Albright pushes for ‘global response’ to gender discrimination

Madeleine Albright speaks at the Fund for Women and Girls luncheon at the Hyatt Regency, where more than 800 people came to hear the former secretary of state’s keynote speech. — Elaine Ubina photo

Madeleine Albright speaks at the Fund for Women and Girls luncheon at the Hyatt Regency, where more than 800 people came to hear the former secretary of state’s keynote speech.
— Elaine Ubina photo

Just three days after the death of Margaret Thatcher, another iron lady, former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, came to town to serve as keynote speaker at the Fairfield County Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls Luncheon.

Celebrating the organization’s 15th anniversary, leaders of the Fund for Women and Girls reminded the event’s 824 attendees at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich that community donations are what make possible the fund’s mission to empower women and girls in Fairfield County and enble them to reach their full potential.

The fund helps women struggling to support their children reduce their debt, earn a college degree and move into higher-paying careers. Additionally, the organization helps preteen and teenage girls cope with such issues as bullying, dating violence and sexual assault while learning how to make healthy choices and become leaders.

According to the fund, nearly 21,000 Fairfield County households are headed by women with children under the age of 18. To merely “get by,” a single parent with one infant and one school-aged child needs an income of at least $60,000. Women who work full-time in Fairfield County, however, earn a median income of $47,000. That’s where the fund for Women and Girls comes in.

In fact, Neena Perez, one of the first women to join the fund’s Family Economic Security Program, served as a surprise guest speaker at the end of Thursday’s luncheon specifically to share what the Fund for Women and Girls had done to improve her life. Quickly summarizing the last five years of her life, Ms. Perez spoke of being a single mom who eventually became homeless and how the fund helped move her family into an apartment. From there, she earned an associate’s degree in food service management from Norwalk Community College and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Monroe College.

Today, Ms. Perez owns and runs two businesses — a catering company and a company that provides cooking classes for children’s birthday parties.

“If you ever wondered, Does my gift really make a difference,” Ms. Perez told attendees, “trust me, you are making a gigantic difference. You are truly changing lives.”

In her introduction to keynote speaker Dr. Albright, the director of the Fund for Women and Girls, Suzanne Peters, made it clear that Dr. Albright is also no stranger to improving women’s lives, including her own.

Born in Czechoslovakia as Hitler dismantled the country, Dr. Albright and her family eventually moved to Denver, Colo., where she spent her teenage years and founded an international relations club at her high school, serving as its first president. From there she would go on to be the first female to lead any number of positions, including, most notably, as the first female secretary of state, taking office in 1997. The appointment made her the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history at that time.

Since leaving office in 2001, Dr. Albright has continued her career as a businesswoman, political adviser and author, while simultaneously becoming a professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

Praising the Fund for Women and Girls, Dr. Albright began a vibrant and humorous speech by applauding the organization for its efforts in advancing the status of women. All too often, people call for change by agreeing on a list of objectives, Dr. Albright said, “but, like some less exalted politicians, they’re under the impression that just because they’ve said something, they’ve done something.”

The difference between those individuals and the Fund for Women and Girls, she added, is that real action is being taken to improve economic security and social justice for women. Contributing to the fund is “one of the smartest investments in Fairfield County” that residents could make, Dr. Albright said.

Moving on to discuss her own trials and tribulations, Dr. Albright explained that the excellent education she received as a student at Wellesley College was simultaneously discouraging, given women’s status at that time.

“Young women of that era were being groomed more to become perfect wives than anything else,” Dr. Albright said. They were part of a “silent generation.”

Nevertheless, Dr. Albright always strived to do something more with her life, even after having three daughters.

“Nothing is more fulfilling than being a mother,” Dr. Albright said, but she found a way to go back to school, eventually earning a doctorate from Columbia. A few years later, when her children were old enough, Dr. Albright took a position as chief legislative assistant for U.S. Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine.

After that, Dr. Albright became heavily involved in national politics and eventually worked as foreign policy adviser to U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. Ms. Ferraro, the first woman nominated for vice president, was “one of the great pioneers of the women’s movement,” and a source of inspiration, Dr. Albright said.

In 1993, Dr. Albright became a U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet. By the time she became secretary of state in 1997, Dr. Albright said, she could hardly believe she had taken on the position, never having imagined she would get the opportunity to serve in that role.

“It’s not that I lacked ambition, it’s just that I’d never seen a secretary of state in a skirt,” Dr. Albright said.

Realizing the significance of the power she held, Dr. Albright said, she wanted to accomplish all that her predecessors had done before her, but also something more. Making efforts to lift the lives of women and girls into part of mainstream U.S. policy, one of Dr. Albright’s first goals was to set up a “club” of the world’s female foreign ministers, who eventually dubbed themselves “the fearsome 14.”

While in office, however, Dr. Albright came across “many self-proclaimed experts” who considered women’s rights “to be of marginal concern when compared to the so-called ‘hard’ issues of big power politics and the military,” she said. In response, Dr. Albright said, she often pointed to the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, who were deprived of every right “except the right to remain silent, invisible, illiterate, and unemployed.”

Despite recent progress, gender discrimination is still an issue throughout the world, Dr. Albright said. “It’s a global problem demanding a global response,” she said. Women around the globe, she added, remain “an undervalued and underdeveloped human resource.”

“Appalling abuses are still being committed against women in the world,” including coerced abortions, sterilizations, ritual mutilations, and even killing infants simply because they are female, Dr. Albright said. “Some say all this is cultural and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” she said. “I say it’s criminal and we each have an obligation to stop it.”

While there are obvious differences between foreign countries and Fairfield County, there also exists a great similarity, which is “the ability of women to come work together in the service of common good,” Dr. Albright said. It’s an “indispensable asset and one of the major engines of social and political progress in every corner of the Earth,” she said.

Eliciting plenty of laughs from attendees, Dr. Albright added, “There’s a special place in hell for women who do not help each other.”

In an interview with the Post prior to her speech, Dr. Albright further discussed gender discrimination, addressing how young women can break through the glass ceiling in any field.

A piece of advice Dr. Albright said she often stresses with her daughters and students is to work hard and get a good education. Beyond that, she added, “women have to learn to interrupt.” Dr. Albright said she came up with the concept after attending plenty of male-dominated meetings in which she wanted to speak up but decided her point wasn’t smart enough.

“Then some man says it and everyone thinks they’re brilliant and you’re so mad at yourself,” she said.

Accordingly, Dr. Albright said, she teaches her government students that they have to “have active listening.” Women, and people in general, need to understand that if they’re going to interrupt, they need to know what they’re talking about, she said. Her advice, therefore, is to listen closely and speak up often, she added.

“The world has room for mediocre men. It has no room for mediocre women,” Dr. Albright said.

 

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