In early 2017, I received a letter. It was a handwritten card from a hero of mine. Excited and surprised, I waved it around, running to find my husband. “She wrote me back! Madeleine Albright wrote me back!”
The year prior, I had begun a project where I occasionally send letters to women who inspire me, and I tell them how they’ve impacted me. One of the first women I thought of was Madeleine Albright.
I don’t have a copy of the letter I sent, but it was on a card that said “Accordion to me, you’re awesome” next to a drawing of an accordion.
Inside, I wrote to Madeleine Albright that she changed my mind in an instant when I went to see her speak on her book tour for Prague Winter. It was undoubtedly a simple moment for her that in no way stood out from her remarkable life. She merely started a sentence, so casually, with the phrase, “As a feminist…”
When I was a teenager, there was a massive backlash against feminists. The social zeitgeist at the time said that feminists were always yelling, always angry, hated men, hated themselves, and were probably lesbians. I had the sense that they were also unemployable, maybe because they were also portrayed as badly dressed. But also, who would hire someone who was shouting all the time?
I didn’t tell Madeleine Albright all this—there wasn’t enough room on the card. But I summed it up, and told her that I had refused to apply the label “feminist” to myself before seeing her easy embrace of the word. My feeling was that by being capable and competent, I was doing more good for other women than I could if I was angry and yelling in peoples’ faces.
But Madeleine Albright wasn’t angry. She wasn’t shouting. From my seat in the balcony, she looked tiny, old, and refined. I also didn’t have a lot of women heroes growing up, but seeing her speak, I was just in awe of her. In that regard, she was also proof that society ought to re-examine the habit of more or less discarding old women. I’ve listened to a lot of people talk in my lifetime, and no one else has been as sharp, clear, and brilliant as Madeleine Albright.
After that day, I proudly proclaimed myself a feminist and haven’t looked back. Of course, society has moved on since I was a teenager, so people were more surprised that I’d only just adopted the label. But it was a big deal for me and only came about because I admired her so greatly.
It was with great excitement that I read her recent opinion piece in the New York Times about the war in Ukraine. Hope soared within me that she’d write more, her clear voice cutting through the news cycle to add perspective and clarity on these events. Alas, it was not to be. I read her obituary exactly one month later.
Rest in peace, Madeleine Albright. Accordion to me, you’ll always be awesome.