- Madeleine Albright, who served as U.N. ambassador and secretary of state, used brooches to send diplomatic messages.
- A snake pin Albright wore was a response to Iraqi officials’ description of her as an ‘unparalleled serpent.’
- She once wore a bug pin to let Russian diplomats know that the US was unhappy that a State Department room had been bugged.
Madeleine Albright, who died Wednesday, knew how to deliver a diplomatic message without even saying a word. She sent signals with her decorative pins and brooches.
The first female secretary of state learned the power of her “pin diplomacy,” as she described it to CNN in 2015when she was serving as President Clinton’s U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997.
After the Gulf War, when the U.S. was seeking the passage of resolutions for tougher sanctions on Iraq, Albright said Iraq’s state-controlled media “compared me to an ‘unparalleled serpent’,” she told Smithsonian Magazine in a story from June 2010 about the museum’s exhibit “Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection.”
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Albright had just the elaborate jewelry piece to counter the charge: a gold pin of a snake coiled around a branch with a jewel hanging from its mouth. When she wore it to her next meeting on Iraq, “the press asked me about it, I thought, ‘Well, this is fun.’ I was the only woman on the Security Council, and I decided to get some more costume jewelry. On good days, I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons, and on bad days, all kinds of bugs and carnivorous animals. I saw it as an additional way of expressing what I was saying, a visual way to deliver a message.”
Gallery Glimpse: A look at the late Madeleine Albright’s pins
Iraq wasn’t the only target of Albright’s brooches. “There was a story behind every choice,” she told InStyle magazine in October 2021. When meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, “I wore a bee … because bees sting and I needed to deliver a sharp message,” she said.
Having learned the Russians had bugged a room in the State Department, Albright on her next meeting with Russian diplomats, “wore a very large bug pin and they knew exactly what I was saying,” she told CNN in 2015.
As secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, Albright “became more deliberate in the way that I used the symbolism of my pins,” she told InStyle. “I was representing the United States, so it was important that I looked digniﬁed, but I also loved dressing like a woman, and the pins helped inject some humor, personality, and messaging into what were very serious times. And I must admit, I had a lot of fun with it. Especially trying to figure out to what extent my message was received.”
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During those years, one of Albright’s pins caught the eye of Russian President Vladimir Putin during talks about the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya.
“When I went to Russia with President Bill Clinton for a summit, I wore a pin with the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no evil monkeys, because the Russians never would talk about what was really going on during their conflict with Chechnya,” she told Smithsonian Magazine. “Putin asked why I was wearing those monkeys. I said, because of your Chechnya policy. He was not amused. I probably went too far.”
Even after leaving office, Albright continued to send messages. She wore a glass ceiling pin when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was running for president in 2016. “It shows the glass ceiling in its ideal condition – which is shattered,” she told InStyle.
For an August 2019 appearance on CNN, Albright brandished a Statue of Liberty pin to comment about then-acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli’s suggestion that the U.S. welcome only immigrants who can “stand on their own two feet.”
“I’ve been a refugee twice, once from the Nazis and we were in England, and then we came to the United States when the communists took over in Czechoslovakia,” Albright told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in August 2019. She called Cuccinelli’s comment “one of the most un-American things I’ve ever heard.”
The messages Albright’s pins sent may have been priceless, but the pins themselves were not pricey, she said. “A lot of my pins are truly very simple costume jewelry,” Albright told Smithsonian. “I have some beautiful pins, but mostly they are things that I picked up for nothing. In fact, for my 65th birthday, someone who works with me went out and bought 65 pins, each cost less than five dollars.”
You can see Albright’s collection of more than 200 pins online. The collection is housed at The National Museum of American Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.. The museum is planning to make the pins and other exhibits viewable in person when it opens in 2024.
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.