Madeleine Albright, groundbreaking secretary of state and feminist icon, dies at 84

WASHINGTON – Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright, the first female secretary of state, who arrived in the USA as a young girl from war-torn Czechoslovakia before becoming a political and feminist icon, died Wednesday at 84.

Albright's death from cancer was confirmed by her family in a statement Wednesday that said she was surrounded by family and friends.

Albright, who served as secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 under President Bill Clinton, pushed for NATO expansion eastward into the former Soviet bloc and helped lead the NATO bombing campaign in 1999 to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. She served as Clinton's U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997.

Albright, known to admirers as a champion of democracy and human rights, told USA TODAY in 2020 that she had "a trick" to make sure her position was clear in a foreign policy arena dominated by men.

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"After too much of the small talk, I would say, 'I have come a long way, so I must be frank.' Then I really did make a point of what I needed to say," she said. "I don't think frankly that I was rougher, tougher or anything than any man. I just think people were surprised to hear that language from a woman."

Clinton said in a statement that he and Hillary Clinton are "profoundly saddened" by Albright's death, calling her "one of the finest secretaries of state, an outstanding U.N. ambassador, a brilliant professor and an extraordinary human being."

"Few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served," the former president said. "Because she knew firsthand that America's policy decisions had the power to make a difference in people's lives across the world, she saw her jobs as both an obligation and opportunity. And she made the most of them."

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President Joe Biden, who was traveling on Air Force One to a NATO summit in Brussels when news of Albright's death broke, called Albright "a force for goodness, grace and decency – and for freedom."

"Hers were the hands that turned the tide of history," Biden said in a statement, adding that "she defied convention and broke barriers again and again" to make the country she loved even better.

"In every role, she used her fierce intellect and sharp wit – and often her unmatched collection of pins – to advance America’s national security and promote peace around the world," the president said. "America had no more committed champion of democracy and human rights than Secretary Albright, who knew personally and wrote powerfully of the perils of autocracy."

Czech-born, Albright called herself a 'grateful American'

Born in Prague in 1937, Albright – then Madeleine Korbel – fled to England with her family in 1939, less than two weeks after Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Though her family was of Jewish ancestry, she was raised Roman Catholic and learned only in 1997, at the time of her confirmation as secretary of state, that three of her grandparents died in the Holocaust.

Albright's family lived in the cellar of an apartment in Notting Hill before returning to Prague after World War II. They moved to the USA in 1948 after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. Her family settled in Denver, where her father worked as a dean of the school of international relations at the University of Denver.

"I lived in many, many places," Albright said in 2020 when she was recognized as one of USA TODAY's Women of the Century. “I was asked to describe myself in six words at dinner, which were ‘worried, optimist, problem solver, grateful American.’”

Woman of the Century: Madeleine Albright talks about how she became secretary of state, speaking up as a woman and the importance of calling out wrongs

Albright, who graduated from Wellesley College and earned a master's degree from Columbia University, married Joseph Albright of the Medill newspaper-publishing family in 1959. The couple had three daughters and divorced in 1982. She did not remarry.

Former President Barack Obama said Albright helped bring peace in the Balkans, paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world and was a “champion for democratic values.”

“And as an immigrant herself, she brought a unique and important perspective to her trailblazing career,” he said, recounting one of his favorite Albright stories: At a naturalization ceremony, Obama said, an Ethiopian man came up to Albright and told her, “Only in America could a refugee from Africa meet the secretary of state.”

"'Only in America could a refugee from Central Europe become secretary of state',” Obama said Albright replied.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., remembered Albright as a "one-of-a kind and first-of-a-kind" whose life story embodied the "American dream."

"While she may have been small in stature, she was a titan in American history and statecraft," he said.

Former President George W. Bush said he and his wife, Laura, were "heartbroken" upon hearing of her death.

"She served with distinction as a foreign-born foreign minister who understood firsthand the importance of free societies for peace in our world," Bush wrote in a statement he tweeted.

Early political work for Muskie, Carter administration

Before becoming the 64th secretary of state, Albright worked for the 1972 presidential campaign of Edmund Muskie, a Democratic U.S. senator from Maine, and became his chief legislative assistant. She went on to work for Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter, and worked for various nonprofits during the Reagan and Bush years.

