Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright became the first woman to represent the U.S. in foreign affairs as the secretary of state.

Who Is Madeleine Albright?

Madeleine Albright was born in 1937 in Prague. As a child, she moved with her family to the United States. After studying at Wellesley College and Columbia University, Albright entered politics at the urging of a former professor. In 1993, Albright became the American ambassador to the United Nations, and three years later she was appointed secretary of the state in the Clinton administration, making her the first woman to have ever held the position. Albright served in that capacity for several years before leaving in 2001 to pursue other projects.

Early Life

Madeleine Albright was born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937. When she was only a toddler, she and her family fled their native Czechoslovakia shortly after the country was invaded by the Nazis at the start of World War II, settling in England for the duration of the war. Although Madeleine was raised Catholic, she would later learn that her parents had converted to the Christian faith from Judaism, and that three of her grandparents had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. 

After briefly resettling in Czechoslovakia, in 1948 the Korbels again took flight when the communists came to power. They settled in Denver, Colorado, and Madeleine's father, Josef, who had worked as both a journalist and a diplomat, became a distinguished professor at the University of Denver. Madeline grew up learning much about world affairs from her father. (Among others who would benefit from Josef Korbel's instruction was one of his favorite students—future secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.)

Educational Achievements

A bright student, Madeleine earned a scholarship to Wellesley College in Massachusetts. There she edited the school's newspaper and pursued her passion for politics. One summer, she landed an internship at the Denver Post, and she soon fell for a fellow intern, publishing heir Joseph Albright. Madeleine graduated with honors from Wellesley in 1959, and she and Joseph Albright married shortly thereafter.

Over the next several years, the couple moved to various cities while Joseph pursued his career as a journalist. Madeleine began studying Russian and international relations while also raising the couple's three daughters, twins Alice and Anne (born in 1961) and Katherine (born 1967). Madeleine completed her education at Columbia University, earning a certificate in Russian studies in 1968 and her MA and PhD in public law and government by 1976.

Adviser and Educator

While still a student, in 1972 Albright first entered the political arena as a legislative assistant to Democratic senator Edmund Muskie. Four years later, she was hired by national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (one of her former professors at Columbia), to work for the National Security Council during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. However, when the Democrats fell from power in the early 1980s, Albright moved to the private sector, working for various Washington nonprofits and becoming a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, where she won its Teacher of Year Award four times.

Also around this time, Albright and her husband divorced after he left her for another woman. "It was a shock," she later told The Washington Post. But she refused to let heartbreak put a damper on her career or her social life, hosting numerous gatherings at her townhouse, where the Democratic elite gathered to discuss the issues of the day. On matters of foreign policy, Albright quickly became one of the party's leading lights, and among other distinctions, she served as an adviser to Michael Dukakis during his 1988 presidential bid.

A Leader in World Affairs

In 1992 president-elect Bill Clinton tapped Albright to handle the United States' relationship with the United Nations. She officially assumed the role of U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations in January 1993 and quickly distinguished herself as a force to be reckoned with. During her four years in the post, she became an advocate for "assertive multilateralism," telling The New Republic, in an interview that "U.S. leadership in world politics and in multilateral organizations is a fundamental tenet of the Clinton Administration." Among other endeavors, Albright lobbied for the United States to expand its military involvement in the Balkans during its prolonged conflicts in the 1990s—a move over which she would publicly clash with Colin Powell—and also pushed for U.S. intervention in the Haitian coup of 1994. 

In December 1996, Clinton once again looked to Albright for her expertise in foreign policy, nominating her for secretary of state. When she was sworn in to the position the following January, she became the 64th secretary of state and the first woman to ever hold that position. In her new role, Albright quickly lived up to her reputation as a strong-willed and outspoken problem-solver, engaging with a broad range of issues. 

During her tenure, Albright advocated for increased human rights and democracy throughout the world and fought to halt the spread of nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries to rogue nations such as North Korea. A champion of NATO, Albright also sought to expand the organization's membership and in 1999 pushed for its direct military intervention during the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. As a diplomat, she was closely involved in work to normalize U.S. relations with countries such as China and Vietnam, and in 1997 was a major player in a peace mission to the Middle East, during which she brokered negotiations between Israel and various Arab nations. In October 2000, Albright made history again when she became the first American secretary of state to travel to North Korea.  

Recent Years

Although she left her post in 2001, for Albright life after government has been anything but quiet. She has authored several New York Times best-selling books, including Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003), The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs (2006), Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box (2009), and most recently, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012). In 2007 Albright put her international expertise to use when she launched the private investment fund Albright Capital Management, which seeks to make long-term investments in emerging markets for its clients. Albright also serves as the co-chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and chair of the advisory council for The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

Albright has received numerous honors for her contributions to diplomacy, democracy and world affairs, including honorary degrees from several universities, and in 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Despite this impressive résumé, it's not just "all work and no play" for Albright, who has always displayed a fine sense of humor. In October 2014, she engaged in a good-humored Twitter war with late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien over their respective Halloween costumes, and in February 2015 she appeared in an episode of the popular comedy series Parks and Recreation, offering friendly advice to Amy Poehler's character, Leslie, over waffles.

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