The Madeleine Effect: Madeleine Albright Became Secretary of State in 1997. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton Followed. Has Foreign Policy Become Women's Work?

By Kandil, Caitlin Yoshiko | Moment, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Madeleine Effect: Madeleine Albright Became Secretary of State in 1997. Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton Followed. Has Foreign Policy Become Women's Work?


Kandil, Caitlin Yoshiko, Moment


There's a story Madeleine Albright likes to tell. She tells it to reporters, colleagues, students and friends--and halfway through our conversation, she tells it to me. "My youngest granddaughter," she says, "when she turned seven a couple of years ago, said, 'So what's the big deal about Grandma Maddie being secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state." The anecdote, which has become so much a part of Albright's mythology that nearly everyone recounts it to me, signifies the enormous progress women have made in the past 15 years since Albright became the first female secretary of state and the highest-ranking woman in government in U.S. history. Women's leadership is now so accepted that it obscures the memory of Albright's obstacle-ridden path to power.

Her story begins in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where she was born Marie Jana Korbelova to secular Jewish parents in 1937, a year before the Allied powers signed the Munich Agreement, an act of appeasement that allowed Nazi Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia. Soon after, her parents fled with her and one of her cousins to England, where they shed their Jewish identity and converted to Catholicism. After the Nazis were defeated, the Korbels returned to Czechoslovakia, but their homecoming was short-lived. In 1948, the Communist Party seized power, endangering Albright's father, Josef Korbel, a diplomat in the Czechoslovakian government. This time, the family--an 11-year-old Madeleine plus two younger siblings--fled to the United States, where they applied for asylum. They settled in Colorado, where Korbel took a teaching position at the University of Denver.

Growing up in Denver, Albright dreamt of being "an average American." After she left home to attend Wellesley College on scholarship--much of the Ivy League was still off-limits to women--she became a U.S. citizen. This was "the most important thing that happened in my life," she says. Inspired by her adopted country, Albright studied political science and worked at the college newspaper in preparation for a career in journalism. While a summer intern at The Denver Post, she met Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, the scion of a media dynasty that included the founder of New York Daily News, owner of The Chicago Tribune and founder of Newsday. As was common for Wellesley women at the time, Albright married Joe just three days after her graduation in 1959.

She was ambitious and intelligent, but women of her generation were not encouraged to pursue high-powered careers. "There were women of achievement emerging in the 1950s," says Martha May, author of Women's Roles in Twentieth-Century America. "But Albright was entering a career world in which there was 'Help wanted: Men,' 'Help wanted: Women'--those ads were still legal." Shortly after the wedding, Albright and her husband moved to Chicago, where Joe wrote for the Sun-Times. Albright, however, was discouraged from becoming a newspaper woman. "I don't think so," she recalls Joe's managing editor telling her after she announced her ambitions. "You can't because of Guild regulations [which say spouses can't work together] and you wouldn't want to work on a competing paper with your husband." Albright "didn't say anything" and instead found a job as picture editor of Encyclopedia Britannica.

She did not stay at Britannica for long; the couple left Chicago and spent the next several years bouncing between New York City and Washington, DC, as Joe built his resume. Meanwhile, Albright, who had converted from Catholicism to her husband's religion--Episcopalianism--gave birth to twin girls, Anne and Alice, and later to a third daughter, Katherine. With journalism closed to her, she entered a doctoral program in political science at Columbia--which was known to be more welcoming to female graduate students than other Ivy League universities--to study under the renowned Polish-born political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski. In 1968, the family made their last move--back to Washington--where Albright would find her way into national politics. …

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