When former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” it was humor, albeit sardonic humor. It was an expression that was common during the Women’s Movement, and like a lot of sardonic humor, it carried much truth with it.
Not, for heaven’s sake, that anyone really meant to condemn a person to eternal damnation, if they even believed such a thing. It was just an extreme way to say, “We really all ought to be sticking together here in these times.”
Lord knows, there were plenty of examples of those who deserved that reminder. In corporations, women who’d managed to claw their way up to a managerial position previously denied to their gender would sometimes become jealous of their unique status and loathe to allow any other woman to share their exalted status. The backbiting and in-fighting could become quite fierce.
At a newspaper where I worked there was one longtime woman reporter in the city room where “real news” coverage took place, while any other women reporters hired were relegated to the society or women’s news sections. The word around the shop was that any time the city editor tried to move a second woman into his department, the first woman made daily life so miserable for the newcomer that she would soon quit in disgust. When I confronted the editor, he told me the reason he didn’t like to hire women was because when he yelled at them they cried. I said, “You might find that some women would yell back.”
(And to myself I said, “I’d rather die than let you see me cry.” Besides, being from New Jersey, I had a repertoire of words I could employ before any tears got shed. I would have liked to have had an opportunity to try, but we moved away before I could convince the editor to give me a shot.)
As an older person, I understand why women my age are frustrated by the fact that younger women view all those battles as so much ancient history. I’m sure I was just as guilty at discounting the contributions of my predecessors. We were young and invincible and our way was the only way. In time, today’s millennials will be where we are today, but I hope by then they’ll have learned to recognize humor when they hear it.
Albright issued an apology for the context in which her remark was issued in a very thoughtful op-ed piece in The New York Times.