In a New PBS Documentary, Madeleine Korbel Albright '59 Noted How Wellesley Helped Prepare Her for a Lifetime of Leadership

October 19, 2015
Madeleine Korbel Albright '59 as a student at Wellesley

In a recent PBS documentary, Madeleine Korbel Albright '59 said the ever-present opportunities for leadership available to her as a student at Wellesley "made a difference" in her life. "You get used to leading," she said in the documentary on women leaders. The former Secretary of State is one of only 15 women chosen to share their personal stories of struggle and success in The Women’s List, which premiered nationally last month as part of the PBS American Masters series.

Speaking directly to the viewer in front a simple gray backdrop, in addition to her memories of Wellesley, Albright shares her ideas about leadership and her thoughts on women in world politics, among other issues. "Leaders are made by the situations they are involved in. I think that some rise to the occasion, and some do not," she said. Albright was the first woman to lead the State Department, from 1997-2001, serving under President Bill Clinton and becoming the highest-ranking woman to serve in the U.S. government at the time.

As archival images of her days at Wellesley flash across the screen, Albright discusses the college’s role in her development as a leader. "I do think it made a difference," she said, "because, first of all, I got a great education… [and] all of the leadership roles were women[’s] roles…the president of the student body, the editor of the newspaper. You get used to leading."

This is by no means the first time Albright has spoken about her time at Wellesley. Earlier this year, as the commencement speaker at Tufts University, she spoke about attending Wellesley in the conformist fifties. "Women were finding our voices at Wellesley," she noted.  It was at Wellesley, Albright explained, where "I learned an awful lot about myself: that I wanted to use the fine education I’d received for something more than meaningful table conversation; that I wanted to test—not simply accept—the limits and boundaries of the life I was prepared to lead; that I wanted to give something back to this country that had given so much to me."

In the recent PBS documentary, Albright goes into detail about the various experiences that shaped her, including stories about her childhood, her journey to the U.S. as an immigrant (she was born in Czechoslovakia and emigrated with her parents at age 11), her Wellesley education, and fighting sexism as she sought to become a foreign correspondent. Of course, Albright also talks about being a woman in world politics, for example admitting it was more challenging in some ways to deal with male political leaders in the U.S. than it was men in foreign nations. "People [here] said a woman couldn’t be Secretary of State," she stated.

As the interview comes to a close, Albright, mother of three, opens up about advice she has shared with her daughters: "Women's lives come in segments. I keep telling them, you don’t have to do everything all at once." She goes on to say that, despite increased opportunities for women, one of the most important messages she has for young women is, "We need to respect each other, and we need to help each other."

American Masters: The Women’s List was directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. In addition to its national premiere on PBS,  the film has had screenings in New York City, Houston, and Washington D.C. Christina Knight '91 is senior multimedia producer for American Masters.

Wellesley is home to the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs, which educates young women for positions of leadership.