Madeleine Albright was in Pittsburgh on Monday night for the opening of the "Read My Pins" exhibit, which features more than 200 pins from her collection, all of which have their own foreign policy story.
Albright was the first woman to become a U.S. Secretary of State, a post she held from 1997 to 2001. But it was her position before that, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, that prompted her to use the pins to send messages.
Saddam Hussein called Albright a "serpent," which prompted her to wear a pin with a snake on it when dealing with Iraq. When a journalist took notice during a question-and-answer session, she said that she thought it would be fun to continue the trend.
"On good days I wore butterflies and balloons and flowers, and on bad days a lot of horrible insects and carnivorous animals. When the other ambassadors would say, 'What are we going to do today?' I'd say, 'Read my pins,' and this was after the first President Bush had said, 'Read my lips, no new taxes,' so that's how the whole thing began," said Albright.
It caught on, and many diplomats began looking toward Albright's pins to see what message they'd convey. Sometimes the message didn't sit well, like when she wore the trio of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys in a meeting with then Russian Leader Vladmir Putin, to send a message about Russia's stance on Chechen atrocities. Putin was outraged.
"I thought, 'President Clinton is going to kill me, that I've screwed up the whole summit,' so that got me into trouble, but it all worked out all right," she said.
All of the pins on display in the exhibition carry foreign policy stories. The pins that she's collected since leaving office do not carry such meanings.
If These Pins Could Talk
"And so when people come up and say, 'What does that pin mean?' they do mean different things depending on what I'm doing on a given day, but not the foreign policy stories," Albright said, "or worse than that — when I'm not wearing a pin people come up and ask, 'What's the matter, why aren't you wearing a pin?'"
Albright said that the pins have become a part of who she is, and everywhere she goes, people want to give her more pins.
"What's happened is people have felt sorry for me because all my pins are traveling around, so they give me new pins. I call them my pity pins," she said.
Pins Open Doors
Albright said that the pins are a vehicle to make foreign policy a little bit less foreign to Americans.
"Our lives in America today depend on what goes on in other countries," she said. "We are economically linked to other countries. They trade with us, we trade with them. The environment is important. You can't control the environment just over America, or issues of nuclear proliferation. We can't be isolated. There's no way in the 21st century to be isolated," said Albright.
As the first woman U.S. Secretary of State, Albright was able to use jewelry as a communication device, something she said that men can't necessarily do in suits and ties but, "whenever there is a meeting, the truth is, they're human beings talking to each other, and you have to begin somewhere like, 'the weather's nice' or 'how about the Steelers,'" so the pins were one more way to strike up conversations.
Albright said that she remains close with current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and offers advice where she can. She said that her time as secretary of state taught her one lesson that she tries to pass on to women and girls everywhere.
"I think women have to learn to interrupt," she said. "I've been at so many meetings where you think you might say something, then think it's stupid, then some man says it, and you're really mad at yourself for not having said it. So I advise women to interrupt, and not just in meetings — just make yourself heard. But if you're making yourself heard, you have to know what you're talking about."
Pittsburgh is the eighth stop for the Read My Pins Exhibit. It's at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History until March 4, 2012.Monkeys Story.mp3