Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first woman to ever hold this position. Secretary Albright, who was born in then Czechoslovakia, served as the US Ambassador to the United Nations before becoming Secretary of State in 1997.
Hromadske met with Secretary Albright to discuss her time as Secretary of State, her hopes for democracy and her recommendations for women in politics in Central-Eastern Europe and around the world.
In 2017, democracy seems to be in decline with only 45% of countries in the world being democratic states. Nevertheless, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright remains optimistic about the future of democracy. "I am an optimist and I do see democracy as the best answer to people's needs within a country," she told Hromadske. "But it's a difficult process."
According to Secretary Albright, democracy is suffering right now because people lack faith in institutions. Female empowerment, she claimed, could provide a solution. "Having women politically and economically empowered is something that is stabilizing for society. Societies cannot be fully democratic if women are not fully empowered," Secretary Albright said. "Women are absolutely essential for making democracy work."
That being said, Secretary Albright also acknowledged that her international experience has taught her the importance of accounting for cultural differences. "I have actually spent time in North Africa and in the Middle East and talked to a variety of women’s groups there," she told Hromadske. "What we have to understand is that cultures are different, history is different. We can’t all be at exactly the same place but we do have to support each other."
As the first female Secretary of States in the US, Secretary Albright is no stranger to gender discrimination. "People thought when my name came up to be Secretary of State that a woman could not be Secretary of State," she said.
At the time, many claimed that she couldn't hold the position because Arab countries would refuse to deal with women. As it turns out, this wasn't the case, especially since Secretary Albright had already established herself in international affairs as the US Ambassador to the UN. "Foreign countries began to get used to dealing with me because if they wanted to have a diplomatic relationship with the United States I was the person that had to do it," Secretary Albright recalled. "I frankly had more problem with the men in our own government."
During her time in President Bill Clinton's administration Secretary Albright played a key role in international affairs, leading NATO expansion and working to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
The difficulties Secretary Albright experienced during her political career are among the main reason she encourages women in Central-Eastern Europe and around the world to support each other in politics.
"The important thing is to work together, to form coalitions. To decide on what the agenda is and work together to make sure that it gets into the parliaments," she told Hromadske. "Women everywhere know how to work all the time, but it’s a matter of having the political influence and that can only come by working together and supporting each other in parliaments and in local offices."
In your words democracy is one of humankind’s best inventions, but at the same time, at the moment in 2017, according to statistics only around 45% of countries in the world enjoy democracy. The rest of the world is partly or fully deprived of freedom and women are deprived partly or fully of freedom. Freedom is missing in whole regions of the world almost fully. Do you still see hope when just 45% of countries in the world enjoy true freedom?
Madeleine Albright: Well I am an optimist and I do see democracy as the best answer to people’s needs within a country, but it’s a difficult process and it requires an understanding of responsibilities that citizens have towards their governments and governments have towards their citizens. I have always believed that having women politically and economically empowered is something that is stabilizing for society, but societies cannot be fully democratic if women are not fully empowered so it all goes together. But I think I am an optimist. Democracies are having a bit of a hard time at this moment because there’s not enough faith in institutions. And i think that women, by being a part of the process can help to connect better with the people in a country, explain what the responsibilities are. So it’s still a lot of work but women are absolutely essential for making democracy work.
To develop on this question, from regions in the Middle East to Russia to North Africa, where is the situation the worst? You have the global perspective on this issue so what do you suggest?
Madeleine Albright: I have actually spent time in North Africa and in the Middle East and talked to a variety of women’s groups there. I think that they do want to be much more involved and many of them are more involved than we ever hear about, but I think we have to keep pushing. What we, I think, have to understand is that cultures are different, history is different. We can’t all be at exactly the same place but we do have to support each other. I think in some ways American women sometimes make the mistake thinking that everyone has to be exactly like American women. I do think we need to respect culture in other countries. I don’t think anybody can say X country isn’t ready for democracy because people everywhere want to make decisions about their own lives, so we need to be supportive of each other.
Do you personally believe in the saying that if women are in power the less violence, war and poverty there is?
Madeleine Albright: I do believe that in fact women have more of a capability of reaching out to each other and having a way of empathy and understanding each other. I don’t think that not every woman I have ever met or studied has not used force and so I think we have to be careful about generalizations. But I do think that women have a capability of reaching out, understanding, working with each other, across ethnic lines or tribal lines, and I’ve seen it in a number of countries. It’s certainly something that when I was Secretary of State I promoted and then Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State really worked on that whole process. It all began in many ways at the Beijing Conference twenty-five years ago when Hillary Clinton said “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” and every country undertook a plan of action. So the question is how do we keep pursuing that and make it a common effort.
You have personal stories concerning your experience as Secretary of State. What kind of gender related difficulties did you encounter, if any, during your work?
Madeleine Albright: Well I was one of an early generation of women and despite the fact that I had a PhD, people wondered what I was doing in the room. People thought when my name came up to be Secretary of State that a woman could not be Secretary of State, primarily because Arab countries would not deal with a woman. So then what happened was the Arab Ambassadors at the UN, because I had been Ambassador at the UN, said “We had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright and we wouldn’t have any problems dealing with Secretary Albright.” Foreign countries I think began to get used to dealing with me because if they wanted to have a diplomatic relationship with the United States I was the person that had to do it. I frankly had more problem with the men in our own government. But President Clinton wanted me there and so that gave me the credibility. But it’s not simple. That’s why there need to be more women in everybody’s government because we need to support each other and when there are other women we are more helpful and can work together.
The thing that would happen was that I would actually be told not to argue emotionally, what my views were and why. I learned to argue argue very pragmatically and straight and I finally decided that I did have the highest ranking job and the President wanted me there and so I found my voice and I spoke very strongly. I’m very proud of what we were able to do during the Clinton Administration, in terms of expanding NATO, working to stop the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and that had a lot to do with having the capability to express my arguments clearly.
You are very familiar with Central-Eastern Europe because you came from the Czech Republic, the former Czechoslovakia, what do you seen in Central Eastern Europe? What would you suggest to women here, especially women in post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, Belarus, because I think their situation is much more difficult than the situation in the Czech Republic, for example. What are your recommendations?
Madeleine Albright: It’s interesting because I have now met with a lot of Ukrainian women and other women in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. I think that the important thing is to work together, to form coalitions. To decide on what the agenda is and work together to make sure that it gets into the parliaments, that there are really ways it make clear that women are capable of any job and not to have the discrimination that comes with saying that women can’t do it. I think women need to support each other because there really, even among women, is kind of a sense of oh I can’t do it, no man ever says I can do it. And I really think that we need to build each other's’ confidence.
Politically what I think is important is to create coalitions and work together. To work not only in the capital cities, in Kyiv, but also out in local areas so that there are women at all levels working their way up and there is that support system. But it’s not simple. In various research work that I had done, earlier in the nineties, there had been women who had been liberated to work twice as hard but not necessarily to have political positions and so that is what has to happen. Women everywhere know how to work all the time, but it’s a matter of having the political influence and that can only come by working together and supporting each other in parliaments and in local offices.
/Interview by Zhanna Bezpiatchuk
/Written by Eilish Hart