In Defense of Madeleine Albright (Not That She Needs It)

sen. hillary clinton  speaks at ...
sen. hillary clinton speaks at ...

Over the weekend, Madeleine Albright repeated a quote for which she has been famous for approximately 40 years. "There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women," she said. She, and by extension Hillary Clinton's campaign, came under fire for this Starbucks cup quote.

Promptly outrage flared about how she could possibly shame younger women about their valid political views regarding Bernie Sanders. It happens that I have come to some key realizations since Hillary last ran for president in 2008 and I am now more aware of how easy it is to not help other women for sexist reasons, or no reason at all, and not even realize it.

As Secretary Albright mentioned in Time, women can be "very judgmental of each other." Sheryl Sandberg asks women to "Lean In" because it worked for her, but the reality for most of us is that her lived experience is approximately as likely as as being offered an actual seat on a real rocket ship. She frequently puts the onus on women to work for themselves, believe in themselves, forgive themselves... which is all great! Focusing on those strategies, however, amounts to blaming victims of sexism for their experience, rather than addressing systematic sexism in society. That said, even Sandberg used Albright's "hell" quote in her book, and frequently encourages women to stick together.

Speaking of systematic sexism, let's get right to Secretary Clinton's family life. Seemingly everywhere I look, people criticize her in veiled language. They ignore her entire political career, or they ignore her time as First Lady. They compare her years as Secretary of State with equal weight to Senator Sanders's years as Mayor of Burlington. Occasionally, someone comes right out and says it: She should've left her lying, cheating husband and run for the Senate on her own.

This idea that a woman's entire career can be dismissed because of her choices about family and marriage are so broadly accepted in our society that I've heard feminists utter them. Eight years ago, I believed similarly. She should've left the man and done it all by herself. That attitude is sexist at it's core, though. No one should be held to the standard that a woman can be no better than her husband's worst. This prevalent attitude also mirrors the worst interpretation of Sheryl Sandberg's convictions, but one that many women face: that family life must be sacrificed in order to achieve career success.

When my daughter was born, I was shocked at the difference I felt toward her compared to my son. My brain came up with the worst four-letter words to call her -- words that I wouldn't use to describe my worst female enemy. I struggled to come to the realization that I had internalized the subtle sexism I had experienced my whole life to such an extent that I started heaping it on her nearly the moment she was born. Having realized this and confronted it, I am now a better mom, a better woman, a better feminist, and a better person. It was an experience I could not have imagined eight years ago.

The subtle sexism I internalized didn't come from misogynist men. I knew enough to ignore them. It came from feminist women. It came from the paradox that no one should call out a woman on her sexism -- especially another woman. So when Madeleine Albright issues an ominous warning that you feel is directed at you, you might be right. Regardless of your age, you might not yet fully understand why her famous quote cuts so deep in today's context. If you consider yourself a feminist and are supporting Sanders during this primary season, please ask yourself honestly: Do I support his policies in and of themselves? Or am I swayed to his side because of a lifetime of covert sexist microaggressions that leave me disgusted with "the establishment?"