The cheery sound of shattering glass

December 12, 1996|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- When Madeleine Albright broke through the glass ceiling last week, it was almost inevitable that she'd get nicked by a few shards. Some folks huffed that her nomination as secretary of state was just ''politics.'' Others said the president was just ''paying back'' women's groups.

Such is the fate of her generation of women. Once upon a time they were banned from the top jobs on account of gender. When they finally make it, somebody is sure to say that they got the job because of gender.

This time, the shards were less pointed. The U.N. ambassador had a resume that overwhelmed the other contenders. The president was honest when he described Ms. Albright's ''first woman'' status as an added extra to what this woman, as a woman, might bring to the foreign-policy job. Not merely by her presence, but by her point of view, her peripheral vision.

Ms. Albright herself has never been reticent to see her own life in the context of the woman's movement. In another time, as she likes to say, ''the only way I might have found to influence foreign policy is by marrying a diplomat and then pouring tea on an offending ambassador's lap.''

In a transitional era, she went to graduate school while raising three daughters. She worked for Ed Muskie. At Georgetown, she was director of the women-in-foreign-service program and a popular professor. In politics, it was she who brought Geraldine Ferraro up to speed on ''throw weights'' during the 1984 campaign.

During her years at the United Nations, she was, in her words the nTC ''only skirt among 14 suits on the Security Council.'' But Ms. Albright also held a monthly lunch with the meager seven other women ambassadors. She also led the American delegation to the U.N. women's conference in Beijing.

In short, you won't need to explain to this secretary of state why rape is a war crime. In Sen. Barbara Mikulski's phrase, ''She not only understands what happens to women in war and in sweatshops and in brothels, but she can articulate it in foreign-policy terms.''

On, by and about men

Not long ago, we looked at foreign policy the way we looked at medical research. When we talked about heart disease, the ''standard'' studies were done on, by and about men. We sometimes forgot about women and children until something -- an air bag perhaps? -- blew up in our faces.

Only five years ago, in foreign policy, the idea that women's rights are human rights was new and radical. It's only since the disasters in Bosnia and Rwanda that rape was defined as a crime of war, rather than a fact of war.

Just this year, in another first, the U.N. condemned the Taliban in Afghanistan for issuing decrees that would put women back in their old place. In Ms. Albright's blunt words, the Taliban would ''essentially deprive women of all rights, except the right to remain silent, indoors, uneducated and invisible.'' And for the first time Tuesday, the president spent International Human Rights Day talking about women's rights.

These are hints of change. In this new world, one of the goals of foreign aid and policy is to empower stable middle-class democracies. You can't get there without education and birth control for women. In economic development, too, the buzzword is ''micro-credit,'' small loans for women businesses.

I am not suggesting that Ms. Albright will or should be a Secretary of the Female State. She comes to the job with the personal view of a Czech refugee from both fascism and communism. She holds that American security comes first. But her gender may broaden the current outlook. When she looks down the list of appointments, new names may come to the top. When she looks down the list of international woes -- as far down as sexual slavery or child labor or genital mutilation -- new priorities may rise.

And when this woman represents the U.S. to other continents and cultures where women are still the poorest and most illiterate citizens, the world may look just a little different. That's reason enough to toast one of the last of the ''firsts.'' Doesn't crystal have a nice sound when it cracks.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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