On this day in 1937, Madeleine Albright, America’s first female secretary of state, is born Maria Jana Korbelova in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
The daughter of Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, Albright fled to England with her family after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Though Albright long believed they had fled for political reasons, she learned as an adult that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps. The family returned home after World War II ended but immigrated to the United States in 1948 after a Soviet-sponsored Communist coup seized power in Prague. Josef Korbel became dean of the school of international relations at the University of Denver (where he would later train another female secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice).
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1959, Albright married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright of the prominent Medill newspaper-publishing family. With an MA and PhD from Columbia University under her belt, Albright headed to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Maine’s Senator Edmund S. Muskie and served on the National Security Council in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. She and Joseph Albright divorced in 1982. During the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Albright worked for several nonprofit organizations and taught at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
With a Democrat–Bill Clinton–in the White House again in 1992, Albright found herself at the center of Washington’s most powerful circle. In 1993, Clinton appointed her ambassador to the United Nations. In that post, Albright earned a reputation as a straight-talking defender of American interests and an advocate for an increased role for the U.S. in U.N. operations. In late 1996, Clinton nominated Albright to succeed Warren Christopher as U.S. secretary of state. After her nomination was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, she was sworn in on January 23, 1997.
As secretary of state, Albright pursued an active foreign policy, including the use of military force to pressure autocratic regimes in Yugoslavia and Iraq, among other troubled regions. Her trip to North Korea in October 2000 to meet with leader Kim Jong Il made her the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit that country. She drew some criticism for her tough position on U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which led to many civilian deaths in that country and fueled the rage of Muslim extremists such as Osama bin Laden.
Albright’s term ended with the election of President George W. Bush in 2000. Though there was talk of her entering Czech politics, she returned to her teaching post at Georgetown and became chair of a nonprofit organization, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.