Condoleezza Rice and Madeline Albright stand together at the unveiling of the official portrait of Madeline Albright.

A High Honor: Women Secretaries of State

Our nation’s top diplomat is the Secretary of State – the person charged with implementing the President’s foreign policy, strengthening diplomatic relations around the globe, and managing a large global workforce. From Thomas Jefferson to Antony Blinken today, the United States has had seventy-one Secretaries of State. Only three of them have been women: Madeleine Albright (1997-2001), Condoleezza Rice (2005-2009), and Hillary Clinton (2009-2013).

All three of these impressive women came from humble backgrounds and made indelible contributions to American diplomacy.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, center, is greeted by Vice President of The Aspen Institute India Gautam Thapar.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raises a glass from the podium in honor of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who can be seen sitting at lower left.
Photograph of Hillary Clinton

With her family, Secretary Albright was forced to flee her homeland of Czechoslovakia twice as a young child for political reasons during the 1930s and 1940s. They arrived in the U.S. in 1948 as refugees without many material belongings. Secretary Rice grew up in a middle-class African American family in segregated Birmingham, Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s when Jim Crow laws were still in effect. Secretary Clinton grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a small-business owner and her mother had a very difficult childhood. All of their parents placed a premium on gaining an education. And all three women pursued interests in academia, government, and foreign policy.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, is accompanied by Madeleine Albright, U.S Ambassador to the United Nations, right, and waves to Prague citizens.

Even before sharing the honor of being our nation’s top diplomat, the lives of these three women were linked. As an undergraduate, Secretary Rice was a student of Secretary Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, at the University of Denver (1973-1974). Secretary Albright advised Bill Clinton on foreign policy during his presidential campaign. After Clinton was elected, Albright served as his Ambassador to the United Nations (1993-1997), and as Secretary of State during his second term (1997-2001).

Photograph of Madeline Albright

“Having been witness at a very young age to what happens when America plays only a passive role in world affairs, I used my position to work closely with allies and friends on every continent to build a united front in support of liberty and in opposition to the forces of intolerance, unbridled ambition, and hate.”

– Madeline Albright

Madeleine Albright, 64th Secretary of State

In 1999, Secretary Albright played a key role in managing the U.S. response, through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to hostilities and atrocities that broke out in the Kosovo and Serbia regions due to Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal campaign against the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Leading up to and during the 78-day NATO bombing campaign, Secretary Albright closely coordinated strategic responses with her foreign minister counterparts from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Canada.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright greets boy holding sign that reads: "We want back home to Kosova."
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright greets boy holding sign that reads: “We want back home to Kosova.”

The Russians, though not a NATO member state, were also in close coordination with this group. Their constant communication not only resulted in a decisive resolution to the tragedy unfolding in the region, but also in a friendship based on a common belief in the importance of the alliance.

Secretary Albright was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 by President Barack Obama for her tireless efforts during the Kosovo crisis as well as her efforts to promote peace during her entire diplomatic career.

“I glanced up at the portrait of [Benjamin] Franklin. What would he have thought of this great-granddaughter of slaves and child of Jim Crow Birmingham pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States, which had infamously counted her ancestors “three-fifths” of a man? Somehow, I wanted to believe, Franklin would have liked history’s turn toward justice and taken my appointment in stride.”

– Condoleezza Rice, reflecting upon her swearing in ceremony

Condoleezza Rice, 66th Secretary of State

As part of her duty to manage the nation’s oldest cabinet agency, Secretary Rice implemented tenets of what she termed “Transformational Diplomacy” – a shift in how and where diplomacy is practiced. Diplomats would be more involved in transforming lives around the world and not just on reporting on the actions of their governments.

Transformational diplomacy included the establishment of American Presence Posts in areas outside of major capitals, a Critical Languages Initiative (Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi), and required service at hardship posts in order to advance in rank in the foreign service.

Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Pranab Mukherjee
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, shake hands after signing the U.S.-India Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, during a ceremony at the State Department, Friday, Oct. 10, 2008, in Washington.

In October 2008, after several years of negotiations and after several U.S. and Indian governmental bodies came to agreement, including the U.S. Congress, Secretary Rice and her negotiating team secured the final signatures on the U.S.-India Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (known as the 123 Agreement). The agreement allowed the exchange of peaceful nuclear technology with India and established a foundation for a 21st century strategic partnership between the two countries.

Photograph of Hillary Clinton standing at a podium.

“Finally I kept returning to a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes. As much as I loved my work in the Senate and believed I had more to contribute there, he said he needed me in the State Department. My father…and my mother instilled in me a deep sense of duty and service…”

– Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, 67th Secretary of State

In all of her public roles, Secretary Clinton vigorously defended human rights at home and abroad. She created the Office of Global Women’s Issues to advance international initiatives benefiting women and girls. She advocated for LGBTQ rights worldwide and also within the Department of State’s workforce. In 2009, she announced that same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats would be eligible for the same benefits as their diplomat partner. And in 2010, Clinton added gender identity to the Department of State’s equal employment opportunity statement.

Secretary Clinton speaks at a press conference at the United Nations Office
Secretary Clinton speaks at a press conference at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2011. The Secretary took questions from the press after addressing the Human Rights Council and the Conference on Disarmament.

In a December 2011 landmark speech at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Clinton unequivocally declared that justice and equality for LGBTQ individuals is a basic human right that must be protected. Evoking the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, she affirmed the United States’ defense of LGBTQ people and promotion of issues affecting them as matters of U.S. foreign policy.

Secretaries Albright, Rice, and Clinton all made important diplomatic achievements during their tenures, and all referred to their own service as a high honor in later reflections of their time as Secretary of State. Their skill, determination, and dedication have set a high standard for those who follow in their footsteps.

More Trailblazing Women in Diplomacy

The National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) is celebrating women in diplomacy – Her Diplomacy – women who have blazed trails, negotiated peace, served alongside their partners, strengthened diplomatic relations, survived dangers, and opened doors for sharing of cultures and ideas. They have made vital contributions to our nation, but their stories remain largely unknown. Discover more of these dedicated women and their stories: