History of Women in International Diplomacy

Wives of Diplomats

Even before they were formally addressed as Ambassador, women played an important role in diplomacy. Sometimes referred to as ‘ambassadresses,’ the wives of diplomats were able to gain access to intelligence information through their social circles. For example, a group of wives whose husbands were diplomats for Queen Elizabeth I were able to leverage their connection to Catherine d’ Medici to gather intel on changing political dynamics (1).

The US government would come to recognize the importance of diplomats’ wives in the 1960s. Secretary of State Dean Rusk called them, “unsung heroines . . . weaving strands of international understanding.” In recognition of their role as “unsung heroines” the State Department, collaborating with the Association of Foreign Service Women, began hosting training sessions for diplomats’ wives. Guest speakers included a Law Professor from Harvard, high level A.I.D. and State Department officials, and representatives of the major Washington think tanks (2). 

“Along with practically every one of these men in the business of representing the United States abroad, there is a wife. She cannot ‘make’ his career for him, but she can certainly break it or facilitate it. She is just as active as her husband, and in her own way just as important in the scheme of things.”

“The Ambassador’s Wife Is An Ambassador, Too, “
The New York Times, 1964
Ambassador Ries, on the State Department’s recognition of the important role played by an Ambassador’s wife: “In the early days of the Foreign Service, there was a part of the efficiency report for men that included comments on how their wife functioned as a hostess and a partner.”

Perhaps best articulated by the feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe, the “international is personal” (3). While rarely acknowledged, women’s contributions to early diplomatic history are significant. Although their workplace was in the home, diplomats’ wives sphere of influence extended around the globe.

Women in War and Peace

History is full of stories of women making peace where men started war. Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong pacifist, was the only person in the US Congress to vote ‘no’ to both World Wars. The women of Liberia’s Mass Action for Peace famously enacted a campaign of celibacy and ‘corridor lobbying’ to pressure men into signing peace accords. Nadia Murad, Malala Yousafzai, Jane Addams, Mother Theresa–the list goes on. 

That said, history is also full of examples of women at war, from Joan of Arc, a French hero in the 100 Years War, to Lady Triệu, a Vietnamese warrior who freed her homeland from Chinese rule. A study of European queens from the 15th-19th centuries found that they were 27% more likely to declare war than their male counterparts (4). The study points to the fact that women in powerful positions are not inherently less likely than men to take up arms. Both men and women make war. 

While it may be true that constructions of gender socialize women to be better peacemakers and diplomats, this is not rooted in biological truths. As history has shown, whether a woman is precluded to peace or not is rooted more in socio-historical circumstances than natural proclivity. Women do not belong in leadership positions because they will bring some kind of peaceful, motherly zen to war rooms and peace talks. They belong in leadership positions because they deserve to be there.

Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

Works referenced

(1) Allen, G (2019). The Rise of the Ambassadress: English Ambassadorial Wives and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture. ​Historical Journal,​ ​62(​ 3), 617–638.

(2)The Ambassador’s Wife Is An Ambassador, Too. (1964, October 4). New York Times.

(3) Enloe, C. (2014). Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press.

(4) Dube, Oeindrila and S.P., Harish, Queens (August 2019). University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2019-120.