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Madeleine Albright: ‘We Need Every Available Voice’

Former Secretary of State Albright is Speaker at Inaugural Council for Women of Boston College Colloquium

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chatted with students
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chatted with students before giving the inaugural address of the Council for Women of Boston College Colloquium last Thursday in Robsham Theater. (Photo by Rose Lincoln)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Nov. 12, 2015

“When I look around the world, I can see we need every available voice speaking out for democracy and tolerance, human rights and peace,” said former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to a near-capacity crowd at Robsham Theater on Nov. 4. “We need every voice encouraging young women and girls to believe they can be anything they want to be as long as they are willing to work hard.”

Albright was the speaker for the inaugural Council for Women of Boston College Colloquium, an initiative that brings exceptional leaders to campus to discuss contemporary issues through the lens of women’s leadership. The CWBC Colloquium is administered through the Institute for the Liberal Arts, under the direction of Rattigan Professor of English Mary Crane. The colloquium is made possible by the support of CWBC members and other Boston College donors.

Albright’s talk touched on her trajectory from political science major to young wife and mother to the US permanent representative to the United Nations to US secretary of state. She also shared some of the experiences from her diplomatic career, such as meeting with a group of women in Argentina, the mothers of “the disappeared” — men and women who were kidnapped, tortured and killed during the reign of a military dictatorship.

“The women gathered each day in the capital to ask for answers, bear witness and expose the truth. Years went by, and in the process of demanding facts, they learned how to organize, how best to tell their stories and how to apply pressure in the right places at the right time. Today, their names are associated with inspiration and honor and the arrogant men who persecuted their children are dead, in prison or disgraced.

“Obviously, there’s a great distance between the streets of Buenos Aires and the tree-lined neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill,” she continued. “But there’s also a great similarity: the ability of women to work together in the service of the common good. This is an indispensable asset to cities and towns here at home, and is one of the major engines of social and political progress in every corner of the globe.”

The colloquium opened with remarks from University President William P. Leahy, SJ, who noted that since its establishment 12 years ago, the CWBC “has had a major impact on our campus.” He praised the CWBC for providing “encouragement and inspiration for female undergraduates and grads” and offering a forum for current students to benefit from the experience and wisdom of graduates who have gone before them.

In her introduction, CWBC Chair Kathleen McGillycuddy NC’71 said that the CWBC Colloquium was established “to be a permanent voice at Boston College on women and leadership.

“I cannot think of a better person to launch our colloquium than the most extraordinary and accomplished woman who is our esteemed speaker this evening,” she continued. “We are truly honored to welcome former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the Heights. As a leader in international diplomacy, our guest has truly played an important role in determining the very course of history.”

Though she was the daughter of diplomat, Albright, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, seemed an unlikely candidate to be the first woman to serve as US secretary of state. Married three days after graduating from college, she was the mother of twins at age 24, she told the audience. Albright stayed home with her children and did not have her first professional job until she was 39. She earned a doctorate and became involved in national politics as a volunteer in presidential campaigns.

“I never imagined I might one day become secretary of state,” she said. “It was not that I lacked ambition. It was that I had never seen a secretary of state in a skirt or with ruby red shoes.”

As secretary of state, Albright said, she was determined to make “efforts to lift the lives of women and girls as part of the mainstream of American foreign policy.” She recalled visiting with Afghan women refugees and hearing of their extreme mistreatment under Taliban rule.

“Gender discrimination is a global problem, demanding a global response,” said Albright. “Women have made important gains in achieving legal recognition of our rights, but often, even if the laws on the books are changed, the reality in villages and communities is not. Appalling abuses are still being committed against women, and these include coerced abortions and sterilization, female genital mutilations, dowry murders, honor crimes and even the killing of infants simply because they are born female.

“Some say all this is cultural, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. I say it’s criminal and we each have an obligation to stop it.”

Since leaving the State Department, Albright has taught at Georgetown University, chaired the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project and written five books. She also serves on the US Department of Defense’s Defense Policy Board. She was honored in 2012 with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

During her talk, Albright noted that she worked with a number of distinguished Boston College alumni, including former US Ambassador Nicholas Burns ’78, Secretary of State John Kerry JD’76 – and Amy Poehler ’93 (Albright had a cameo on the last season of Poehler’s hit show “Parks and Recreation”).

Closing her address, Albright offered some advice for women, especially the students in the audience: “Don’t be afraid to interrupt. It is better to risk being thought rude than to give the impression you have nothing to say. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you can do and where you belong. You have to decide whether to allow others to define the boundaries of your life or to chart your own course.

“Act out of hope, not fear, and take responsibility for whatever you decide.”

Albright’s speech was followed by a Q&A with White Family Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies Jennifer Erickson. Prior to her address, Albright met privately with a small group of undergraduates.