Twelve years after being confirmed as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s position as a trailblazer for women in government has been bolstered by the fact that two of her three successors were also women. Chosen by President Clinton to head the State Department, Albright was not only the first woman to serve in that capacity but, thanks to the position’s place within the Cabinet hierarchy, also became the highest ranking woman in the history of American government.
Born as Marie Jana Korbelová in the former Czechoslovakia in 1937, Albright’s father Joseph Korbel was a diplomat who moved the family to America in 1948. An exceptional student, Albright receive a scholarship from Wellesley College, graduating with a degree in political science in 1959, 10 years ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (In an it’s-a-small-world coincidence, Albright’s father taught the third member of the Madam Secretary trio, Condoleezza Rice, at Stanford and helped influence her to change her studies from music to international studies.) After earning her Masters and Doctorate at Columbia University, Albright set out to leave her mark on the world of foreign policy, and served in numerous influential capacities therein before she was named to Clinton’s Cabinet.
She worked as Chief Legislative Aide to Senator Edmund Muskie and was a member of President Carter’s National Security Counsel, then was granted a coveted Fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian in the early 1980s to study how the Polish press influenced that country’s political upheaval. During her time teaching at Georgetown University, she worked to develop and implement educational programs tailored to boost women’s professional opportunities in the realm of international affairs and diplomacy.
President Clinton had already relied on Albright’s counsel for several years by the time she was made Secretary of State. She was named as the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations in January 1993, and served on the National Security Counsel. After Warren Christopher resigned as the Secretary of State, Albright was nominated to his position and won unanimous confirmation by the Senate. As Secretary, she became one of the highest-ranking western diplomats to ever meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, and worked on many levels to help improve labor and environmental standards abroad. In contrast with the diplomacy tactics of the Bush administration, she did not follow a path of trying to force democracy on nations that were not America’s allies, such as Iraq, choosing instead to work with existing power structures to exact change.
After her service as Secretary of State, Czech President Vaclav Havel touted her as his possible successor, but Albright declined to move back to her home country. She formed The Albright Group, an international consulting firm, and continues to speak and write on international affairs. In 2006, she told Newsweek that she believes Iraq could be “the greatest disaster in American foreign policy.” Nevertheless, President Bush still sought her advice that same year. (True, that could be seen as damning her with faint praise. I prefer to think of it as her intelligence appealing to even those who might not agree with her.) She has written three books in the past eight years: Madam Secretary (2003), The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (2006) and Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership (2008).