She worked as a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University from 1982 to 1993 and returned as the university's Michael and Virginia Mortara Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy.

Shortly after Clinton's reelection to a second term in 1996, Albright was nominated to replace former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and confirmed by the Senate in 1997. She told USA TODAY she heard criticism that a woman could not serve as secretary of state because Arab leaders would not deal with a woman. The Arab ambassadors to the United Nations disagreed.

“They got together and said, ‘We've had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright; we wouldn't have any problem dealing with Secretary Albright,’” Albright said.

She credited Clinton with paving the way to her history-making confirmation, "with a lot of help from Hillary." Hillary Clinton later became secretary of state herself.

In a statement on Twitter, Hillary Clinton said she will always be grateful for Albright's friendship and the "unfailingly wise counsel she gave us over so many years. So many people around the world are alive and living better lives because of her service."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the world lost "a towering champion for peace, diplomacy and democracy."

"Her historic tenure as our nation’s first woman to serve as our top diplomat paved the way for generations of women to serve at the highest levels of our government and represent America abroad," Pelosi said.

'I believe in the goodness of American power'

As secretary of state, Albright was a proponent of military intervention, including in the Kosovo conflict, which ended after 11 weeks of airstrikes. She shaped Clinton's U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina, pushing for military action in both.

She was the first U.S. official to meet with Vladimir Putin after he became president of Russia in 2000. That same year, shortly before Clinton's second-term ended, she traveled to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Il, marking the first-ever trip to North Korea by a U.S. diplomat.

"I believe in the goodness of American power," she told PBS during her final year as secretary of state. "I believe that we have responsibilities. And that doesn't mean that the United States has to be everywhere, all the time, with everything, but that there are certain parts of the world, and certain situations, including humanitarian disasters, where the presence of the United States, in some form, makes a huge difference."

Albright had intense exchanges with Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff while Albright was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, about the use of force in Bosnia. In his memoir, “My American Journey," Powell recalled Albright asking, “‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ I thought I would have an aneurysm.”

Albright confirmed that conversation in an interview with NPR last year and said her approach was influenced by being raised in Czechoslovakia before Hitler's invasion. "I was born in Czechoslovakia. And for me, Munich was dispositive. Nobody did anything. And the country I was born in was sold down the river," she said.

In 1996, Albright drew criticism for saying the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children as a result of U.S. sanctions on Iraq was "worth it" in an interview on "60 Minutes."

Albright was vocal about current affairs until the end of her life, warning in a Feb. 23 New York Times op-ed that Putin was making a "historic error" by invading Ukraine.

"In the 20-odd years since we met, Mr. Putin has charted his course by ditching democratic development for Stalin’s playbook," Albright wrote.

An 'afterlife' post-public service

Obama awarded Albright the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. After her diplomatic career, Albright, the author of several bestselling books, including three memoirs, became a symbol of female empowerment.

"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help each other," Albright said. She first used the line as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1990s and caused a backlash when she pulled it out again while stumping for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 in her primary race against Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Albright later apologized: "I absolutely believe what I said, that women should help one another, but this was the wrong context and the wrong time to use that line," she wrote in The New York Times. "I did not mean to argue that women should support a particular candidate based solely on gender."

In her post-secretary of state life, Albright became a cultural symbol of feminism and portrayed herself on television shows such as "Gilmore Girls" and "Parks and Recreation." Her final book, "Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st Century Memoir," published in 2020, focused on what she called her "afterlife" – what she did after public service.

Albright founded the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College and chaired the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business consulting firm. Along with being a television actress, she was an occasional drummer, a businesswoman, a professor and an author.

"It took me a long time to find my voice. There's no question about it," Albright told USA TODAY. "But having found it, I'm not going to shut up."

Albright is survived by her daughters, Alice, Anne and Katie, her sister Kathy, her brother John, her six grandchildren, and her nephews and grandniece.

'I'm still here': Madeleine Albright addresses 'afterlife' beyond secretary of state in third memoir

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Madeleine Albright, first female secretary of state, dies