“Everything I am now is due to Wellesley.” So said Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59, who died of cancer on March 23 at the age of 84. She is remembered for her career as a diplomat and her service as the U.S. ambassador to the UN and as the country’s first female secretary of state. She will also be remembered for her role as an educator and a fierce advocate for women. Throughout it all, she insisted that Wellesley College lay at the foundation of her remarkable journey, giving her the substantive education and lifelong friendships that she drew on throughout her career.
Madeleine Korbel arrived at Wellesley in 1955. It had been a long journey. After her family fled Czechoslovakia to escape Communist rule, her father was appointed as a professor of international relations at the University of Denver. During her first weeks at Wellesley, she received a notice that she was to report for a shopping trip. She showed up in what she reports was her go-to outfit, a sweater and Bermuda shorts. She was told that she was being taken to Boston, so she could see what the “American girl wears.” (Friends allege this was a class dean’s idea.)
Albright’s career in public service got off to a slow start. Three days after graduating from Wellesley, she married Joe Albright. Her twin daughters, Alice and Anne, were born prematurely in 1961. She couldn’t hold her daughters while they were in the NICU so, to distract herself, she started learning Russian. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1962, she began her postgraduate work in international studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her daughter Katie arrived in 1967, and by 1976, she had earned her Ph.D. in public law and government from Columbia University. One of her advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was so impressed with her work that when he became national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, he asked Albright to join the National Security Council. Soon after her government service, Albright faced an unexpected transition when her marriage ended.
But then, as she describes it, she began her transformation from private to public figure and, “with help from family and friends … I developed my own yardstick to measure what I could and should do.” In 1982, Albright began teaching at Georgetown University, where she was asked to establish a program to train young women to take up leadership positions in global affairs. She taught them not only the substance of international politics but to speak up, interrupt, and make their voices heard. She also taught them to work together, to support each other, and to amplify each other’s voices. She was teaching at Georgetown when President Bill Clinton asked her to join his administration, first as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then as secretary of state. She hadn’t expected to be chosen as the nation’s top diplomat. The story is that fellow Wellesley alumna Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 was responsible for keeping Albright’s name on the list.
When she joined the administration, her commitment to women’s rights and, especially, women’s education flourished. As she explained, “I decided that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy, not only because I am a feminist, but also because I believe that societies are better off when women are politically and economically empowered.” At the Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing, she worked with then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to forcefully advocate for women’s education. Throughout her career, Albright lambasted governments that would deny women an education, charging, “If a society is to move forward, women and girls must have access to schools, be able to participate in the economy, and be protected from physical exploitation and abuse.” In 2012, Albright received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Albright’s path never took her far from education, and it never took her far from Wellesley. In 2010, Albright and her friends established the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, dedicated to teaching Wellesley students the skills of global leadership. She wanted to create a place that would build a network of leaders who understood that leadership was not about individual achievement but collaboration across difference, and that to be an effective diplomat, one needed not only strategic skills but also empathy. She was intensely proud of the 500 fellows who have participated in the institute so far. She looked forward to generations more. And, each year at the Albright Institute, she would appear with her dear Wellesley friends Wini Shore Freund ’59 and Susan Dubinsky Terris ’59, reminding us once again of how friendship had sustained her through all of her transitions, and showing our students how their Wellesley relationships could provide a foundation for them as well. We will remember Madeleine Korbel Albright for her resilience, her humor, her wisdom, and her friendship.
Further coverage of the remarkable life of Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 will appear in the summer issue.