Diplomacy slightly less of a boys' club

An increasing number of female ambassadors is attributed to "The Hillary Effect"

By Kate Harding
Published January 11, 2010 7:12PM (EST)

This Washington Post article on "The Hillary Effect" -- a recent increase in female ambassadors to the U.S., apparently in response to Clinton's appointment as secretary of state (and perhaps more accurately called the "Madeleine-Condoleezza-Hillary Effect") -- starts off hopeful but, over the course of four pages, becomes increasingly depressing. The good news: "There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington -- the highest number ever, according to the State Department." OK, sure, there are also 157 men, but since there were only five women in the late '90s, it's still impressive progress. And it suggests that putting women in highly visible positions usually dominated by men can open doors for others; India's first female ambassador, Meera Shankar, says, "The pictures of U.S. diplomacy have been strongly dominated by photos of women recently. That helps to broaden the acceptance of women in the field of diplomacy." Singaporean ambassador Heng Chee Chan "said it has been a 'quantum leap' for women in diplomacy since she arrived here in 1996."

But then, she also tells of asking for Ambassador Chan's table in restaurants and being told, "Oh, he is not here yet." Several female ambassadors told the Post they're "still often bypassed in receiving lines and the male standing beside them is greeted as 'Mr. Ambassador'" -- Shankar says it's happened even after she's explained that the title belongs to her. If the ambassadors focus on issues that disproportionately affect women and families, they're seen as "soft," a charge Madeleine Albright fabulously dismisses: "They are often the hardest issues: poverty, discrimination, education and health." And many of them are going it alone: "It's considered normal if a woman goes with her husband but it's not seen as the same if a husband goes," says Burundi ambassador Angele Niyuhir, whose husband stayed behind when she left for D.C. Of the eight ambassadors the Post's Mary Jordan interviewed, half left their husbands in their home countries and half are divorced. Meaning, among other things, that on top of their other professional duties these women are in charge of entertaining -- "a key part of an envoy's job" -- which is typically handled by male ambassadors' wives. That's some second shift.

But arguably even more disheartening than all of that are comments from Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association: "Johnson said the rise in female diplomats coincides with what she sees as a shift in investment away from diplomacy and toward defense. 'Is the relative feminization of diplomacy indicative of its decline as a center of power and influence?' she wonders." There could be plenty of reasons for a greater focus on defense at the moment -- like, off the top of my head, two wars -- but the coincidence is still consistent with a pattern observed in the job market and at universities: Once enough women break into a particular discipline, its perceived value decreases. First, they tell you a job's too tough or important for women to handle -- Johnson notes that until the late '70s, married women weren't allowed to hold foreign service positions, because it was assumed their domestic duties would interfere too much -- but after some determined women bust their asses to secure and succeed in such jobs anyway, the retroactive explanation is that the work never was all that tough or important.

"The Hillary Effect" might be just the right name for the changing face of diplomacy, then. Clinton's public life and career have always been marked by the tension between genuine respect for her accomplishments and sexist expectations that have held her back, between all she's been able to achieve and the depressing thought of what more a man with her brains and ambition might have pulled off. She's famously cracked the "highest and hardest glass ceiling" but not broken it. She's been lauded for her political talents and savaged for her lack of domestic skills (as in cookie-baking, not policy). She's brought crucial attention to global women's issues, only to hear them dismissed as a distraction from more important foreign policy issues. Et flippin' cetera. So yeah, in light of the one step forward/two steps back nature of female ambassadors' accomplishments, I guess "The Hillary Effect" sounds about right. 

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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