Madeleine Albright and Elissa Slotkin Share Experiences with Students
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 22, 2020)
Rochester Hills, MI – Being the US Secretary of State comes with many critical responsibilities, but the favorite part of the job for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was being able to swear in new American citizens.
Her first time giving naturalization certificates was on July 4, 2000 at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. During the event a man said to her “I can’t believe I am a refugee and I just got my naturalization certificate from the Secretary of State!” And Albright responded with pride, “Can you believe the Secretary of State is a refugee?”
Dr. Albright shared stories and wisdom with students at Oakland University on Feb. 20 along with Congressperson Elissa Slotkin. About 90 teens from Rochester Community Schools had a question and answer session with the accomplished experts in national security, before the women went on to speak to a larger assembly of OU students and staff, making for a morning full of learning about leadership.
Slotkin represents the 8th Congressional District which covers an area between Rochester Hills and Lansing. Before diving into politics, she worked as an Analyst in the CIA and in the US State Department, serving both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and focusing on the Middle East. She met her husband, also in the military, inside Saddam Hussain’s palace.
Albright, who served as Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, immigrated to the United States as a child with her family in 1948 from Czechoslovakia after first spending some time in Europe. She became a citizen in 1957, while she was attending Wellesley College. She served as an aide to Senator Edmund Muskie in Washington DC before working for the National Security Council. She left to become an advisor on foreign policy to Democratic candidates. In 1993 she was appointed to US Ambassador to the United States and in 1997 she became Secretary of State until 2001. Since then she has been a professor and a consultant.
As a professor, Albright has a no hand-raising rule, encouraging students to interrupt her because it is often those who are not afraid to speak that are the ones who get heard.
“I was always the only woman in the room,” she said to the broader assembly. “The thing I learned was if you want to say something in the meeting, and you don’t say it because you might sound stupid. Then a man says that same thing you were thinking, and you feel stupid you didn’t say it….Women need to interrupt.”
Albright and Slotkin represented older generations to the young women in the OU audience, noting the progression of women’s rights and the way society viewed their roles.
In 1959 when Albright graduated Wellesley, the commencement speaker was the Secretary of Defense who had a daughter in the class. “We about all walked out,” she recalled. “He said your main responsibility was to get married and have children…Can you imagine if someone said that at your graduation today?”
The sexism Albright faced was not just from men. “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” she said. “My problem was with other women. [They’d say things like] why aren’t you home with your children instead of studying Russian or whatever.”
She advised the students to follow their own paths. “Every woman’s middle name is guilt.. You can’t do everything at once. You have to do what you feel comfortable with, and don’t feel guilty about it.”
Slotkin grew up in a time when there were some women in male dominated fields, but certainly not comfortably. “Women had to claw their way to the top, and they saw other women as threats,” Slotkin said to the high school students. “You’re lucky your generation is past that.”
Albright’s gender was the subject of national debate at the time of her UN appointment. Across the country people debated whether a woman could make decisions while on her period, and whether men from more divided cultures would be comfortable recognizing a woman’s authority.
She recalled her first day at the United Nations, saying that she originally intended to be quiet and observe until she felt comfortable. But when she saw the desk with the label United States, she knew “If I did not speak, then the United States would not have a voice.” Of course she did use her voice, but it occurred to her that most men in the room would not even be having a debate with themselves about speaking, they just did.
While she too experienced, and continues to experience, the judgment of being a woman in a position of power, some of the sexism Slotkin sees is more subtle, or implicit. Often she’d been mistaken for an intern or a staffer when in fact she was running the meeting. And there were other awkward moments, like her interaction with a well-intentioned three star admiral. She and the admiral had been answering tough questions in a meeting, which she handled with confidence and grace. The admiral called her afterward in an effort to be supportive.
“You did such a great job. Your dad must be so proud,” the admiral said.
“He meant it in the best way possible, but he wouldn’t have said that to a 38 year old male. So how do we deal with that?’
Both women carved out their own paths by pushing themselves to be bold. Slotkin moved up the ranks because she took changes others wouldn’t. “I ended up working in the Bush White House totally by choice,” she said. During the Gulf War, President Bush had wanted to be sure he was getting the best intelligence possible, not filtered or toned down by those at the top. While he did listen to leadership, he also wanted to hear from young CIA agents in his office, without their bosses present. By that time Slotkin had done three tours in Iraq, and knew that the US had been making some mistakes.
When the higher ups made the announcement that younger agents were needed, most in the room shuffled their feet and averted their eyes, intimidated at the thought of being in the hot seat with the President. But Slotkin saw the opportunity to share the concerns that she’d been having, so she volunteered.
“I had a healthy debate with the President and the Vice President,” she said. “It wasn’t angry, but it was a debate.” This caught their attention and that of her CIA bosses. “If you can argue with the President and not piss him off, you should work here,” one said. And so, she did. She moved up from being an analyst to a briefer then to being the leader of a CIA assessment team in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and the National Security Council staff’s director for Iraq policy from 2007 to 2009.
Slotkin encouraged the students to push themselves beyond their nervousness and fear, saying that she still often asks herself “Is my impact greater than my concern for a particular situation?”
Leaving national security and embarking on a political career was another such decision for Slotkin, who successfully ran for Congress in 2018. While her expertise is in spotting threats and solving problems abroad, she felt called to spend part of her life working on a growing problem within the United States. “In the 2016 election, the tone and tenor of politics was unbecoming, so I left my job in the Pentagon and came back home,” she said.
While both Albright and Slotkin identify as Democrats, they see the value in respectful dialogue about different viewpoints.
“I believe in a two party system and having discussions and disagreements,” Albright said.
“I loved the politics of foreign policy and how you get support for programs, My one regret in life is that I never ran for office, so I’m envious of the Congresswoman.”
When asked about a student why she decided to get involved in government, Albright said “I don’t want to be overly sentimental about things, but I was not born in America…I wanted to give back. There’s so many ways to do public service… working in government in any level, helping people.”
The visit was hosted by OU’s Center for Civic Engagement. Per their website, “The Oakland University Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) takes important issues of public concern and public policy out of the classroom and actively engages many different stakeholders — includes students, faculty, policy makers and community members — in non-partisan, deliberative and productive dialogue. Indeed, democracy is better served through respectful discussions about important issues.” Learn more at The Center for Civic Engagement website.