Changing The Face Of Politics Podcast

Bonus Episode: Julia Gillard interviews Madeleine K. Albright

In this special episode to celebrate International Women's Day, Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia, interviews Madeleine K. Albright, former US Secretary of State and Chairman of NDI's Board about Secretary Albright’s decades long experience as a leading woman in politics and diplomacy.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this special episode to celebrate International Women's Day, Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia, interviews Madeleine K. Albright, former US Secretary of State and Chairman of NDI's Board about Secretary Albright’s decades long experience as a leading woman in politics and diplomacy.

Julia Gillard: Hello, welcome to this episode of the Changing Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Julia Gillard and I'm the former prime minister of Australia and chair of the Global Institute for Women's Leadership at King's College London. My guest is secretary Madeleine Albright, former United States Secretary of State and chairman of the National Democratic Institute board of directors. I'm certainly looking forward to this conversation because when I was starting out my political career in Australia, Madeleine, you were an inspiration to me and I learned so much watching you stride the world stage.

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, I'm delighted to be able to do this with you, Julia, because you have been a truly remarkable political leader and somebody who now continues to make a difference in terms of the activities you've undertaken helping women and educating them in so many different ways. So, I'm looking forward to our conversation.

Julia Gillard: That's terrific. Well, I'm going to start by taking you back. Last year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action at which Hillary Clinton famously said, “women's rights are human rights,” and you said, “it's time to turn bold, talk into concrete action.” Since you spoke those words, what do you think has changed for women in political leadership and in decision-making, and what stubbornly stayed the same?

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, I do think that things have changed and we have proven that by having now a woman Vice President in the United States. You have been in the leadership role of your country, but it hasn't been that easy for Americans to put a woman in charge. But I do think that the thing that has come as a result of that 25th anniversary is there is a great deal more consciousness about the importance of integrating women into not just daily life and various things that have to happen, but making and regarding women as political players. And I think that that has changed. It is not like saying, you know, “what are you doing here?” I think there are things, however, it is an unfinished job, frankly because I think people know this, but I will repeat it: in every country, women are usually even more than half the population. And I think it is a completely wasted resource, not to have women more involved in whether it's the government or the private sector or teaching, or really being active members of our societies. And it’s happening, but not to the extent I think that the pledges that people made in Beijing in terms of national programs to bring more women into public life. So there's still an awful lot of work to do.

Julia Gillard: In that same speech all those years ago. You also said, “let us be clear, freedom to participate in the political process of our countries is the inalienable right of every woman and man. Deny that right, and you deny everything.”  How do gender equality and democracy work together in your mind?  I mean, when we look around the world, it's not just democracies that are trying to address gender equality. But do the two go hand in hand?

Madeleine K. Albright: And I happen to think they do because if women are really encouraged to run for office and play a part in the political system, women do very well. And it's not just a matter of an authoritarian government selecting a woman. But I do think that within democracy, there is the chance to show what can be done to get supportive others and to be a problem solver. So for me, they do go hand in hand, but there needs to be more women in that process. And one of the things I'm very proud of that NDI does is to really work in various countries supporting women to run for office, and then working also with a group [NotTheCost] at the United Nations, where it's very clear that it's not easy for women to run for office, that there are threats against women and threats against their families. And so why would they choose to run? So that there are a variety of issues that continue to be dealt with that are part of showing that democracy and women definitely go together.

Julia Gillard: You referred earlier to Vice President Harris, and it's just been terrific to see her sworn in and commence work. What impact do you think seeing someone like Vice President Harris has for young girls, especially those of color? What impact does role modeling have?

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, I do think role modeling does have a lot to do because there are a lot of little girls and older girls and women who have been kind of paralyzed by the fact that they are viewed by their contemporaries or older various groups that they can't do anything. That they can watch, but they can't really do things. And I think that having a role model such as our new Vice President in terms of not just her background as somebody who came, who was the daughter of people that traveled to the United States. That she is, you know, part Indian, part Black, that she also had an incredible career before as the district attorney in San Francisco and then attorney general, and is a political figure, in addition to her background and the fact that we haven't had a woman in high level. I have to tell you I actually at a certain point in 1984 worked on behalf of Geraldine Ferraro, which was the first time that a woman was put on the national ticket with then Vice President Mondale running for President and Vice President. And the thing that I found, Julia, is that women, we’re very hard on each other. And while we can blame men for things, I think that we are hard on each other. And the most famous thing I ever said was “there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other.” It was so famous, it ended up on a Starbucks cup. And partially we are very judgmental about each other. I know I was getting my PhD and working when I had twins, and so other women would come to me and say, ‘why are you in the library when you should be with your children?’ Or when I was with Geraldine Ferraro, we'd be traveling somewhere and a woman would come up to me and say, ‘well, how can she talk to a Russian? I can't talk to a Russian.’ Well, nobody was asking that woman to do that. But some people that kind of feel inadequate, press that inadequacy on other women. So one can blame men for everything, but I do think that we also bear some responsibility in not being supportive enough of each other in seeking to do more than is evident at the time.

