Madeleine Albright’s Advice For Women: Listen, Raise Your Voice, Interrupt, Work Hard

madeleine-albright

She was the first female US Secretary of State under president Bill Clinton (we need to specify Bill these days as there’s a good chance we’re about to have another Clinton in office) and the 64th to take the role in office. Madam Secretary Madeleine Albright is a Czech immigrant, a grandmother, and was a force to be reckoned with in politics at a time when women in top leadership positions were very rare when it came to state matters (has it progressed much in the US??).

Her policies and political decisions may have divided some, but her presence is undeniable and unapologetic.

In a column for NY Mag’s The Cut, Madeleine shares some advice that she learned over the course of her career.

“Probably every woman you know, certainly every woman I know, has been in meetings where you’re the only woman in the room, and you want to make some kind of a comment and you think, Okay, I’m not going to say that, because it sounds stupid. And then some man says it, and everybody thinks it’s completely brilliant, and you’re really mad at yourself for not having spoken. I had that experience most of my life,” she begins.

She shares a memory of going to the United Nations for the first time in 1993, and being the only woman in the room. Whatever trepidation she may have felt about being the only female representative faded away when she saw the “United States” placard.

“I thought to myself, If I don’t speak today, then the voice of the United States will not be heard. So I spoke.”

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Therein lies the foundation of her advice for women today – speak up, raise your voice, be heard!

One of the reasons she thinks women hold back from speaking up is the fear that when we do, we may not be liked.

“I think there is a sense about women that we want to be liked. We want to be accepted. We want to know who the other people are in the room, and what it is they think. Was I the first person to speak in that meeting? No. But I persuaded myself that I had to do it,” she said.

She is certainly not alone in this sentiment, as Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently just gave a powerful commencement speech at Wellesley College about women needing to forgo the desire to be liked. In a nutshell, she called it “bulls**t”.

“All over the world, girls are raised to be make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people. Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are,” she said.

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There has been a long-standing tradition of women being called bitchy or bossy if they speak up or command respect or attention. With the current state of female empowerment and feminism, we are seeing an influx of female representatives from all industries encouraging other women to embrace the power to speak up and not feel afraid of being labeled in a negative way. Sheryl Sandberg and Beyonce’s Ban Bossy campaign is a good example that comes to mind.

Similarly, Madeleine Albright knows all too well about the gender discrimination that comes with being a woman who uses her voice.

“There are those who will perceive that you’re [a bitch]. But you have to interrupt. At a certain stage you realize that it doesn’t matter what they call you. You have to overcome your personal qualms,” she said.

This was something she taught many of her students at Georgetown University which has just become a co-ed school when she was asked to be a professor in order for the female students to have role models they could look up to.

“I said to my students, especially the women, that they had to learn to interrupt. The guys are really good at it. I do think that women are more polite and I think, without the gross generalizations, men are much more willing to talk and women are very careful. So the combination of being raised to be polite, listen to other people’s ideas, and then this kind of lack of security, “Is this something I’m competent to discuss?” …  we question ourselves much more than men,” she said.

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“If you’re going to interrupt…you have to do it in a strong voice. It’s not as if you have to speak all the time, or every time, but you do have to accomplish what you’re supposed to,” she added.

Because women now are in a position to speak up as opposed to decades ago when having any role in public life was rare or taboo, she says there is no room to do anything half-assed.

“I’ve said this many times — there’s plenty of room in the world for mediocre men, but there is no room for mediocre women. You have to work. You have to work exceptionally hard, and you have to know what you’re talking about. Otherwise, you’re just interrupting for the sake of interrupting, which I’m not in favor of,’ she said.

To see how she dealt with Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President Clinton while Madeleine was Secretary of State, who wrote in his book how he had to patiently explain to her that “US soldiers were not toy soldiers” when she “suggested that we use American forces in Bosnia”, click here to read her response.

It’s advice that speaks to the heart of every woman, whether you are a career woman, a business owner, a politician or a stay-at-home-mom. Breaking down gender discrimination and stereotyped perceptions about women means being fearless about speaking up and not allowing the status quo to dictate who you become.

Thank you, Madam Secretary, for being a badass example that women can follow today.

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  1. Pingback: I Need Feminism Because | modern feminism

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