In honor of Women’s History Month, we continue to recognize the economic, cultural, political, and social contributions of influential immigrant and refugee women who’ve helped shape the vibrant tapestry of America. Today we spotlight the 64th U.S. Secretary of State and first woman to ever hold the position, Madeleine Albright.
Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague on May 15, 1937, turmoil at the start of World War II marked Albright’s early childhood. When she was a toddler, Nazi Germany’s invasion forced her family to flee Czechoslovakia. They settled in England and converted from Judaism to Catholicism after three of Madeleine’s grandparents died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. After the war, the family returned to Czechoslovakia, only to flee again when the country’s Communist party, backed by the Soviets, assumed control. In 1948 the Korbel family emigrated to the U.S.A, arriving at Ellis Island. They eventually settled in the mountains of Denver, Colorado, where Albright’s father worked as a professor while he also taught world affairs to young Madeleine.
Albright graduated with honors from Wellesley College. She interned at the Denver Post and met a fellow intern and her future husband, Joseph Albright. The two moved through a handful of American cities while Madeleine studied Russian and international relations. She earned a certificate in Russian and her Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Public Law and Government.
Albright’s first foray into politics was as a legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie. She continued to the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter. Following stints as a professor at Georgetown University and with several nonprofit organizations, Albright was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by President Bill Clinton in 1993. By 1997, she was sworn in as the 64th Secretary of State of the United States and the first woman to hold the position. Highlights of her time as Secretary included advocating for global human rights, democracy, and working to stop the spread of nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries. She also worked to expand NATO membership and brokered peace between Israel and several Arab nations.
Albright has authored several N.Y. Times best-selling books, including Reflections on America, Prague Winter, and Madam Secretary. She served as the chair of the Hague Institute for Global Justice advisory council. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Madeleine Albright died on March 23, 2022, at 84.