Biography of Madeleine Albright: First Female US Secretary of State

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks to the media April 15, 1998, at Miami International Airport during a stopover on her way to the 1998 Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile.

 RHONA WISE / Getty Images

Madeleine Albright (born May 15, 1937) is a Czech-born American politician and diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, and as the first woman to hold the cabinet post of U.S. Secretary of State, serving under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. In 2012 Albright was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama

Fast Facts: Madeleine Albright

  • Known For: American politician and Diplomat, First female U.S. Secretary of State
  • Also Known As: Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright (full name), Marie Jana Korbelová (given name)
  • Born: May 15, 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia
  • Parents: Josef Korbel and Anna (Spieglová) Korbel
  • Education: Wellesley College (BA), Columbia University (MA, Ph.D.)
  • Select Published Works: The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs and Madam Secretary
  • Key Accomplishments: Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012)
  • Spouse: Joseph Albright (Divorced)
  • Children: Anne Korbel Albright, Alice Patterson Albright, Katherine Medill Albright
  • Notable Quote: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”

Early Life and Education

Madeleine Albright was born Marie Jana Korbel on May 15, 1937, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Josef Korbel, a Czech diplomat, and Anna (Spieglová) Korbel. In 1939 the family fled to England after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. Not until 1997 did she learn that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in German concentration camps. Though the family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II, the threat of communism drove them to immigrate to the United States in 1948, settling in Great Neck, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York.

Senior Portarit from Wesley College of Madeleine Albright
Senior Portarit from Wesley College of Madeleine Albright. Brooks Kraft / Getty Images

After spending her teen years in Denver, Colorado, Madeleine Korbel became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1957 and graduated from Wellesley College, in Massachusetts in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Shortly after graduating from Wellesley, she converted to the Episcopal Church and married Joseph Albright, of the Medill newspaper-publishing family. 

In 1961, the couple moved to Garden City in Long Island, where Madeleine gave birth to twin daughters, Alice Patterson Albright, and Anne Korbel Albright.

Political Career 

After receiving a master’s degree in political science from New York’s Columbia University in 1968, Albright worked as a fundraiser for Sen. Edmund Muskie during his failed 1972 presidential campaign and later served as Muskie’s chief legislative aide. In 1976, she received a Ph.D. from Columbia while working for President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. 

During the administrations of Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s and early 1990s, Albright regularly hosted and strategized with key Democratic politicians and policymakers in her Washington, D.C., home. During this time, she also taught courses in international affairs at Georgetown University.

Ambassador to the United Nations

The American public first began to recognize Albright as a rising political star in February 1993, when Democratic President Bill Clinton appointed her U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her time at the U.N. was highlighted by a tense relationship with U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali over the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Criticizing Boutros-Ghali for “neglect” of the Rwanda tragedy, Albright wrote, “My deepest regret from my years in public service is the failure of the United States and the international community to act sooner to halt these crimes.” 

Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the United Nations
UNITED NATIONS,- NOVEMBER 22, 1995: Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the United Nations votes in the UN Security Council in New York to suspend immediately economic and trade sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro.  JON LEVY / Getty Images

After Cuban military aircraft shot down two small, unarmed civilian planes flown by a Cuban-American exile group over international waters in 1996, Albright said of the controversial incident, “This is not cojones. This is cowardice.” An impressed President Clinton said it was “probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration's foreign policy.” 

Later the same year, Albright joined Richard Clarke, Michael Sheehan, and James Rubin in covertly fighting against the reelection of an otherwise unopposed Boutros Boutros-Ghali as U.N. Secretary-General. Boutros-Ghali had come under criticism for his failure to act after 15 U.S. peacekeepers died in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia. In the face of Albright’s unswerving opposition, Boutros-Ghali withdrew his candidacy. Albright then orchestrated the election of Kofi Annan as the next Secretary-General over the objection of France. In his memoirs, Richard Clarke stated that “the entire operation had strengthened Albright's hand in the competition to be Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration.”

Secretary of State

On December 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright to succeed Warren Christopher as U.S. Secretary of State. Her nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on January 23, 1997, and she was sworn in the next day. She became the first female U.S. Secretary of State and at the time, the highest-ranking woman in U.S. government history. However, not being a native-born U.S. citizen, she was not eligible to serve as president of the United States under the line of presidential succession. She served until January 20, 2001, the day Republican President George W. Bush was inaugurated.

Swearing-in of Madeleine Albright
Swearing-in of Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State in January 1997. Wally McNamee / Getty Images

As Secretary of State, Albright played a key role in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While a strong supporter of democracy and human rights, she remained a proponent of military intervention, once asking then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell, “What’s the point of you saving this superb military, Colin, if we can’t use it?” 

In 1999, Albright urged NATO nations to bomb Yugoslavia to end the “ethnic cleansing” genocide of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. After 11 weeks of air strikes referred to by some as “Madeleine’s War,” Yugoslavia agreed to NATO’s terms.

Albright also played a key role in early efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In 2000, she traveled to Pyongyang, becoming one of the first high-ranking Western diplomats to meet with Kim Jong-il, the then-leader of communist North Korea. Despite her efforts, no deal was made. 

In one of her last official acts as Secretary of State on January 8, 2001, Albright made a farewell call to Kofi Annan to assure the U.N. that the U.S. would continue President Clinton’s demands that Iraq under Saddam Hussein destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction, even after the beginning of the George W. Bush administration on January 8, 2001.

Post-Government Service

Madeleine Albright left government service at the end of President Clinton’s second term in 2001 and founded the Albright Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in analyzing the effects of government and politics on businesses. 

Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Cory Booker
Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) participate in a get out the vote organizing event at Rundlett Middle School on February 6, 2016 in Concord, New Hampshire. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images 

In both 2008 and 2016, Albright actively supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. During the tumultuous 2106 campaign against eventual winner Donald Trump, she came under criticism when she stated, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” a belief she had memorably expressed for years. While some felt she was implying that gender should be the only reason for voting for a particular candidate, she later clarified her comment, stating, “I absolutely believe what I said, that women should help one another, but this was the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line. I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based solely on gender.”

In recent years, Albright has written several columns on foreign affairs issues and served on the board of directors of the Council on Foreign Relations. A few of her best-known books include "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs," "Memo to the President Elect," and "Fascism: A Warning." Her books "Madam Secretary" and "Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War," 1937–1948 are memoirs. 

Sources and Further Reference

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Longley, Robert. "Biography of Madeleine Albright: First Female US Secretary of State." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). Biography of Madeleine Albright: First Female US Secretary of State. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Biography of Madeleine Albright: First Female US Secretary of State." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).