Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

NEW YORK–A woman will become president of the United States “sooner rather than later,” Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said Monday, rebutting polling opinions that women are not sufficiently tough, experienced or knowledgeable to conduct foreign policy and tackle defense issues.

“I will do everything possible to help a woman become President, and I think it will happen sooner rather than later,” said Albright, the first female secretary of state, and highest-ranking woman in the U.S. government. She succeeded 63 males in that position. Albright herself has a reputation for toughness, most recently regarding the prosecution of NATO and U.S. military intervention in Kosovo and the bombing of Serbia.

Ms. Foundation President Marie WilsonAlbright and Marie C. Wilson, president of The White House Project and the Ms. Foundation for Women, discussed “Opportunities for Women’s Leadership in the 21st Century” at The New York Times auditorium. The discussion was moderated by Barbara Crossette, The Times’ award-winning U.N. Bureau Chief, author and specialist in the Indian Subcontinent, development and women’s issues. No questions were taken.

Wilson asked Albright if she would ever want to be president, if the Constitution were amended to permit foreign-born citizens to run for the office. Albright was born in Czechoslovakia. “I never even considered that possibility,” she answered,” adding that she also had never dreamed that one day she would “hold the highest job in the field of my choosing.”

The foreign-born should be able to run for president

In answer to another question, Albright said she believed “people who were not born here should have the opportunity to serve” as president–meaning the Constitution would have to be changed.

The White House Project’s polling shows that 76 percent of the American public would like to vote for a woman candidate for president, but focus group research also indicates that voters worry women lack the experience and ability to conduct foreign policy and promote U.S. defense and strategic concerns.

In its two years of operation, the project has mobilized women to participate in civic life, filling a pipeline with highly qualified candidates for numerous state and national offices.

“We need to persuade men that women are capable of discussing this subject” of foreign policy and defense, Albright said. In her work as secretary of state and before that as U.S. representative to the U.N., Albright declared: “I found American men more difficult to deal with than foreign men.”

After she was confirmed by the Senate in 1997, Albright said there were questions in the U.S. about whether she, as a woman, could deal with Arab and other Islamic leaders whose countries often treat women as inferiors to men. “I represent the U.S. and as such I am treated as the U.S. representative,” she said. “Gender doesn’t matter.”

But she admitted it was irksome to be called a “school marm” by some U.S. commentators because of her toughness, noting that no one would apply such an unflattering description to a male official–it just wouldn’t come up.

“I tell my daughters and others,” she said, “there is no female pattern for doing things–you just have to do them.”

Women are not ‘better, purer and kinder’ than men–they can be tough

Albright said she doesn’t believe women are essentially “better, purer and kinder” than men, but they do tend to approach problems differently, paying more attention to context and parameters. “Men tend to look at one subject,” she observed.

The kinds of things women diplomats may do differently from men, she said to mild laughter, “is to use the telephone” and work on personal relationships.

When it came to the Kosovo crisis, she said, she instituted daily conference calls involving as many as 15 of her concerned counterparts, so that she did not have similar and consecutive conversations with all of them.

Gender can be an advantage, she said, because women’s aptitude for developing relationships has served her well in diplomacy and her personal relationships have helped her ameliorate difficult diplomatic situations.

While she was at the U.N. in 1993, Albright said, she initiated regular gatherings, luncheons and telephone calls with the six other women U.N. representatives of Canada, Guam, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, the Philippines and Trinidad and Tobago–plus the U.S. Playfully, they dubbed themselves the Group of Seven, or G-7, referring to the world’s most powerful industrialized nations that meet each year.

“We promised we would always take each other’s phone calls,” Albright said, adding that such calls and personal contact helped greatly in resolving various national concerns.

Albright started regular lunches for top women diplomats at the U.N.

Three years ago she started similar luncheon gatherings at the foreign ministerial level at the annual General Assembly sessions in the fall. Now, of about 190 U.N. member states, 15 have women foreign ministers.

Foreign policy is important to women, Albright said, citing immigration policies, the war on drugs and aid to Colombia, the welfare of women and children, the need for family planning, the battle against AIDS and the need to give women the levers of economic and political power worldwide. Albright is head of the president’s inter-agency council on implementation of the goals of the Beijing Conference on Women and Beijing Plus 5 at the U.N. this summer.

She called the efforts of conservatives in Congress to cut the State Department and international economic development budgets “completely and totally irresponsible.”

Albright praised The White House Project for its promoting and mentoring of girls and women. She herself frequently cites as models and inspirations Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter F. Mondale and her own father, a distinguished professor of international affairs. And there were women professors at Wellesley, she said, noting that awareness of the need for mentoring for young women has come a long way. “I didn’t have women role models,” she said.

But these days, Albright said, some of her loveliest moments are the times when girls and young women go up to her and say, “Thank you. You’ve really made a difference.”

In order to get where women want to go in politics and public life, she said, “We always have to be on our toes. I believe we can never stop.”

And Marie Wilson of The White House Project said young women come up to her and say: “I want to be president. Tell me what I have to do.”

Victoria Graham covered the United Nations for seven years for The Associated Press.