Julia Gillard: You’re so passionate about this cause of gender equality. Can you explain what motivated you, where did it all start? Why did you become politically involved? Was there a connection to politics in your family or does it come from something else?

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, I have a complicated background. My father was a Czechoslovak diplomat. I was born in Czechoslovakia. My parents escaped and we spent World War II in England. Then after the war, we went back to Czechoslovakia, and my father was made the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia. And you know, the little girl in the national costume that gives flowers at the airport, that's what I did for a living. And so, then we came to the United States because the communists had taken over Czechoslovakia, and my background was really foreign policy all the time. That's all we ever talked about. I loved politics because we were living in Denver, Colorado, and it was an interesting place, and there were people that talked an awful lot about party politics. And then I just kind of got into it.

The issue though was when I was in college, it was a women's college, Wellesley, where you've been to visit, but at that time it was primarily Republican and there was a small group of Democrats there. I was among them and we went into Boston to raise money. And that was the beginning of my political career, which was kind of weird because we were raising dollars for Democrats and some crusty old man walked by me and said “five bucks for you, baby, but not $1 for the Democrats.” So I thought, well, that is not a great entry into politics. But I did manage because of the various things that I was able to do was to mix politics with foreign policy. And that was kind of my specialty is to understand the role of politics and foreign policy together and domestic and foreign policy going together.

I loved the combination and it's something that I do to this day. So I do encourage women to become involved in politics, and I have only one real regret in life is that I never ran for office. Because I think that that is a kind of solidarity and that when people vote for you, rather than when you've been appointed. But I really do believe that women can add a lot in terms of our political systems and we need to do it ourselves and then support those that want to be a part of their political systems.

Julia Gillard: This journey took you to the highest levels in the United States to becoming Secretary of State and the first woman to do that job. Can you talk to us about how the challenges were being the first woman? Were people skeptical that a woman could do a tough job, like Secretary of State -- stand up in the world for the United States?

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, I have to tell you how it all started, because it really explained some of the issues that you're asking about. So I was Ambassador to the United Nations. There had been a woman there before, Jeane Kirkpatrick as Ambassador. So that wasn't that novel. But I was a cabinet member, and so I would be on TV and I became somebody that had a public face. What happened was that Warren Christopher, who was Secretary of State in the first Clinton term, had made it very clear that he would not stay for a second term. So what happened was what I call the period of great mentioning. And because I had been out there, my name was among those being mentioned. And then somebody said, well, a woman can't be Secretary of State because Arab leaders won't deal with a woman. So then what happened was the Arab ambassadors at the UN got together and they said, “we've had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright. We wouldn't have any problems dealing with Secretary Albright.” So that went away, but then somebody at the White House--and I never want to know who--said, “yes, Madeleine's on the list, but she's second tier.” So I was absolutely sure nothing would happen, and I didn't want to campaign for the job. And I really think it wasn't going to happen. So what then did happen in December fourth and fifth of 1996, I get a phone call from Erskine Bowles who was chief of staff. And he said, “if the President of the United States were to call you tomorrow, would you take the call?” Duh. If the president of the United States were to ask you to be Secretary of State, would you say yes?” Duh. He said, well, go home. The president will call you in the morning. And it took him a while to call me, and I thought he'd changed his mind, but he did call and asked me to be Secretary of State. So I loved it, but this is the next part, in terms of the period of great mentioning. One of the things that happened was that First Lady Hillary Clinton, and the president, and I sometimes traveled together. And we were abroad and I would introduce her, she would introduce him and we were in Central America somewhere. And so President Clinton actually said that at that period of great mentioning that Hillary would come to him and say, “why wouldn't you name Madeleine? She is most in tune with your views and expresses them better than anybody else. And besides it would make your mother happy.” So that is how it happened. But then Hillary and I really, we were friends even before that, but really became a great tag team and worked together. And I think that, Julia, is one of the parts: is you need somebody -- you can't be there as the only woman. And I think it is very important to get more women at the table. And so, when I became Secretary I did get more named women ambassadors. I had a number of my direct people that I worked with: women. And so I do think that's a part, you don't want to be the only woman at the table.

