Contributed by Heather Cassell
At a recent event which gathered women business leaders together, former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright demonstrated that she is quite a story teller with a dry wit and many fascinating experiences to share, especially about women in the world.
At the Professional Business Women of California Conference in San Francisco last month, Albright told more than 6,000 attendees about how she has observed and participated in a century where women have rapidly advanced to leadership positions in government and business. Within 100 years women have gone from not having a voice in business and politics to the 21st century where “there have only been women and a black man” serving as United States Secretaries of State.
That’s a long way from “pouring some tea in a diplomats lap” to make an “impression,” she joked, but “What does that say?” she asked.
In Albright’s opinion, women are still underrepresented in business and government, but she’s hopeful about women’s advancement taking leadership roles in business and politics. Something PBWC has been instrumental in doing for 19 years providing a combination of inspiration, education, and mentorship to help women reach the top of business and government, as well as their personal lives.
PBWC President Ann Barlow said she was excited by the fact that for the first time in history four generations of women attended the conference truly reaching “Across the Generations,” this year’s theme. The forum attracted 20 percent more attendees this year than the previous year, said spokeswoman Jessica Hayward.
PBWC started in 1980 as Women’s Day in San Mateo, CA by then California State Assemblywoman and now newly elected United States Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California), but the organization has grown exponentially and attracts a stellar line up of keynote speakers. This year, Albright was joined at the annual forum by ABC News political commentator and author of Cokie Roberts and O magazine’s life coach columnist Martha Beck.
Roberts introduced Albright by speaking about the founding mothers of the United States from her research for her new book Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation. Beck started the day inspiring women to follow their own “North Star” and shape their own lives, the theme for her new book, Steering by Starlight: Find Your Right Life No Matter What!
Speier, who couldn’t attend this year’s event, spoke briefly to attendees from Washington via satellite. She encouraging women to run for public office and asked the audience of mostly women, “What would you do if you could not fail?”
With only 17 women serving in the 110th U.S.’s Congress, Speier’s question spoke to women’s courage and the vision of the possibility of who and what they can be at any age.
“It’s not that I lacked ambition,” said Albright about the slow progression of her assent into history as the first female United States Secretary of State, “it’s just that I had never seen a secretary of state with a skirt.”
As Secretary of State, she said that she not only wanted to maintain the accomplishments of her male predecessors, but, “I also wanted to aim higher.”
In spite of women’s progress and visible roles as leaders in the 21st century women aren’t protected in many parts of the world. While women make up half of the world’s population in many parts of the globe, Albright said, women remain imprisoned in poverty and hard labor, because they lack ownership or access to their rights. Despite proof that when women have the power to make their own economic and social choices the health, security, and well-being of villages and nations is improved dramatically.
“I wanted to make the efforts to lift the lives of women and girls a part of the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy,” said Albright, who pointed out that women’s rights are tied directly to American values and democracy.
“Now some say all this is cultural and there is nothing that anybody can do about it,” said Albright. “I say it’s criminal and that we each have an obligation to stop it.”
Women’s rights should matter to everyone, not just women, Albright said, and “American leadership must be built around American ideals. We cannot lead others unless we are true to ourselves.”
Albright believes that every person can have a global impact on the well-being of girls and women around the world and that it’s not enough just to have a job, speaking both to the political and business community, but that the job needs to be utilized to “improve the situation for other people.”
Using the basic concept of democratic values that at the “heart of every democracy” that “every life matters,” Albright told the audience. “With this principle behind us we can see before us a day when every girl will be confident that her dignity will be respected, her rights protected, and her future determined solely by her own ability and character. That is when we will truly be able to say that we have reached across the generations to build a future better than the past.”