Saturday, June 6, 2009

Madeline Albright and other people's choices

I had the distinct privilege of meeting the former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, last night at an alumni shindig with my friend FiveTen (who introduced Mr. Barefoot and me).

The graduate school of international studies that FiveTen attended has been renamed in honor of Madeline Albright's father, who founded it in the 1960s. Albright's daughter, Katie, lives in San Francisco, in a lovely home near the Presidio, where she hosted alumni/ae to celebrate the renaming of the school. Her grandfather is the only person to have trained to Secretaries of State: music major Condoleezza Rice was also a student of his. Katie's daughter (Madeline Albright's granddaughter), having observed her grandmother, Rice, and now Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretaries of State, asked what the big deal was when her grandmother was Secretary of State -- "because only women can be Secretary of State." Madeline Albright went on to say that people are now asking whether men can be Secretary of State, because, you know, it requires consensus building, and collaborations, and are men really suited to that?

FiveTen is an inveterate newspaper reader, starting each day with the SF Chronicle, NY Times, Der Speigel, and Times of India, so she had plenty of thought-provoking questions for the former Secretary. In addition to current issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan, FiveTen wondered which international leader surprised the Secretary the most. The answer: Kim Jong Il, whom leaders and diplomats all suspected was crazy at the time. Madeline Albright said that he did not seem at all crazy, but was charming and even chivilrous, concerned about her well-being if she engaged in the Korean custom of drinking shots with everyone attending a function.

Albright said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, who wore a long purple gown and a purple flower in her hair, was one of the most memorable and tough leaders she met. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been on house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years, and is now on trial after an American man swam across a lake to her house. Madeline Albright said that scenario was too strange to have happened spontaneously, and she believes that the ruling Burmese junta must have been involved in the scheme.

Her final words of advice to us, as young women in the early stages of our careers, were not to judge other women's choices, whether to pursue a career, to be full-time at home moms, or some combination of the two. She said that women put too many guilt trips on each other for not following a particular path, and that we should trust people to make the best choices they can, and respect those choices.

Believe it or not, here comes the wedding connection: her point about the guilt trips women lay on each other made me think about the judgment we can encounter about our wedding choices. Too expensive/ extravagant vs. too plain, OMG your guests won't feel welcome. Totally handmade and DIV vs. totally cookie-cutter and off the shelf. (For example, the discussion in the comments here.) It seems like you can't win in the planning process: someone will suggest that the wedding has too much of this and not enough of that.

And that got me thinking that maybe one reason that women judge and guilt-trip each other is that it's a lot easier than taking on the larger structures and paradigms that are causing us to feel constrained. Rather than taking on the Wedding Industrial Complex/ the patriarchy/ our parents/ whoever else is getting us down and limiting our options, maybe we direct our frustration at others who are equally caught in the machine, but have made different choices. Rather than fighting the powerful, we fight those who are equally powerless. I'm not saying that we are powerless in planning our weddings, but that we face a lot of very powerful cultural forces that encourage us in particular direction. Standing up to that is hard.

Our first female Secretary of State certainly knows something about standing up to powerful people and forces. Wedding planning is politics writ small.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes yes yes yes yes! I have said this on my blog too--let's blame the system that is putting us in these weird positions of often having to choose between rocks and hard places, not each other. We're just doing the best we damn can given the world we live in. Thank you for saying this.

And it sounds like meeting Albright was awesome! Lucky you. :)