Perhaps Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. secretary of state, best described her historic appointment in her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary: “It was almost … inconceivable that someone who had not held a government job until she was thirty-nine years old and the mother of three would become the highest-ranking woman in American history. Well into adulthood, I was never supposed to be what I became."
Albright's impressive credentials included professor, ambassador, New York Times best-selling author, and chairperson of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs as well as the chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy business. Famously known for saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” the perseverance she demonstrated throughout her career is inspiring for anyone, man or woman. Here are a few things you should know about Albright—who passed away on March 23, 2022, at the age of 84—and her unconventional path to U.S. politics.
1. “Madeleine” isn't Albright's original name.
Marie Jana was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, to Anna Spieglová and Josef Korbel. But the name Marie didn’t stick for long; various family members called her Madla, Madlen, or Madlenka throughout her youth. When Albright began to study French, she decided she liked that language’s version of her nickname: Madeleine. Still, Albright never legally changed her name.
2. Her family fled to escape the Nazis.
Her father’s role at Czechoslovakia’s Belgrade embassy and deep respect for democracy put his family’s safety in question when the Nazis invaded. As her parents arranged for the family to go to London, Albright lived with her grandmother in the country. Her mother wrote of that time, “With all the possible and impossible planning and with the help of some good friends and lots of luck and little bribes the last plan worked ...” Albright and her family left for England 10 days after the Nazis invaded the capital.
3. Albright appeared in a film about refugees.
While in England, Albright was selected to appear in a movie about the war’s refugee children, and was given a stuffed animal as payment for her starring role.
4. The family returned to their home country—but only briefly.
Though her family was grateful to return to Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) after the war, they weren’t there for long. A series of ominous political moves found the Communist party taking over Czechoslovakia, forcing Albright’s family to once again flee for their safety. Albright, along with her mother and two siblings, arrived in the U.S. aboard the S.S. America on November 11, 1948.
5. Albright's family began a new life in Denver.
After her father arrived stateside, the family lived on Long Island while waiting to be granted political asylum. Once Josef secured a teaching position at the University of Denver and the family was settled in their new city, Albright began attending Kent Denver School and founded the school’s international relations club. (She wasn’t the only secretary of state who benefited from her father’s teachings on diplomacy and international affairs; years later, he taught Condoleezza Rice as a student.)
6. Her college years were marked with major milestones.
Albright studied political science at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in 1959. In the years prior to graduation, she became a naturalized citizen (in 1957), and met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, during a summer internship at the Denver Post. In her 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Albright said it was tradition for Wellesley women to get married on graduation day. Despite this, she waited three days after receiving her diploma to marry Joseph.
7. Albright was on the move throughout the 1960s.
The Albrights moved several times for Joseph’s career. By 1961, the couple had already lived in Rolla, Missouri, and Chicago before moving to Long Island, where their twins, Alice and Anne, were born. In 1962, the family moved to Georgetown, where Madeleine studied Russian and international relations at a division of Johns Hopkins University. When they moved back to Long Island in 1963, Albright continued her studies at Columbia University and earned a certificate in Russian and an M.A. in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1976. Her third daughter, Katharine, was born in 1967.
8. Moving back to Washington, D.C. sparked Albright's political career.
Albright became more involved with politics when her family moved back to D.C. in 1968. From 1976 to 1978, she served as Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s chief legislative assistant. And in 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of her professors from Columbia and then national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, chose Albright as Brzezinski’s liaison to Congress.
9. She followed in her father's footsteps toward academia.
After her 22-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, Albright joined Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service as a research professor of International Affairs, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses. She also served as director of the Women in Foreign Service program.
10. Being a U.N. ambassador challenged Albright to speak up and make difficult calls.
Albright’s work in international affairs led to her working as foreign policy adviser to both Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, but she was unable to work for Clinton’s 1992 bid. Despite this, after Clinton won, he nominated Albright to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Though she was often one of the few women in the room (and many times, the only one), she did not sit silently; she realized that if she only observed and listened, she wouldn’t get a chance to speak, which meant the voice of the United States wouldn’t be heard.
11. Her role as secretary of state made history.
On December 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright to be the 64th secretary of state. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on January 23, 1997. Albright wrote later that Clinton “gave me the opportunity that no other individual, male or female, has had to serve full terms both as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as U.S. secretary of state.” At the time of her appointment, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.
12. Albright's trip to North Korea was a first for U.S. government officials.
In October 2000, Albright made a diplomatic visit to North Korea to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il. Her trip marked the first time an American secretary of state—and the highest-level official ever—had visited the country.
13. She learned about her Jewish ancestry in an unexpected way.
Albright was raised Catholic after her parents converted in 1941, though she was unaware of any previous religious affiliations. (She later converted to Episcopalianism.) During her vetting process for secretary of state, she mentioned that she might have Jewish ancestors. During his research on a profile about Albright, Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter, discovered that three of her grandparents died in Auschwitz and Terezin. Her family conducted further research and learned that 25 members of her family died in concentration camps.
14. Albright's sense of humor broadened over time.
Albright said that she tended to be a little too serious as a child. Young Madeleine would be happy to learn that as an adult, she developed quite a sense of humor. She once engaged in a humorous Twitter war with Conan O’Brien and appeared in popular TV shows as herself, including Parks and Recreation and Gilmore Girls.
15. Her creative jewelry selections garnered international attention.
Albright was famously known for wearing pins that expressed her thoughts on the diplomatic proceedings she attended. After she was compared to a serpent by the Iraqi media, Albright chose to wear a large snake pin for her next meeting on the country. The jewelry quickly became one of Albright’s trademarks. Though she was fond of all the pieces in her collection (she said her favorite was a heart made by her youngest daughter), one of them almost betrayed her. On the day of her swearing-in ceremony for secretary of state, her newly acquired eagle pin nearly fell off while she took her oath.
This story has been updated for 2022.