National Archives News

National Archives Hosts Career Diplomats to Discuss Women in Foreign Service

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2018 — A panel of female career diplomats discussed their personal experiences during a recent event at the National Archives. Taking part in the 11th Annual McGowan Forum on Women in Leadership, they spoke about the historical role of women in the State Department and the diplomatic corps throughout the world, and they offered advice to young women entering the field of American foreign service.  

Journalist and author Cokie Roberts moderated the discussion, which focused on women’s roles in diplomacy for the United States. Roberts said that women began playing a role in America’s diplomatic affairs dating back in 18th century. She told how during the American Revolution, John Jay was sent to Spain as the first acting Secretary of State with his wife, Sarah Livingston Jay, in tow. Roberts credited Mrs. Jay’s social influence as often paving the way for diplomatic relations between the U.S. and European countries during this critical time in our young nation’s history.

“In Paris in 1782, she [Sarah Livingston Jay] arrived to help her husband negotiate the Treaty of Paris...and was adored by everyone. She was very much a representative of our country there.” Roberts also shared anecdotes about wives of other early influential leaders, including Elizabeth Monroe and Louisa Catherine Adams, and the role their social ties playedin diplomatic relations. 

“Women have been playing these roles from the beginning of our country,” Roberts said. “But it took until 1949 for a woman to actually be named in her own right as an ambassador...that was Eugenie Anderson, who was the ambassador to Denmark and then Bulgaria. And then it took until 1965 to have an African American woman ambassador—Patricia Roberts Harris.”

Only three women have officially held the title of “Secretary of State”—Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton—over the history of the United States.

Susan Rockwell Johnson, president of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, shared an overview of the history of women in the State Department and Foreign Service corps.  

“The first woman Foreign Service officer...was Lucille Atcherson [Curtis],” Rockwell-Johnson said. Atcherson-Curtis was the first appointed diplomatic officer in what would become known as the U.S. Foreign Service. 

“At that time, we were not leaders in this area,” Rockwell-Johnson explained. “There were a number of European countries who had, starting in 1912-1913, begun to appoint women to locations overseas. We were not the first to hire women as diplomats.” Rockwell-Johnson noted that the State Department hired the first female career employees as copyists in the early 1930s.

The panelists lamented the limited roles women had often been given within the diplomatic corps in the past within the United States—particularly within career service at the State Department—sharing the slow but steady progress women have made over the decades. Rockwell-Johnson noted that it wasn’t until the enactment of the equal employment opportunity initiative in the 1960s that women truly began to progress through the ranks of career foreign service. 

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Distinguished Resident Fellow in African Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, projected a brighter future for the advancement of women in the diplomatic corps. Thomas-Greenfield served as a United States Ambassador in Liberia.

“There are extraordinary opportunities in the State Department today,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “I think there is a shift in how women are viewed. Fifty percent of the incoming classes are women, so there’s no choice other than for women to move up in those positions.” 

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues and is currently the Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, emphasized the impact that women in key leadership roles have played to influence the world stage on women’s issues. 

Referring to Madeline Albright—the first woman to hold the Presidential cabinet position of Secretary of State—Verveer said, “One of the first things that she asked to be done was that cables would begin to report what was happening to women in those countries...were the girls in schools, was there oppression, were human rights being violated?” Verveer added that, as a result, “women’s rights as human rights then began to be considered in ways it had not been considered in the State Department.” 

Fay Hartog-Levin, 65th U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, offered advice to younger generations of women in career foreign service. “Form a relationship with a mentor who can maybe push you past some of the roadblocks that you find that are self-imposed. I’ve been asked many, many times to mentor younger women….Many times in my own career, I’ve [simply] had to ask for the position or the promotion. I encourage them to just ask for it.”

This is the 11th annual McGowan Forum on Women in Leadership held at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Past forums have addressed the cutting-edge roles of women in technology, political campaigns, and congressional leadership.