Women in Leadership

Madeleine and Alice Albright Trade Tips for Working Mothers

March 12, 2020  • Aspen Global Innovators Group

You might spend half a day listing the achievements and job titles of Madeleine Albright, and you might never think to list “mother”—which is both a title and an achievement. But along with being the US’s first woman Secretary of State and the Ambassador to the United Nations, she also raised three very accomplished daughters.

In the latest episode of the Aspen Institute podcast The Bridge, Alice Albright—Chief Executive Officer of the Global Partnership for Education—joins her mother in a conversation about the working lives of women, the challenges of being a working mother, and their impressions about the life they shared as Alice and her sisters grew.

It was, in fact, the birth of her daughters that led Madeleine into her career. When her twins were born early, they spent weeks in intensive care. Unable to hold them but unable to leave their side, she began studying Russian to pass the time. That led her into perusing a doctorate where she found mentors who recognized her talent. She went from organizing school bake sales to organizing congressional campaigns, and then into diplomacy.

But she didn’t forget the bake sales. “Growing up, we could not have been more lucky,” says Alice. The sisters attended an all-girls school and were active in sports and other activities. Thanks to their mother’s example and a supportive father, “It never crossed our minds, ever, that we couldn’t do exactly what we wanted. We were privileged.”

But her mother was struggling, with expected glass ceilings and sexism, but with another enemy, as well. “Every woman’s middle name is ‘Guilt’ … you don’t know whether you’re in the right place, you don’t know what your children are doing or whether your house is still in order, or whatever. But I have to tell you, and this is the part that I mention many times and makes me very sad, it’s other women, partially, that give you that middle name.”

It never crossed our minds that we couldn’t do exactly what we wanted.
— Alice Albright

As Alice began her own career on Wall Street, she realized the limits that had also been placed upon her. “If I wanted to be one of the inside people, I had to adopt the hobbies and likes of others,” which meant jokes about sports and socializing through drinking. While doing business in South Africa, she says, “I bought a book called Rugby for Dummies before I went on one of my business trips just so I could say something.”

Parenting adds a whole different dimension, notes Alice. “Philosophically, I think that being a working mom is the best thing in the world” If you’ve had a rotten day at the office, there’s nothing better than coming home to kids who love you and need you. “Monday rolls around and you’ve had enough, you can go back to the office.” It also offers remarkable perspective. “Unless somebody’s kid is on the floor dying, everything is solvable.”

That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, especially for the young, but “You can integrate being a parent and an employee.” She makes sure to make clear to everyone in her office that she doesn’t want any of them—mother or father or other caretakers—to miss a soccer game, teacher conference, or school play, and “always take your kid’s calls.”

Listen to Alice’s “Working Mommy Pep Talk” in this wide-ranging and heartwarming conversation between two amazingly accomplished women.

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