.S. secretary of state, died of cancer on Wednesday, Mar. 23. She was 84 years old. She served many roles in the executive branch throughout her storied career, including President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and later his secretary of state.

In September of 2020, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security hosted a special virtual commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the U.N. Fourth World Conference in Beijing to reflect on the progress since 1995, the challenges that remain, and promising ways forward to continue advancing women’s rights and gender equality. In conversation with Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Secretary Madeleine Albright reflected on her role as the United States’ first female ambassador to the U.N. and her legacy.

As a tribute, we compiled some of her best remarks about her work as a women’s rights champion.


G7: Women Ambassadors at the U.N.

When I got to the U.N., which was in February 1993, I asked my assistant to invite the other women ambassadors [to lunch]. At that time there were 183 countries in the UN. But then I get to my apartment and they’re only six other women there: Canada, Philippines, Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Liechtenstein.

And me being the American, I decided I had to form a caucus; we called ourselves the G7. And what we did was to lobby on behalf of women’s issues—to make sure that rape was seen as a weapon of war, for example. There was a new war crimes tribunal that had been put together to deal with issues in the former Yugoslavia, and we were there to make sure there were women judges.

Also, constantly [at the U.N.], I would talk about the importance of having a larger agenda for how to deal with women’s issues internationally.

Women’s Rights Are Human Rights

I was delighted when it was clear that we were going to the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. … I think there’s some crazy stories about our arrival in China, most of which were true, like that cab drivers were given sheets to put over the naked women they were expecting. But what was absolutely essential was that we were there, participating actively.

One of the things that I did [during my speech] was to lay out what we expected our government to do to fulfill the pledges that were going to come out of this [conference]. It was not about conversations; it was about commitments. And so I really went through what each department of government was going to do in the United States. And I think that it was an important speech, received quietly.

Truly the most outstanding thing was Hillary’s speech: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” And I have rarely seen, over so many years, a single message carry such important meaning and have such a durable life. And it is due to you, Hillary, and it is due to the kinds of things that Melanne is doing through her Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, and then also due to the dedication of so many women to the messages that we were delivering. They resonated and they continue to do so.

Advancing Women’s Rights

I have to say I love the linkage among the three of us here, because one of the things that happened when we came back from Beijing was the establishment of a White House Council on Women. And then trying to monitor how our government was fulfilling the various aspects of it.

Once I became secretary of state, (and I have to say that is thanks to Hillary, and the reason I know that is the president said so!) we really developed what I would say is a tag team in terms of traveling together or following up on various things that had to be done, whether it was in Washington or abroad. And people saw that. They saw that the first lady and the first woman secretary of state were actually able to do things together on behalf of an incredible agenda.

Now, I take some credit in the following way: I decided that I would make women’s issues central to American foreign policy. And not just because I’m a feminist, but I could say that I know that when women are politically and economically empowered in societies, the situation is better. And it’s in America’s national interest.

And then again, the three of us founded Vital Voices, which was an outside organization.

Then, when I got to the State Department, I decided that we needed more women ambassadors and foreign service officers and really made diversity one of the major aspects. And then, of course, Hillary took it to levels beyond anything I could have done. And with you there, Melanne, I think that made a huge difference also. We were making progress and we had to do more together. And I think that that continues to be the theme.

Madeleine Albright at her Georgetown home in 1988. (Michael Geissinger/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Road Ahead

We are all on the same page in terms of understanding that the job is not done and that we have to keep reaching out to various organizations that we are a part of in order to make things happen.

I am chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute and very proud of generally the democracy work that we do, but also very focused on trying to help women to get involved in politics in their countries. (This is not according to party—we do some work with the International Republican Institute.)

One of the things that we have found, actually, is that there are threats against women who are either running for office or are in office. There has to be more support for all of that.

It is also important to get men to be supportive of women being in politics. It’s not a zero sum game; we can be good partners. When I teach [at Georgetown], I spend a lot of time talking about that. I have role play that I do in my class, and I make it a point of assigning women to jobs that they haven’t yet had, like secretary of defense. And we always have a woman secretary of state. And then try to figure out how to have the young men that they’re working with understand that the partnership is very important.

I think the lesson that we have learned is that nothing happens automatically. There can be a lot of good ideas, like Beijing, and then they have to be really followed out. You can’t just think it will happen. And so motivation. And then those of us that have any kind of a voice have to make sure that we are diversified in our representation.

We all have to deal with this together, and it has to be deliberate and humble at the same time.

Rest in power, Secretary Madeleine Albright.

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Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. GIWPS engages in rigorous research, hosts global convenings, advances strategic partnerships and nurtures the next generation of leaders.