Madeleine Albright: from a refugee to the highest-ranking woman in the United States


Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 29, 2012. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

By Pavlina Cerna

Twenty years ago, Madeleine Albrightoriginally Marie Jana Korbelbecame the first female U.S. Secretary of State, the fourth in line to succeed the president in emergency measures but without the right to hold the presidential office because she was not born on American soil.

Albright was born in the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia) in 1937 and was only a year old when her family was forced into exile due to the Munich agreement, the family’s Jewish roots and because her father was a diplomat and a strong supporter of democracy. The Albright family attempted to return to their home country after the end of the Second World War, only to face Communists who took over the Czech government and from whom they had to flee again.

After living temporarily in Serbia and Switzerland, Albright came to the United States as a refugee at the age of 11.

“Becoming a U.S. citizen is the most important thing that ever happened to me,” said Albright in an email published on the White House website on Sept. 20, 2016.

Albright entered politics in 1978 as a staffer at the National Security Council in the Carter White House, recruited by Zbigniew Brzezinski, her mentor and former professor at Columbia University, where Albright obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. in public law and government in 1976.

Nominated by former President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the U.S. Senate 99-0, Albright became the first and the highest-ranking woman to be appointed as U.S. Secretary of State on Jan. 23, 1997.

“When my name came up to be a secretary of state, there were those who said that a woman cannot be a secretary of state and that other countries would not deal with a woman,” said Albright in a video interview with “Makers,” a women’s media and leadership platform website.

Albright is not the only woman who has faced the prejudice of being a high-ranking female.

According to the Pew Research Center, “about four in 10 Americans point to a double standard for women seeking to climb to the highest levels of either politics or business, where they have to do more than their male counterparts to prove themselves.”

Women have been involved in politics for approximately 100 years. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first woman to run for Congress in 1866, but it was not until 1916 when Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.) was elected to Congress. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was added to the U.S. Constitution four years later, in 1920.

While Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party in 2016, the first woman to run for president was Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872, as a candidate of the Equal Rights Party and an activist in the womens’ rights movement.

Dozens of women ran for president between Woodhull and Clinton. The exact number varies based on different criteria, such as their progress in the run for office and their recognition by their political parties after primaries or caucuses.

As of 2017, 104 seats out of 535 in Congress are held by women: there are 83 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and 21 female U.S. senators.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, about 73 percent of women believe it is easier for men to get elected to high political office.

A study published by the Women & Politics Institute, School of Public Affairs, in 2012, titled “Men rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in the U.S. Politics,” identifies seven factors contributing to the gender gap, one of them being “Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.”

There are organizations endeavoring to dismantle such misconceptions.

The United State of Women, a national organization dedicated to gender equality and “pushing a comprehensive women’s agenda,” is supported by former first lady Michelle Obama, actress Meryl Streep, philanthropist Oprah Winfrey and many other famous women.

Women are encouraged to “take action” on 46 different issues listed on the website, such as equal pay, supporting immigrant women, and providing families with paid leave. The website’s mission is to create a network connecting women to organizations that directly discuss each issue.

Emerge America is a national organization in 17 states, including Pennsylvania, holding “intensive, cohort-based seven-month training programs” for aspiring Democratic women.

“The main thing is that women have to want to run so at Emerge America we focus on recruiting women, and that means to have a lot of conversations around kitchen tables and community meetings, really encouraging women to run,” said Andrea Dew Steele, the president and CEO of Emerge America in an interview with MSNBC on Oct. 25, 2015.

Among alumnae of Emerge Pennsylvania is Carolyn Comitta, a former mayor of West Chester, Pa. and a state representative in the 156th Legislative District.

As for Albright, she currently serves as a professor of International Relations at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. Other notable appointments include the Founding Chair Ministerial Initiative of the Council of Women World Leaders.

Her alma mater, Wellesley College, founded The Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs in 2010, which educates young women for positions of leadership.

Albright was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given by the U.S. to civilians, by former President Obama in 2012.

The former Secretary of State still comments on political issues. In a reaction to the recent executive order of President Donald Trump, banning people from seven Muslim countries to enter the United States, Albright stated on her Twitter account: ”I was raised Catholic, became Episcopalian and found out later my family was Jewish. I stand ready to register as Muslim in solidarity.”

Famous for wearing pins and brooches to express her opinions, Albright wore the Statue of Liberty pin in interviews with PBS on Jan. 30, 2017 and with CNN on Jan. 31, 2017 when expressing concerns about the travel ban.

“She lived in Czechoslovakia for just a short period, so it is really impressive that she still speaks Czech and I think she is proud to be from the Czech Republic,” said Pavel Klima, an international student at DCCC from the Czech Republic, majoring in business management. “People in our country like her and are proud of her because she is the first person who has come so far in politics in a different country.”

Contact Pavlina Cerna at

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