The first lady

Madam Secretary: a memoir

Madeleine Albright <em>Macmillan, 562pp, £20</em>

ISBN 140503369X

In Writing a Woman's Life, the literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun observed that "well into the 20th century, it continued to be impossible for women to admit into their autobiographical narratives the claim of achievement, the admission of ambition, the recognition that accomplishment was neither luck nor the result of the efforts and generosity of others". Even distinguished and famous women in politics, she pointed out, tended to downplay their achievements and ambition, and even now we have "little organised sense of what a woman's biography or autobiography should look like".

In her memoir, written with the speechwriter Bill Woodward, Madeleine Albright acknowledges these problems of structure and tone. Before starting to write, she read other memoirs by secretaries of state and found them unhelpful with their linear stories of goals reached and problems surmounted. Albright attributes her zigzag path in part to her foreign birth. But it is gender that makes her career so unlike that of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Albright acknowledges that throughout her life she has "had to cope with the different vocabularies used to describe men (confident, take-charge, committed) and women (bossy, aggressive, emotional)". Certainly she has been attacked either for being too much like her opponents' stereotypes of femininity (behind her back, she was often called Madeleine Half-Bright) or for not being feminine enough.

Some American reviewers have seen contradictions between Albright's insistence that she never imagined becoming the first female secretary of state and the way that much of her life seemed like preparation for that role. A few even suggested that she was always interested in gaining power, and still is now that she is no longer in office. But understanding the complexities of the life of a woman of Albright's generation makes sense of these apparently conflicting views. Albright herself says that "women's lives come in segments, dictated in part by biology". Her memoir falls into two parts: the first half of her story, before 1997 (when she became secretary of state in the Clinton administration), is largely personal; the second half is largely political. This may be because her personal life ended before her real political career began.

Albright asserts that she would never have thrown herself into politics if her husband had not left her for a younger woman. Married three days after graduating from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, in 1959, she was thrilled to be the wife of "an American prince whom I adored and who loved me". Joseph Al- bright came from a publishing dynasty: his great-grandfather built the Chicago Tribune, his grandfather founded the New York Daily News, his great aunt owned the Washington Times-Herald, and his uncle was Harry Guggenheim, the publisher of Newsday. For most of their marriage, Joe's career hopes dominated their lives and choices, with Madeleine fitting hers in around the edges of children, society and domesticity. "When I became secretary of state," she writes, "I realised that, though others might, I would never have climbed that high had I still been married. Yet I am deeply saddened to have been divorced. I know that, at the time, I would have given up any thought of a career if it would have made Joe change his mind."

This admission is carefully phrased. Albright does not explain whether a lack of commitment, or a fear of outdoing her journalist husband professionally, would have held her back. Nor does she say whether she regards the sacrifice as having been worthwhile. In any case, she describes her divorce as the most painful episode in her life, one that made her a great deal more independent.

When, much later, she dined with Hillary Clinton and the widowed Queen Noor of Jordan, she thought that "in different ways and at various times, we had each been left to explore the boundaries of our own inner strength by a husband who had deceived, deserted, or died".

Her discovery, at the age of 45, that the rich, handsome, loving American prince charming she had married had a secret existence established a pattern that recurred throughout Albright's life: various men whom she trusted turned out to be deceivers. Each of these betrayals forced her to confront her faith in male leadership and her idealisation of male authority.

In 1997, just after her appointment as secretary of state, the Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs broke the story that Albright's family was Jewish, and that three of her grandparents had died at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Albright calls this the "saddest" moment of her life. At the time, the media hinted that she had known about her heritage and covered it up, but it seems clear this was not the case. Neither her beloved mother nor her father, a Czech diplomat and professor who had been her role model of reason and integrity, had ever revealed to their children they were Jewish, or why they had moved from Prague to England in 1939. She had been christened Marie and raised as a Catholic; when they returned to Prague after the war, no one told her the truth. In 1948, after the communist coup, the family found sanctuary in the US and settled in Denver, where she became as typical an American teenager as she could.

Marriage to Joe Albright took her even deeper into the WASP world of the country club, hunt, farm and private school. Her first political experience was as fund-raiser for Beauvoir, an elite primary school affiliated with the Washington National Cathedral. But even then she pursued a PhD in Soviet studies. When she became secretary of state, she spoke French, Serbo-Croat, Russian, Polish and French, and often managed without interpreters in diplomatic meetings. Having in the interim taught, and worked as a legislative aide to Senator Edmund Muskie and at the National Security Council for Brzezinski, she was as intellectually prepared as any of her predecessors. The revelation of her ancestry came at a terrible moment politically, especially with regard to the twisted conspiracy theories of the Middle East; but it propelled her even more absolutely out of the role of dutiful daughter.

Albright's revelations about the Lewinsky affair, and Clinton's deeply mistaken denials and deceptions, make for fascinating reading. She recalls one meeting with Clinton in the White House, along with other high-level women officers including Janet Reno and Donna Shalala, when he apologised and admitted the affair: "He said that the reason he had done it was that he had been in a rage for the past four and a half years. He had been a good actor and had put on a smile but had been angry throughout." Despite her intense loyalty to Clinton and his administration, Albright rightly gives this lame excuse short shrift.

Much of the memoir deals in copious detail with the meetings, policies, successes and failures of her term. Albright claims this is her way of recording events; others suspect it may be the first step in a bid for future office. If so, what she says now, post-11 September and in the midst of the Iraq nightmare, will matter even more than her previous record. In the US, Albright has kept relatively quiet about the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq. Only in the past few weeks, as part of her European book tour, has she begun to speak out critically on American foreign policy. Albright is only 66, a seasoned veteran; whether she will prove to be a leader as well as a dutiful daughter will determine where she goes from here.

Elaine Showalter is emeritus professor of English at Princeton University