Today in 1937, Madeline Albright was born Maria Jana Korbelova in Prague. Korbelova would grow up to become America’s first female secretary of state, under Bill Clinton.
She is the daughter of Josef Korbel, a Czech diplomat. Alrbight and her family immigrated to England in the wake of Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Three of Albright’s grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps, though it wasn’t until an adult that Albright learned about it. After the War, the Korbels returned to Czechoslovakia but moved to America after a Communist coup in Prague in 1948. In the United States, Josef Korbel was hired as the University of Denver’s dean of international relations. There, he would have another female secretary of state as a student – Condoleeza Rice.
Albright graduated from Wellesley in 1959. She soon married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, member of the influential Medill newspaper publishing family. After getting an MA and PhD from Columbia University, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Edmund S. Muskie, a Maine senator. She also worked on the National Security Council during the Carter presidency.
Madeline and Joseph Albright divorced in 1982. She went on to work at nonprofit organizations and teach at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Clinton’s election brought Albright back into the action. She was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. After gaining a reputation as an American expansionist, she was named to succeed Warren Christopher as the U.S. secretary of state. Her nomination was unanimously confirmed in the Senate and she was sworn into office on January 23, 1997.
As secretary of state, she adopted a hawkish stance against Yugoslavia and Iraq. She drew substantial heat for endorsing U.S. trade sanctions on Iraq, which led to massive civilian deaths due to starvation. Many people see the sanctions as the germinal seed of the anti-American rage in the Middle East that bolstered the influence of Osama bin Laden and his allies.
After her term as secretary of state ended with the election of George W. Bush, she went back to teaching at Georgetown, and chaired the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. There was speculation that she would enter Czech politics, but it never materialized.
In 2009, Albright opened an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, that displayed her personal jewelry collection. She also published a book about the collection, titled Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.