Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, died on Wednesday. According to an announcement from her family posted to Twitter, Albright died of cancer. She was 84.
Born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937, Albright came to the U.S. in 1948 with her family after the Communist Party took over Czechoslovakia’s government. She was raised Catholic, though she later found out her parents were Jewish and had converted during World War II, never revealing their heritage to their children. After landing in the U.S., she grew up in New York and then Denver and graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She married Joseph Albright shortly after graduation, studying international relations before entering politics.
Albright joined the Clinton administration in 1993 as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., where she made the controversial decision to withhold U.S. intervention in the Rwandan genocide — a decision she would call “my deepest regret from my years of public service” in her 2003 memoir. Albright was appointed secretary of State in 1997, making her the first woman to hold that position as well as the then-highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. As secretary, she continued to reshape post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy, advocating for military interventions in central Europe and the Middle East. She also played a major role in the expansion of NATO, bringing several former Soviet nations into the alliance and pushing for the U.S. to help stop the Bosnian genocide. A self-styled “pragmatic idealist,” she was sometimes criticized for her dogged faith in the use of force: In 1996, when asked on 60 Minutes about the ethics of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, she responded, “We heard half a million children have died. Is the price worth it? I think this is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” She later apologized for the comment, writing in her second memoir, “I had fallen into a trap and said something I did not mean.”
After her tenure as secretary of State, Albright taught at Georgetown and penned several books, including 2018’s Fascism: A Warning. In 2012, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She supported Hillary Clinton throughout her 2016 campaign, uttering the now-infamous line, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women.” Following the backlash, she attempted to clarify her intentions in a New York Times op-ed, writing, “I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based on gender.”
In 2020, Albright told Elle, “It took me a long time to find my voice. Once I found it, I’m not going to be quiet.” She is survived by three children, six grandchildren, and a brother and sister.