A second dining room with large projection screens accommodated overflow attendees at the annual Chicago Foundation for Women Luncheon & Symposium Sept. 25. Following the close of the program, hundreds of individuals slithered through the queue as a human snake, inching toward a book-signing table to have their individual moments with the keynote speaker.
Madeleine Albright, the first and only woman to have held the position of U.S. Secretary of State (1997-2001) and Ambassador to the United Nations, attracted more than 2,100 (mostly) women to the Chicago Hilton and Towers. The event raised in excess of $800,000 for the teen-aged organization, far surpassing its $600,000 goal.
Albright, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history, is on a national book tour promoting the recent release of Madam Secretary: A Memoir, in which she recounts her days traveling the international circuit as a mouthpiece for not only the United States, but also for women who live in countries where they have limited or no rights.
'There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women,' the former Secretary of State clearly articulated, following a sample listing of some of the women's issues she spotlighted while in her powerful position. The ballroom erupted in laughter and applause. 'Often, even if the laws on the books change, reality does not for these women. Some say it's cultural and we shouldn't get involved. I say it's criminal and we each have an obligation to stop it.'
A mother of three daughters, Albright continues her quest to address the plight of females around the world.
'In 1999, women prime ministers pulled together to battle trafficking of young women,' she said, an American flag costume jewelry pin glittering from the breast of her black jacket. 'In this country, we have a zero-tolerance policy for drug trafficking. We should be at least as vigilant when it is human beings.'
Her personal exposure to the world AIDS epidemic remains vivid in her mind.
'Women in Africa refuse to be tested for HIV because they don't want to be shunned,' she said, describing the shame placed by their communities upon those infected. 'AIDS is a long-term, worldwide struggle that needs to be fought year by year, country by country.'
Former NBC-TV local news anchor Carol Marin conducted an onstage interview, asking Albright some tough questions, including her stance on the U.S. position in Iraq. Although she is no fan of President George W. Bush, Albright admitted she supports the belief that U.S. troops must remain there until strong systems are in place.
'I didn't understand 'why now?',' she said, still unclear on why Bush and his advisers chose to move in on Saddam Hussein. 'I thought we had him in a box, a strategic box. I could tell (Bush and troupe) didn't have an exit plan. We can't leave there now because it's a chaotic situation. It now has indeed become a training ground for terrorists.
'My biggest problem with (Bush policy) is the uni-dimensional focus of this administration: believing military action is the only way to deal with (the issues)."
When Marin asked if former President Clinton shared responsibility for not going after Osama bin Laden sooner, Albright answered confidently.
'We did everything we could,' she said. 'It's hard to put yourself back to that place where you were before 9/11.'
A native of Czechoslovakia, Albright has lived in the United States since age 11 and is seen as a true inspiration for the women's rights and civil-rights movements.
'The glass ceiling is not gone and the playing field is not even,' she stated. 'I don't want to be a historical accident.'