A Secretary of State is a senior official of the United States federal government who, as head of the United States Department of State, is primarily concerned with foreign policy and is considered to be the U.S. government's equivalent of a Minister for Foreign Affairs.
While women have been far outnumbered by men as secretaries of state, the women who have served and are serving as a secretary of state have made significant contributions to the nation's government.
Let's dive into the female secretaries of state, past and present.
Madeleine Albright became the first woman to serve in the Cabinet when she was appointed Secretary of State in 1997, a role she filled through 2001 under President Bill Clinton. Her appointment made her the highest-ranking female Cabinet member at that time.
Albright, who was born Marie Jean Korbel on May 15, 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now known as the Czech Republic), grew up in a family of politicians. Her father, Josef, played an important role in Czechoslovakia’s Belgrade embassy but, in the 1940s when the Nazis invaded, her family was forced to flee to England where they'd wait out the war. While they were able to return to Czechoslovakia afterward, they were forced to flee yet again when a communist coup overruled the government in 1948. That's when she arrived in the United States, settling into Denver, Colorado.
Albright went on to become a United States citizen in 1957, earning a B.A. in political science with honors from Wellesley College in 1959. She proceeded to earn a PhD in public law and government at Columbia University in 1976, and spent the latter half of the '70s and '80s serving as the chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie (1976-1978), as a staff member in the White House under President Jimmy Carter, on the National Security Council under National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as a research professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and as the director of Georgetown University's Women in Foreign Service Program.
When Clinton became the 42nd president in 1993, he appointed Albright as the ambassador to the United Nations — a position she filled until 1997, when she became the 64th Secretary of State. During her tenure, Albright led America’s post-Cold War foreign policy, pushing the expansion of NATO into former Soviet bloc countries, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons into rogue nations, fighting for military intervention to address the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and earning recognition as the first American Secretary of State to visit North Korea on a diplomatic visit.
In 2012, former president Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in international relations, all of which she did while wearing her signature “statement pins” that expressed her real thoughts on diplomatic proceedings. Two hundred of those pins were displayed at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2009, for which Albright published a book, Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box.
“It was almost… inconceivable that someone who had not held a government job until she was 39 years old and the mother of three would become the highest-ranking woman in American history," she writes in her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary. "Well into adulthood, I was never supposed to be what I became.”
Since leaving her position as Secretary of State, Albright now serves as the chair of Albright Stonebridge Group and as a professor of international relations at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Condoleezza Rice is the first black woman to serve as a United States Secretary of State.
In fact, Rice is a woman with many firsts under her belt. Born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, Rice grew up as the only child of a Presbyterian minister and a teacher in the segregated South. Nonetheless, she stemmed the tides, earning a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Denver in 1974, a master's from the University of Notre Dame in 1975 and a Ph.D from the University of Denver's Graduate School of International Studies in 1981.
She then joined Stanford University as a political science professor and, in 1993, she became the first woman and first African American to serve as provost of Stanford University. She later went on to become the first black woman (and second woman) to hold the post in 2001, when former president George W. Bush appointed her national security adviser — but not without her fair share of political experience.
Rice spent time in Washington, D.C. as an international affairs fellow with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, becoming director of Soviet and East European affairs with the National Security Council in 1989 and a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and German reunification. She also served on the Federal Advisory Committee on Gender-Integrated Training in the Military.
After her role as a national security advisor, she became the nation's 66th Secretary of State in 2005, following Colin Powell's resignation, which she served as until 2009.
Aside from Albright and Rice, there has only been one other women to serve as Secretary of State: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In her early political years, Clinton attended Wellesley College, where she was elected the senior class president before graduating in 1969 and attending Yale Law School, where she graduated with honors in 1973. She then went on to enroll at Yale Child Study Center, where she studied medicine and children, completing one post-graduate year of study.
Her political experience dates back to her college years. In 1971, she moved to Washington, D.C. to work on U.S. Senator Walter Mondale's sub-committee on migrant workers and, in the summer of 1972, she worked in the western states for the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. By the spring of 1974, Clinton became a member of the presidential impeachment inquiry staff, advising the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives during the Watergate Scandal.
Clinton was later elected to the United States Senate in 2001, when she became the first American first lady to ever win a public office seat. In 2009, she became the 67th United States Secretary of State, serving until 2013. And, in 2016, she became the first woman in United States history to become the presidential nominee of a major political party.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.
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