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Madeleine Albright left a rich legacy for other women in public service to follow


The first woman to become U.S. secretary of state has died of cancer. Madeleine Albright was 84. She was a refugee who became the nation's top diplomat, and she left a legacy for other women in public service. Here's NPR's Barbara Sprunt.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: This is the moment that changed the face of American diplomacy.


BILL CLINTON: It says something about our country, and about our new secretary of state designate, that a young girl raised in the shadow of Nazi aggression in Czechoslovakia can rise to the highest diplomatic office in America.

SPRUNT: It was 1996, and President Bill Clinton had just announced his pick for the next secretary of state. Albright, at 4 feet, 10 inches tall, stood out in her cherry suit and pearls in the all-male group. She thanked her predecessor, Warren Christopher.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I can only hope that my heels can fill your shoes.

SPRUNT: Diplomacy was in her blood. Born in 1937, in what was then Czechoslovakia, her father was a diplomat. Her family was forced to leave their home twice - once during Nazi occupation and again when communists seized power. At 11 years old, Albright arrived at Ellis Island. She went on to raise three daughters while earning her Ph.D. She served as a counselor to President Jimmy Carter and foreign policy adviser to various presidential candidates. And in 1993, Clinton named her ambassador to the U.N. Here she is during that confirmation hearing.


ALBRIGHT: At this time of turmoil and hope, this assignment is a major challenge.

SPRUNT: Melanne Verveer worked for First Lady Hillary Clinton in the '90s. She saw Albright shift the way women diplomats were viewed at the U.N.

MELANNE VERVEER: One male diplomat came to her complaining one day. He said, you know, I watch you, and you spend all this time with those women diplomats. When can I have the kind of time that you give to some of these women? Madeleine said to him, when your government names a woman to head the delegation, I will spend considerable time with her, as well.

SPRUNT: Albright proved adept at making complicated foreign policy accessible to the public. One of her more famous quips came after Cuban military pilots shot down civilian aircraft, boasting that it took a certain kind of fortitude.


ALBRIGHT: Frankly, this is not cojones. This is cowardice.

SPRUNT: Clinton called it one of the most effective one-liners in his administration's foreign policy. Current Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was a counselor to Albright in the '90s.

WENDY SHERMAN: Women often are afraid of the use of power. She was not. She was happy to wield it in her own way.

SPRUNT: Albright used jewelry as a diplomatic tool. Here she is on NPR after she released a book about it. It was called "Read My Pins."


ALBRIGHT: This all started when I was ambassador at the United Nations. Saddam Hussein called me a serpent. And I had this wonderful antique snake pin. And so when we were dealing with Iraq, I wore the snake pin.

SPRUNT: Sherman credited Albright with making the State Department a more inclusive place, describing how she was the first to put Ramadan on the department's calendar.

SHERMAN: She turned to me, as counselor, and said, could you organize the State Department to talk about Islam? For many years, talking about religion was something you weren't supposed to do. But obviously, it was a force in the world and one we had to better understand.

SPRUNT: Albright's tenure, however, wasn't without controversy. In 1996, she defended U.N. sanctions against Iraq on "60 Minutes."


ALBRIGHT: We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died when - in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it.

SPRUNT: Albright later wrote her reply had been a terrible mistake and she had said some things she didn't mean. Later that year, Clinton announced she would become the highest ranking woman in government. Clinton had said he wanted his Cabinet to look like America and was slammed with questions about whether Albright deserved the job.


CLINTON: I'm very proud to have had the opportunity to appoint the first woman secretary of state in the history of America. I'm proud of that, but it had nothing to do with her getting the job.

SPRUNT: The Senate went on to unanimously confirm Albright. Not long after, a personal discovery - that her parents, then deceased, had converted from Judaism and three of her grandparents had died in the Holocaust. The emotional news was met with political cynicism and antisemitism. Albright recalled the pressure on C-SPAN years later.


ALBRIGHT: I had been asked to represent my country in a marathon, the first time a woman ever had been, and given a very heavy package to unwrap as I ran.

SPRUNT: As chief diplomat in the late '90s, Albright confronted the deadly targeting of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Time magazine dubbed it Madeleine's War. Airstrikes in 1999 eventually led to the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces. Albright also helped to bring Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO. Here she is at the signing ceremony.


ALBRIGHT: To quote an old Central European expression, hallelujah.

SPRUNT: At home, Albright enjoyed giving out naturalization certificates and recalled this exchange during a 2019 speech at Westminster College.


ALBRIGHT: And I heard this man saying, all of a sudden, can you believe it? I'm a refugee, and I just got my naturalization certificate from the secretary of state. So I went up to him and I said, can you believe that a refugee is secretary of state?

SPRUNT: After government service, Albright founded a consulting firm in D.C. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Albright stayed active in politics, supporting Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016.


ALBRIGHT: Just remember, there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other.

SPRUNT: She took some flak for that, especially from supporters of Clinton's primary rival, Bernie Sanders. It was a phrase she had used countless times, but still she apologized for turning it political. Albright remained an active professor at Georgetown, training the next generation of diplomats, including Sophia Muhlenberg, who served as her teaching assistant and is now a foreign service officer.

SOPHIA MUHLENBERG: The lessons about hard work and perseverance and truly loving the craft are ones that she exemplified every day. I can't state enough how important that was for me.

SPRUNT: In her lifetime, Albright saw two more women become secretary of state - Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. She reflected in a 2012 C-SPAN interview that for a lot of young women, that was becoming the norm.


ALBRIGHT: My youngest granddaughter, when she turned 7, said to her mother, so what's the big deal about Grandma Maddie being secretary of state? Only girls are secretary of state.

SPRUNT: Barbara Sprunt, NPR News.


Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.