Julia Gillard: It's a wonderful example of the solidarity that you talk about when you use the phrase, “special place in hell for women who don't support women.” It's a wonderful example of that happening. Many women who contemplate putting themselves forward for leadership, whether it's in politics or in any other walk of life would have a set of questions going round in their head, you know, could I do it? Could I stand up to the scrutiny? You know, there would be some pluses, but what are the minuses? And many would be asking themselves, how can I balance this with family life, with being a mother? Can you describe how you brought all of that together? What surprised you about being in public life, the pluses, the minuses, and how on earth did you balance it all with bringing up your three girls basically on your own?

Madeleine K. Albright: I'm always asked the life balance question. There's no way, frankly. I mean, but one of the really good examples you had asked about the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference. So, talk about life balance. My youngest daughter was getting married and I had to leave her reception in order to go and meet Hillary to go to Beijing. So you know,but in my case, what happened was that my children were all older. So they began to take care of me rather than me then worrying about what I was doing. But I do think that one of the things that is really hard because I'm often asked some version of this question is that there is no one pattern. You have to lay out what works for you. And that is why I mentioned earlier that I don't like it when women are judgmental about each other.

We should be supportive, but there isn't just one step. And in my case, what happened was, I won't tell the whole story because it takes too long, but, basically I was going to be somebody else. I thought initially that I'd be a journalist. And I worked on my college paper and I then married a journalist and we moved to Chicago where he already had a job. And we're having dinner with his managing editor. And he looked at me and he said, “so what are you going to do, honey?” And I said, “I'm going to be a reporter.” And he said, “I don't think so”. “You can't work on the same paper as your husband because of labor regulations.” And even though at that time, there were three other papers in Chicago and he said, “you wouldn't want to compete with your husband, so go find something else to do.”

And I abated and did, and I found another life. I started, I worked at Encyclopedia Britannica, and then I started graduate school. And one thing led to another. But the thing, the only thing that I think fits into a formula is that you should be open to ideas. You also should not think that something is beneath you. And if you have been asked to do something and you say you'll do it, do it, and finish and be dependable. I think those are important. And then my other piece of my set of what I believe in, and this has to do with the only woman at the table. If you, and I think probably you have had that experience is you're the only woman. And you think to yourself, I'm going to say something. And then you think, well, it's going to sound stupid, so you don't say it. And then some man says it and everybody thinks it's brilliant and you're really mad at yourself. So I made up that first of all, or one rule that there needed to be more than one woman, but that women need to learn to interrupt. Because if you raise your hand by the time they call on you, it's not your main. And if you're going to interrupt, you have to know what you're talking about. And you have to say it with dedication and understanding. And so I do think that we need to be good to each other, but we also need to be clear about the fact that we have the stature, that we have the capability and, and to be really not shy about who you are. The truth of the matter though, is that there is no room for mediocre women. There's no question we do have to work harder. And I think that it's very important to realize that.

Julia Gillard: So there's still a differential burden of proving that we should have a seat at the table. Hopefully one of these days we'll get to the genuine equality where that's no longer there, but you think that's still part of the system, now?

Madeleine K. Albright: I think it is. I think, less and less so, but I mean, the fact that it has taken the United States so many years to have a woman as Vice President, when other countries have had women in leadership positions i.e. EU. But I really do think that we still have a long way to go.

Julia Gillard: Could you just talk to us about the resilience that's needed? I think a lot of women contemplating public life would say to themselves that they couldn't take the attacks that come. Some of them are the sort of cheap shots about appearance. Some of them have the very profound challenges about whether you're getting big judgement calls right or wrong. How did you face your way through all of that?

Madeleine K. Albright: Well, let me say there's no way to be in public life and not get criticized for something. It's unfortunate when you've done something wrong and you apologize, but there are many times when things have been misunderstood and you haven't done anything wrong. And so I think that, that it makes it hard, but I think that the bottom line is that one does have to have a certain level of confidence. And then I must say, I'm not, I haven't been too great in terms of taking criticism. And I now look at pictures of myself from when I was in public life. And I used to say, the reason I can take criticism is that I've grown a thicker skin. It clearly was true that I had a thicker skin. By the way, I also say that as a diplomat, I was eating for my country. So that has to do with it.

Julia Gillard: And the delights, if you were trying to persuade a young woman, this life could be for you, what would you say to her?

