Madeleine Albright on the Pins She Wore

As ambassador to the United Nations, and then as secretary of state during the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright sent subtle messages with the pins she wore. "Read my pins," she would tell reporters who pressed her for information. As the first woman to become America's top diplomat, Albright used her gender to advantage by incorporating jewelry into her toolbox. Her pins became her signature, and now they will be on display at the New York Museum of Arts and Design in an exhibition that follows the publication of her book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box. Albright sat down with NEWSWEEK's Eleanor Clift to talk about the inspiration for the book and the power of symbols. She begins by describing the pin she is wearing.

ALBRIGHT: Today I have on an elephant, not because I'm switching parties but because I was teaching today (at Georgetown University) about bilateral diplomacy, and it was the U.S.-India relationship, so it fit. Jewelry and pins have been worn throughout history as symbols of power, sending messages. Interestingly enough, it was mostly men who wore the jewelry in various times, and obviously crowns were part of signals that were being sent throughout history by people of rank. This all began when I was ambassador to the United Nations, and I clearly like jewelry, but what happened was Saddam Hussein called me a serpent. And I thought—well, that wasn't very nice—but I had a snake pin, so when we were dealing with Iraq I wore a snake pin. And when you come out of the Security Council there's always a gaggle of journalists there, so somebody asked me, 'Why are you wearing a snake pin?' And I said, 'Because Saddam Hussein called me a serpent.' And so then I thought, well, this is fun, so I went and I bought a lot of costume jewelry to kind of fit whatever the issue was we were going to be working on. When people would say, 'What are we going to do today?' or 'How do you feel?,' I said, 'Read my pins.' This was after George [H.W.] Bush had said, 'Read my lips.' I love being a woman and I was not one of these women who rose through professional life by wearing men's clothes or looking masculine. I loved wearing bright colors and being who I am. So the pins kind of evolved, and then they became signals to other foreign ministers. It was kind of fun because they actually noticed what I was wearing.

In your book you say President Putin told President Clinton he would look at your pins to try to figure out how you were feeling or what you were trying to say.
I was very concerned about what the Russians had been doing in Chechnya and denying everything, so I wore the three monkeys, the "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkeys, because they were denying what was going on. I'm not really sure he got the message.

On Russia, there is the story of the missile.
We were negotiating the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and I had this pin that actually is more of an arrow, but all of a sudden the Russian foreign minister looked at me and said, 'Is that one of your interceptors?' and I said, 'Yes, we make them very small.' And then there was a period when we discovered that the Russians had bugged the State Department. We found something in one of the conference rooms, and the next time I met one of the Russians I wore this huge bug, and they definitely got that one.

You got some advice from Jeane Kirkpatrick, who preceded you at the U.N., and, like you, had come from academia.
She had some really practical advice. She said, "before you go to New York, get rid of your professor clothes. You have to buy professional-looking clothes," which was a great invitation to go out and spend a lot of money. She was great, and she wore a lot of pins. I don't think that she took it to the level I did, but she really understood what it was like to be a woman in that particular setting. The difference between humans and other mammals is that we know how to accessorize. It's a real icebreaker. People come up to me and say, "Why are you wearing that pin?" or I might be exercising or something, and people will say, "Why aren't you wearing a pin?"

You write at some length about the location of the pins.
There are some people who wear them on the right side, some on the left side. Some wear them on their lapels. I keep wearing my pins higher and higher. It just goes to show what happens in diplomacy. I was visiting South Korea. There were always good relations and nice dialogue. But there was a Korean foreign minister who thought he was not on the record and was having some fun, and said that he loves it when Secretary Albright would come to Seoul because we had a nice relationship and we were about the same age, but he was like an old man and I was so vigorous and besides when he gave me a hug I had very firm breasts. All of a sudden there was this outcry over this and there were questions about whether would he have to resign for saying that. So they asked me what I thought, and I said, "Well, I've got to have somewhere to put those pins." So that helped, but the next time we saw each other, we shook hands at a very respectful distance, no more hugging.

You also make some substantive points about the wearing of patriotic pins.
In North Korea or in China when Mao Zedong was chairman, everybody had to wear these pins with their picture on them or had to wear some kind of emblem. While I very much enjoy wearing American flags and eagles and various things, I think that what happened at various times during the last campaign when there were questions as to why President Obama didn't wear a flag all the time, it seemed to me that that was something that really undermined the concept of free will and living in a free democratic society. I enjoy wearing pins, and nobody tells me to do it. I think we have to be very careful.

When you met with Nelson Mandela, you wore zebras.
It's one of my favorite pictures in the book, actually. It's a zebra that sits on your shoulder. It's a wonderful pin and symbolizes Africa in many ways, and so I thought it was nice and Nelson Mandela liked it. I have a number of zebras and they're kind of fun to wear them together. One of the things I have moved to is an assemblage of pins. It's kind of embarrassing: My pins keep getting bigger as I keep getting smaller—and then having multiple pins on at the same time has done massive damage to my clothes, which means that I have to buy larger pins to cover up holes in my clothes.

You write about how you would sort of grab for a pin in the morning, but now you have to give what you wear some thought.
I think once the book is out, it will be even more so—people really do want to know why I'm doing what I'm doing. What happened when I was secretary and I was traveling a lot, people would always ask me, did I do my own packing? I didn't have a wife, so I clearly would come home and pack late at night and then just kind of grab a bunch of pins that would in fact go from good mood to bad mood, from nasty message to nice message, but now I can choose. But I do have to think about what I'm going to wear.

Are the all-purpose pins ladybugs and hot-air balloons for good moods and wasps for bad moods?
Yes. Good moods are flowers and butterflies and balloons, and ladybugs are always good, but then I have a whole menagerie of spiders, bees, wasps, crocodiles, and stuff like that. One of the hardest parts was always trying to think of some image about what was going on in endless talks to do with the Middle East. There were a series of things that we all kept saying—it's like a bicycle, you have to keep pedaling, so I had a bicycle; and if things were bad or slow I had crabs or turtles. When we were doing talks with the Syrians, I was asked, "What's going on?" And I said, "Well, these talks are like mushrooms, they do better in the dark." It just kind of came to me, and So then every time through these series of talks, I would get questions (from the media) about what's happening and I would just say, "Mushrooms." So then the issue was I didn't actually have a mushroom pin, and I went around looking for mushroom pins. I had the most wonderful diplomatic security, the people that were with me that I spent more time with than with my own family, and they knew I was looking for a mushroom pin, so they had a fabulous mushroom pin made for me out of old Middle Eastern coins and it has a teeny little diamond in the back for hope. It's a very special pin because they did it for me. They're wonderful, wonderful people.

Afghanistan is very much in the news. What pin would you wear today if you were meeting with the president about what to do about Afghanistan?
I would probably wear—because the issue is about the troops, and I have this fantastic pin that was given to me by Mary Jo Myers. Her husband, Gen. Dick Myers, had been my military person, and so I knew him very well, he traveled with us, so she gave me a pin, which was of all the different services' military symbols. It always makes you think about how incredible our military is, what it is we ask of them, how they work together, and I think this is the big question, what are we going to ask of our forces?

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