Madeleine Albright championed democracy with her pins

Madeleine Albright is the first woman to have served as U.S. secretary of state. While in this role, she utilized an unconventional and effective tool for diplomacy on America’s behalf: pins worn on her suit lapels.

These served as “gentle implements of statecraft, teaching tools and a different form of communication,” she told ShareAmerica. “Most times, they convey a sense of humor, which is often needed in negotiations.”

Born in Prague, Albright immigrated with her parents to England as a 2-year-old in 1939. Her family moved to the United States almost a decade later.

As an immigrant from a country that suffered the tyrannies of fascism, Albright stood up for democracy and staunchly supported the NATO alliance.

Two silver pins (John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler)
These two pins, worn by Albright, were made by Czech designers. (John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler)

In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Albright as the first female secretary of state, making her the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government at the time.

Before she was secretary of state, Albright served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

Madeleine Albright smiling as she listens to Vaclav Havel speak (© Petr David Josek
Albright, left, talks to former Czechoslovakia President and human rights defender Václav Havel at the opening night of the 11th Forum 2000 Conference in Prague in 2007. (© Petr David Josek/AP Images)

The poet in residence of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein called Albright “an unparalleled serpent” in 1997 when she was the U.S. representative to the United Nations. In response, Albright began to wear a pin with a serpent wrapped around a stick.

“The idea of using pins as a diplomatic tool is not found in any State Department manual or in any text chronicling American foreign policy,” she said.

Pin featuring serpent wrapped around stick (John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler)
Albright wore this pin featuring a serpent wrapped around a stick after Saddam Hussein’s poet called her “an unparalleled serpent.” (John Bigelow Taylor and Dianne Dubler)

After that, Albright chose pins ahead of meetings with foreign dignitaries to signal her diplomatic position.

During the 2000 summit in Moscow between the United States and Russia, Albright says President Vladimir Putin told Clinton “he routinely checked to see what brooch I was wearing and tried to decipher its meaning. When he asked why I was wearing my three monkeys ‘Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil’ pins, I responded that it was because of Russia’s heavy-handed approach in Chechnya, which included significant human rights violations.

“Putin became furious, President Clinton looked at me in disbelief and I feared I had jeopardized the summit,” she continued. “Looking back, I am proud I wore the ‘evil’ pins.”

Albright went on to collect over 200 pins, which, after being displayed at 22 museums and presidential libraries, are now part of the National Museum of American Diplomacy’s exhibition, Read My Pins.

While at first Albright was wary of the concept of such an exhibition — “I was pretty sure Henry Kissinger was not composing an ode to his ties or James Baker to his flattering suits” — she’s glad it has been such an enduring success.

“I am honored to donate my pins to the National Museum of American Diplomacy,” she said. “I am so happy they’ll have a permanent home in the place where it all began.”

As for her favorite pins? It comes down to two, one heart-shaped pin made by her daughter, Katie Albright, when she was 5 years old, and one from a Hurricane Katrina survivor.

Albright received the latter pin at an event in New Orleans, a year after the hurricane devastated the city. A young man gave her a pin that his father — who had earned two Purple Hearts fighting the Nazis in France during World War II — had given to his mother, who died during the hurricane. His mother was a fan of Albright’s, he said, and would’ve wanted her to have it.

“I am not often speechless, nor quick to tear up, but this gift pushed me to the brink,” she said.

Beyond their diplomatic value, though, pins such as, “‘Katie’s Heart’ and the ‘Katrina Pin’ remind us that jewelry’s greatest value comes not from the intrinsic materials or brilliant designs but from the emotions we invest,” she said.