A Woman’s Place is in American Foreign Policy

March 14, 2022 By Isabella Venturini

Last year, the World Economic Forum revealed that it will take 136 years to close the global gender gap. Change takes time. But acknowledging the strides that women in U.S. foreign policy have made in the past is a beacon of hope for what can be accomplished in America’s future foreign policy and diplomacy efforts.

In 1949, President Truman appointed Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson as Ambassador of Denmark, making her the first woman in American history to take on this important foreign policy position. Not only did she carry the weight of representing American interests in Denmark, but she also became the face of women in foreign policy, including the resistance  she had to navigate with her historic appointment. Unlike the press coverage her male colleagues received, Anderson initially dealt with headlines concerning her appearance or referring to her as a housewife, instead of a newly appointed diplomat with previous political experience. Some ‘traditionalist’ Foreign Service colleagues, including her deputy chief of mission, opposed her decisions and refused to aid her transition as head of the embassy.

Two years after her appointment, Ambassador Anderson successfully negotiated the 1951 Greenland Defense Agreement between the United States and the Kingdom of Denmark to establish and operate air bases in Greenland. She then helped draft, and later signed, the Treaty of Commerce and Friendship with Denmark that same year. Seventy-one years later, this agreement between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies remains critically  important in sustaining NATO interests in the Arctic.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, 441 women have followed Ambassador Anderson’s footsteps to become representatives for America’s global leadership as ambassadors around the globe.

For example, in 1988, Aurelia Brazeal was chosen to serve as the Ambassador to Federated States of Micronesia. She later became the Ambassador to Kenya in 1993 and to Ethiopia in 2002. This made her the first African-American woman to be nominated as ambassador by three presidential administrations. Before retiring after serving for 41 years in diplomacy, she helped found the Leadership and Management School at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, which aids Foreign Service professionals with training.

In 2001, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter was selected as the Ambassador to Finland. In this role, her priorities included promoting transatlantic economic development. A year later, she and the U.S. Embassy sponsored the Helsinki Women Business Leaders Summit, where 50 female CEOs from the United States partnered up with 50 businesswomen from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Finland to discuss how to access capital and launch private enterprises. These partnerships generated over $10 million in new business. Since then, her public-private outreach program has been used in Latvia and Jordan, positively generating income for many other women.

Since the end of the Cold War, analysis shows that when women exercised a strong influence throughout a negotiation process, an agreement was more likely to be reached than without women’s involvement. Indeed, the work of female ambassadors proves this.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has championed the need for a State Department that is reflective of the diversity of the American people. Thanks to Ambassador Anderson and other women devoted to America’s diplomatic efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we are making progress toward women’s equality as essential leaders in diplomacy.