Madeleine Albaright, the barriers-breaking leader in politics who immigrated to the United States to be a refugee, and later became the first ever woman Secretary of State, has died from cancer. She was 84.
“She was surrounded by family and friends,” her family said in a statement. “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, and friend.”
Albright, born Marie Jana Korbelova (Czech Republic) in 1937, was a prominent expert on foreign policies. Her political career eventually took her all over the globe as U.S. secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. This position made her one of the most senior women in U.S. government history.
Those who worked with Albright and chronicled her career remember her as an effective communicator who explained complex international issues with clarity, a “gatherer of people” who believed in fostering bipartisanship through conversation, a “no-nonsense” negotiator who often employed her eclectic pin collection to send diplomatic messages, and a feminist icon whose voice on global affairs long outlasted her years of public service.
Madeleine Albright (64th Secretary of the State) was the first female to assume the office in January 1997.
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Albright was a champion of women’s rights internationally and a vocal advocate for Democratic women in U.S. politics, famously warning that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” — a motto borne out of the scrutiny she faced from women in her life when she pursued graduate school while her children were still young.
“It had not occurred to me, frankly, that I would ever be in a position to break a glass ceiling — particularly a woman who’s married and the mother of twins,” Albright told TIME in 2016. “But the turning point did come.”
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Albright, whose Czech father was diplomat, was just a child in 1938 when her family fled Czechoslovakia and moved to England. This was shortly after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. The family returned to Czechoslovakia after the war. However, the communists took power in 1948 and they fled. This time, the couple immigrated to America. Albright was later able to discover this through Washington PostReporter, her family is Jewish. Many of her relatives who were able to remain in Czechoslovakia after the war ended had also been murdered in the Holocaust.
Albright was born in 1955 and became an American citizen. She graduated with high honors from Wellesley College in 1959. The following day, Albright married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright. She had also planned to be a journalist, but she was relegated by her editor at The Chicago Tribune. Sun-TimesShe was told that her husband’s work at the newspaper would constitute a violation of labor regulations, and she would not be allowed to work at another newspaper.
Madeleine Albright, 1958.
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“There were periods of my life when I was not sure if I would be able to carry out the desires that I had when I was in college,” Albright told TIME in 2016. “I had twin daughters when I was 24 — they were born prematurely — and I initially stayed at home with them. But as much as I loved being a mother, I could not figure out why I had gone to college just to figure out how to get them in and out of the apartment or give them baths.”
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Albright found her way back into the workforce after she earned her PhD at Columbia University in 1975. In 1976, Albright also studied under Zbigniew Brozezinski. He later appointed Albright to the National Security Council, where he was National Security Adviser for President Jimmy Carter.
Albright was an important voice within the Democratic Party. She served as a foreign policy advisor to Walter Mondale’s running mate Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 Presidential Campaign.
“It gave her an additional springboard,” says former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, whose more than 30-year friendship with Albright began when they both campaigned with Ferraro. “She was a player in national politics and viewed as a key adviser in presidential politics.”
Albright, a Georgetown professor, was working in her office as the foreign-policy adviser for Michael Dukakis on April 1, 1988. Dukakis was later defeated by Vice President George H. W. Bush.
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When Mikulski ran for Senate in 1986, she also sought foreign policy advice from Albright, who “would always have a listening ear and a reading list.”
Bill Clinton appointed Albright U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. Three years later, when Clinton’s first Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, stepped down, there were rumors in Washington that Albright was not among the top tier of contenders to replace him. Albright’s tight-knit circle rallied to change that.
“We Washington women who were rising in power went ballistic and organized on why we thought she would be an outstanding Secretary of State,” Mikulski says. “In this close-knit group of women advocating for other women — not only for a seat at the table but to be at the head of the table — my assignment, which I literally conjured up and accepted, was to call President Clinton.”
Mikulski, along with others, encouraged him to consider Albright for this post.
Madeleine Albright, U.S. U.S. Ambassador votes to allow the U.N. Security Council to immediately lift economic and trade sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, Nov. 22, 1995.
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“She had this unique ability to communicate America’s foreign policy to the world at the U.N. and in the larger circle, but also to the American people,” Mikulski says. “I was in the Senate and I observed not only her and the great job she was doing, but the reaction to her, and I knew among my colleagues — both sides of the aisle, both sides of the dome — that they really admired her. Her brilliance was something they admired. They admired her feistiness, and they admired her ability to communicate.”
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On Jan. 22, 1997, the Senate unanimously confirmed Albright. Her role as Secretary of State included the promotion of NATO expansion and the calling for military intervention to help Kosovo fight for its independence. She also negotiated with Kim Jong Il about nuclear weapons in Pyongyang, as well as encouraging the advancement of women all over the world.
“In the culture of the State Department, issues having to deal with such things as women’s rights and children’s health and so on were always — let’s say those were not the centers of power at the State Department,” says Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and author of Madeleine Albright and American Diplomacy
Vice President Al Gore swears in Madeleine Albright as the nation’s first female secretary of state on January 23, 1997.
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But those issues became priorities under Albright — who, for example, pushed for requirements that women’s toilets be located closer to their sleeping quarters in U.N. refugee camps due to concerns about sexual assault. “Things like that, which were easily fixable, were put on the agenda,” Lippman says.
However, Albright was also criticised for not responding to key foreign policy issues. U.N. Ambassador Ambassador, her recommendation to withdraw peacekeeping forces from Rwanda amid a crisis that turned into a genocide, leaving an estimated 800,000 people dead, has since drawn intense scrutiny — a decision she described as her “greatest regret.”
Albright left public office to return to Georgetown University School of Foreign Service as a professor of the practice of diplomacy. Her most recent book was the sixth. Fascism: Warning!until her death, she remained an influential and engaged voice in public policy discussions.
In the ceremony to officially launch the United States of America, former Secretaries Of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker (L-R), Madeleine Albright. Colin Powell. September 3, 2014, Washington D.C. Diplomacy Centre at the State Department
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“She’s had a very significant imprint on how we think about the world and how we think about U.S. contributions and influence in the world,” says Jolynn Shoemaker, a professor of national security and a fellow at Our Secure Future, where she focuses on women’s leadership in foreign policy.
“From the perspective of women’s leadership, it was obviously a huge shift in terms of showing that a woman could be a successful Secretary of State, and I think the optics of that were not lost on an entire generation or more of women.”
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