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Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state and feminist icon, dies at 84

Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state and feminist icon, dies at 84
Ms Madeleine Albright served as the first female US secretary of state from 1997-2001.
PHOTO: Reuters

WASHINGTON - Ms Madeleine Albright, who fled the Nazis as a child in her native Czechoslovakia during World War II then rose to become the first female US secretary of state and, in her later years, a pop culture feminist icon, died on Wednesday (March 23) at the age of 84.

Her family announced her death on Twitter and said she died of cancer.

Leaders, diplomats and academics remembered her as a trailblazer on the world stage.

Ms Albright served as US ambassador to the United Nations from 1993-1997 in President Bill Clinton's administration.

He then nominated her to become the first female secretary of state and she served in that role from 1997-2001.

"Madeleine Albright was a force. She defied convention and broke barriers again and again," US President Joe Biden said.  

He directed US flags be flown at half-staff at the White House and government buildings, including embassies, until March 27.

She was a tough-talking diplomat in an administration that hesitated to involve itself in the two biggest foreign policy crises of the 1990s - the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"The impact that she has had on this building is felt every single day in just about every single corridor," State Department spokesman Ned Price said of Ms Albright.

She once upset a Pentagon chief by asking why the military maintained more than one million men and women under arms if they never used them.

The plain-spoken Ms Albright took a tough line on a 1996 incident where Cuban jet fighters downed two unarmed US-based planes, saying: "This is not cojones, this is cowardice," using a Spanish vulgarity meaning "testicles."

While at the United Nations, she pressed for a tougher line against the Serbs in Bosnia after Bosnian Serb military forces laid siege to the capital Sarajevo.

During Mr Clinton's first term, many of his administration's top foreign policy experts did not want to get involved because they vividly remembered how the United States became bogged down in Vietnam.

In 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers overran three Muslim enclaves, Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa, and massacred more than 8,000 people.

The United States responded by working with Nato on airstrikes that forced an end to the war but only after it had been going on for three years.

Ms Albright's experience as a refugee prompted her to push for the United States to use its superpower clout. She wanted a "muscular internationalism," said Mr James O'Brien, a senior adviser to Ms Albright during the Bosnian war.

Early in the Clinton administration, while she unsuccessfully advocated for a quicker, stronger response in Bosnia, Ms Albright backed a United Nations war crimes tribunal that eventually put the architects of that war, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders, in jail, Mr O'Brien said.

The painful lessons learned in Rwanda and Bosnia served the United States well in Kosovo, when Washington saw the more powerful Serbs begin a programme of ethnic cleansing of ethnic Albanians. Nato responded with an 11-week campaign of air strikes in 1999 that extended to Belgrade.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said on Wednesday she was "deeply shocked by the loss of Kosovo's great friend," adding that the intervention "gave us hope, when we did not have it."

During efforts to press North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme, which were eventually unsuccessful, Ms Albright travelled to Pyongyang in 2000 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, becoming the highest ranking US official to visit the secretive Communist-run country at the time.

Once the Clinton years and the 1990s were over, Ms Albright became an icon to a generation of young women looking for inspiration in their quest for opportunity and respect in the workplace.

Ms Albright was fond of saying: "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other."

Ms Albright was a marked contrast to her predecessors and male colleagues in uniform suits. She used clothes and jewellery to send tart, political messages.

One favourite was a snake brooch, a reference to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein calling her an "unparalleled serpent". She wrote a book about her signature jewellery, one of several bestsellers, explaining that the pins were a diplomatic tool.

Balloons or flower pins would indicate she felt optimistic, while a crab or turtle would indicate frustration.

Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague on May 15, 1937, her family fled in 1939 to London when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia. She attended school in Switzerland at age 10 and adopted the name Madeleine.

She was raised a Roman Catholic but after she became secretary of state, the Washington Post dug up documentation showing that her family was Jewish and relatives, including three grandparents, died in the Holocaust.

Her parents likely converted to Catholicism from Judaism to avoid persecution as Nazism gained strength in Europe, the paper reported.

After the war, the family left London and returned to Czechoslovakia, then in the throes of a communist takeover.

Her father, a diplomat and academic who opposed communism, moved the family to the United States where he taught international studies at the University of Denver.

One of his favourite students was Ms Condoleezza Rice, who would become the second female secretary of state in 2005 under Republican President George W. Bush.

"It is quite remarkable that this Czech emigre professor has trained two secretaries of state," Ms Albright told the New York Times in 2006.


Ms Albright attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and got a doctorate from Columbia University. She became fluent or close to it in six languages including Czech, French, Polish and Russian as well as English.

In 1959, she married newspaper heir Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, whom she met while working at the Denver Post, and they had three daughters. They divorced in 1982.

She followed her father into academia but also became involved in Democratic Party politics. Ms Albright joined the staff of Senator Edmund Muskie, a Maine Democrat, in 1976 and two years later became a member of President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff.

Since leaving the Clinton administration, she has written a series of books. One, Hell and Other Destinations, was published in April 2020. Others include her autobiography, Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003) and Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box (2009).

The plain-spoken Ms Albright made forays into popular culture. Parks and Recreation star Amy Poehler's character had a picture of Ms Albright in her office.

In 2005, the "Gilmore Girls" television series the character Rory dreamt that Ms Albright, wearing a red suit and an eagle pin, was her mother.

In 2018, she and fellow former secretaries of state Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton briefed a fictional secretary of state in "Madam Secretary", a TV drama where she spoke passionately about the dangers of abusive nationalism.

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