Hidden behind a red curtain, two Ricolas clutched in her hand, she heard her accomplishments read aloud again: college professor, best-selling author, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner — and the nation’s 64th secretary of state.
When the audience of more than 300 began to clap and howl, Madeleine K. Albright entered the Georgetown University auditorium. She waved. She winked. The clapping grew louder, especially from young women in the room.
They smiled giddily, checked to make sure their phones were on silent and opened their notebooks. Theirs was the generation of “The Future Is Female” T-shirts and Ruth Bader Ginsburg tote bags, who grew up being told that women can be anything, and then, just as they were getting their starts in the working world, watched Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Now, they had come to see a woman whom they knew for something the introductory speaker didn’t mention: Albright wasn’t just a secretary of state. She was the first female secretary of state. They kept clapping until she motioned for them to stop.
“Well, first of all,” she began, “I’m delighted to be here.”
The goal of this April event was to promote her new book, “Fascism: A Warning,” a 304-page history of authoritarian regimes with a not-so-veiled modern-day relevance. At 80 years old, Albright was in the midst of a publicity tour that would take her to 12 cities in three weeks. And in each one, she would find a similar entourage of young women, for whom she was:
“Amaaazing,” said 25-year-old D.C. resident Katherine Stark.
“A badass,” said 31-year-old Naomi Rosen, who saw Albright in Philadelphia.
“The epitome of KWEEN,” tweeted 28-year-old Catherine Monaco after a book event in New York.
Seventeen years after she left public service, Madeleine Albright has transcended the role of history-making diplomat to become a full-fledged feminist icon. Never has that been more clear than with the launch of her new book. Its pages are filled with treatises on tyrannical dictators and the horrors they wrought; and yet, it appears beside the female empowerment reads at your local bookstore. Find it on TeenVogue.com, just above “How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation at Coachella” and “What Tacos to Eat According to Your Zodiac Sign.” See it in a video by TheSkimm, a newsletter targeting female millennials, and watch the former chief diplomat of the United States hold a glass of wine, look into the camera and say, “I’m Madeleine Albright, let’s sip and Skimm.”
Everywhere she and her famed brooches go, the aura of lovable feminist granny follows.
Beyoncé’s fans are nicknamed the “BeyHive.” Justin Bieber has the “Beliebers.” Albright’s following has yet to be nicknamed, but as Stephen Colbert put it on the night she began her book tour on his show: “The kids, they love Madeleine Albright.”
The “kids” who are young adults now were actually kids when Albright served in the Clinton administration of the late 90s. Most do not sit around discussing her handling of Slobodan Milosevic or recounting the story of the time she met Kim Jong Il.
“I really don’t know that much about her,” said a third-year linguistics graduate student in the audience at Georgetown. “I know she was important to Leslie Knope.”
Leslie Knope, a character on “Parks and Recreation” who kept a photo of Albright in her office, was where five of the women in the audiences said they had first learned about Albright. Four others mentioned her cameo on “Gilmore Girls.” They know Albright as the woman who inspired the broken glass ceiling brooch that can now be found on Etsy. They credit her for coining the phrase, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
That was the saying that landed Albright in trouble during the 2016 election. One day after Gloria Steinem was harangued for speculating that young women were not supporting Hillary Clinton because “the boys are with Bernie,” Albright repeated her famous quote at a Clinton campaign event. In that context, it seemed she was saying that all women who didn’t vote Clinton were hell-bound. She apologized, but not before the moment had become a conservative rallying cry and fuel for those who already disliked her interventionist approach to foreign policy.
In the time since Clinton’s loss, Albright has remained in the public eye through op-eds, television appearances and tweets about DACA, refugees and Russia. She tells audiences she was going to write the book regardless of who won the election, but there are pages and pages dedicated to explaining why she believes Trump is, although not a fascist, the most “undemocratic president” in modern history.
Despite all this, her millennial fans describe her as removed from the partisan fray.
“If I say I look up to Elizabeth Warren, people think I’m some insane leftist,” said 23-year-old Lior Azariya, who attended Albright’s event at Sixth & I in the District. “If I say Nikki Haley, people think I’m way on the right . . . Sarah Sanders? Kellyanne Conway? Who am I supposed to look up to?”
To Azariya, Albright was an obvious choice. Besides her, there was only one other figure the crowds of young women seemed to agree on.
“RBG, we love her,” said 22-year-old Brianna Messina, referencing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“RBG,” said 18-year-old Victoria Belka, “Notorious RBG.”
“My dream is to have lunch with Madeleine Albright and RBG,” said 21-year-old Nicole Rubin. “They’re regular people, but they’re just not.”
“RBG,” 27-year-old Erin Sheek said. “And Beyoncé.”
How these two octaganerians achieved Beyoncé status — or maybe it’s the other way around — is a case study waiting to happen. If the only qualification was to be the first female in a role, then where, you might ask, are the books about Sandra Day O’Connor’s workout? The Janet Reno tote bags? Who even remembers Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet seat?
What makes a person transcend from being a historic figure to being a full-fledged pop culture icon?
An outgoing personality. A good PR team. Or maybe, it isn’t about the history-makers themselves, but about the moment in which their story is being told: “They are a symbol of what we are all striving for now,” said Sarah Mucha, a former student of Albright’s who authored the Teen Vogue story on her new book. “Being able to stand up for what you believe in: That’s the ‘Me Too’ movement. That’s women asking for higher salaries. We see it all as this seismic shift, but it’s been in the works for a long time. Women like Madeleine Albright and Ruth Bader Ginsburg paved the way when there wasn’t a way, so of course, we look up to them.”
On her book tour, Albright didn’t shy from her icon status. “It took me a long time to get my public voice,” she told Colbert. “Once I found my voice, I’m not going to shut up.”
But she doesn’t seem to be trying to capitalize on her unwitting role as favorite feminist granny, either. At Georgetown, she discussed the definition of fascism, the case for multilateralism and the resilience and fragility of democracy. Not mentioned: feminism, sexism or women’s place in the world. The moderator didn’t ask about these topics, and Albright didn’t bring them up herself. If her following had come looking for specific words of encouragement for young women, she never uttered any.
And still, when the talk ended, a line formed down the aisle, stretching to the back of the auditorium and out the door.
Each person would have a few moments with Albright as she signed their books. They took pictures of her from afar. They fidgeted with their backpacks. When they made it to the table in front of her, they seemed unsure of what to say. They ended up all saying almost the same thing.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for being here.”
“Thank you, for everything.”