Madeleine K. Albright: First of all, I do think that people do want to have their qualities appreciated and to try to find a job that they really like, that they get a sense of accomplishment in. That is a very important part. I think everybody, women, would need to know that there are bad days and that you will get through them and that not everybody is going to be helpful to you. But it is usually, the substantive part of what you do is so challenging and interesting that you think, okay, this is really worth it. I certainly felt that way. I didn't regret any time doing what I was doing. And my daughters, all of whom are very busy and doing things that they like. I have twin daughters, you know one of them, you know, very well, my  daughter, Alice, who has been working with you on Global Partnership for Education, and then her twin sister is a circuit court judge. And my youngest daughter is a head of an organization that helps children. Also, she's a lawyer. So we talk about this a lot and I always ask them if I was a terrible mother and they said, not at all.  You know, but I really do think there are sacrifices. There's no question. But there is something really fulfilling in being able to make a difference and to be challenged every day and to learn from what you are doing. And I do think the following thing, I don't know if you'd agree, Julia, but I think that men and women do think differently. And that we have - this is a generalization - our talent is that we can multitask which means that we have peripheral vision and we can kind of see what is going on. We also - the tendency of women is to help others.

I think there's no question, then, not to set their children against each other. I think men, again, this is a generalization, can think longer about one subject than women. I think that we like to really have used that peripheral vision. And, and I think actually I'm often asked “would the world be better if it were totally run by women?” And I say, well, if you think that you've forgotten high school. But I think that it's important for us to work together and to to really work with each other's talents. But I will repeat that there is no room for mediocre women. There's just no question. And there is some room for mediocre men. I'm going to go back on something. You know, the Arabs couldn't deal with me. So what happened was I became Secretary of State. And I did arrive for the Gulf Cooperation Council in Kuwait. And so I did have a very large plane that said the United States of America. And we're having the meeting with a number of foreign ministers from the Gulf countries, and they were very nice. And I said, “you've been very kind. Perhaps you've noticed that I'm not dressed the way my predecessors were. And next time we'll talk about women's rights.” And we did, because they all had daughters. I think that what I felt was that I needed to say what I thought. And I had a trick sometimes when the conversations in various countries went too long I would say, “I have come a long way. So I must be frank.” And so I stood my ground when I needed to, and tried to be charming when I wanted to be and could be. So the part that was irritating, you asked about this, you know, was “was I wearing the right clothes? Or why did my hair look the way it did?” And I think every woman has had that issue.

Julia Gillard: Absolutely. And frustrating it is when you're trying to talk about substantive things. In today's world people wake up every morning and probably the first thing they do is check the new cases of the virus in their country, maybe the death rates. We've been through a pretty tough time and we're still going through it. So can you talk to us about what in today's world makes you optimistic looking ahead? Can you give us a sense of where we could be going next?

Madeleine K. Albright: First of all, I'm going to put these two questions together because the countries where there has been better control over the virus just happened to be run by women - New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. And I'm often asked why, and I think partially because of that caring and multitasking. But I think that I am often asked whether I'm an optimist or a pessimist. I'm an optimist who worries a lot. And so I am optimistic in terms of - I was recently at a dinner and I was asked to describe myself in six words, and I said, “worried optimist, problem-solver, grateful American.” And they go together. Because I do think that there are problems out there, but in terms of cooperation, ultimately we figure them out. And I think that there is movement in terms of trying to deal with the virus and the fact that president Biden has made it a central aspect of what he wants to do. That we now are much more aware of the fact that the virus knows no borders, that there has to be international cooperation on it.

That it is also something that I'm a great believer in, our public private partnerships, where the government partners with the private sector. The government is not going to manufacture the vaccines, and so cooperation and problem solving is a very important part of this. And I am optimistic about the fact that we now, in the United States, with a new president and vice-president are looking at how to return to partnership in the world and work with others and understand that there are certain issues that cannot be solved by one country alone. And that kind of partnership is the only way to begin to deal with what are serious problems. I think you would agree we're living in a new era. There's no question. Technology has changed a great deal. The importance of understanding the problems that are out there - viruses and global warming - but also understanding the importance of education. Of really using the collection of people in one society, not deciding that one half - the women - can't do the job. You need to use everybody. And so I think we need to keep talking about what can be done and what we can do together.

Julia Gillard: Worried optimist and problem-solver, I like that. And I like the optimistic vision for the future, too. Thank you for sharing it. That has been a delightful conversation. What a real pleasure. Thank you for talking with me today.

Madeleine K. Albright: I love talking with you and it's wonderful to be able to exchange views and especially given all the wonderful things that you've done and what you're doing now in terms of working with women. It's an honor Julia.

Closing: Thank you for tuning into this special episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at You can also listen to this episode on a Podcast of One's Own with Julia Gillard through the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King's College London.

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