On this day in 1937, the first woman US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is born in Prague; her name at birth was Marie Jana Korbelová. 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.
Returning to Prague after WW2, her family became political emigres yet again, fleeing the Communists and settling in Denver; Albright became a US citizen in 1957. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1959 and earned a PhD from Columbia University in 1975, writing her thesis on the Prague Spring. She worked as an aide to Senator Edmund Muskie before taking a position under Zbigniew Brzezinski on the National Security Council, and served in that capacity until the end of President Jimmy Carter’s lone term.
When the Democrats fell from power in the early 1980’s, Albright moved to the private sector, working for various Washington nonprofits and becoming a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, where she won its Teacher of Year Award four times. Albright quickly became one of the party’s leading lights, and in 1992 president-elect Bill Clinton tapped Albright to handle the US relationship with the United Nations. She officially assumed the role of US permanent representative to the United Nations in January 1993 and quickly distinguished herself as a force to be reckoned with.
In 1996, Clinton nominated her for Secretary of State, with the Senate voting 99-0 for confirmation. When sworn in, she became the 64th Secretary of State and the first woman to ever hold that position. During her tenure, Albright advocated for increased human rights and democracy throughout the world and fought to halt the spread of nuclear weapons from former Soviet countries to rogue nations such as North Korea.
An unabashed champion of NATO, Albright sought to expand the alliance’s membership and in 1999 pushed for its direct military intervention during the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. As a diplomat, she was closely involved in work to normalize US relations with previously shunned countries, and in 1997 was a leading force in a peace mission to the Middle East, during which she brokered negotiations between Israel and various Arab nations. In October 2000, Albright made history again when she became the first American secretary of state to visit North Korea.
After her tenure at state, Albright authored several New York Times best-selling books, including Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003), The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs (2006), and most recently, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012). In 2007 Albright put her international expertise to use when she launched the private investment fund Albright Capital Management, which seeks to make long-term commitments in emerging markets. Albright also serves as the co-chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and chairs the advisory council for The Hague Institute for Global Justice.
Albright has received numerous honors for her contributions to diplomacy, democracy and world affairs, including honorary degrees from several universities. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in this writer’s humble opinion, she and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would do just fine running the known universe without any male involvement whatsoever.