Book Review: Women of the World- The Rise of the Female Diplomat

Sunday, 24 August 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Women of the World is an easy, engaging account of women diplomats, commonplace now, who have had to fight extreme gender bias to find a place at the high table, says Nirupama Rao

Book: Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat
Author: Helen McCarthy
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 416
Price: Rs 599

For those who assume the female diplomat has been around for a long time, a study of history will reveal otherwise. The only women in the world of diplomacy until the early 20th century were the "ambassadresses" or wives of ambassadors. A New York Times report in 1902 spoke of how in drawing rooms, courts, or at any royal function which ladies attend, "it is the 'Ambassadress', not the Ambassador who has to be considered. Sometimes she is a touchy personage indeed."

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography said of Lady Hariot Dufferin, whose husband went on to become the viceroy of India, that she was regarded as "the most effective diplomatic wife of her generation". These were not career diplomats but wives of powerful men who left a mark on history with their charm, wit, charisma and ambition.
In 1933, it was stated in a debate in the British House of Commons, "The special virtues of women are singularly ill-adapted to diplomatic life". Counted among womanly virtues were intuition and sympathy – the first regarded as "absolutely fatal" to diplomacy, tempting "people to jump to conclusions", and the latter "equally fatal" since it caused people to "identify with causes or personalities with which or whom they feel sympathy". Together, it was concluded, these "virtues" would be fatal "to that very balanced attitude which it is the business of the Diplomatic Service to preserve".

Since the pronouncement of those overarching, gender biased obiter dicta, women have come a long way in the diplomatic service of the United Kingdom, which is the subject of Helen McCarthy's account of the rise of "Women of the World" – or the female diplomat - as they have in chancelleries of diverse nations across the world. In India's foreign service, those early days post-independence saw the appointment of pioneering women diplomats like C.B. Muthamma, Rukmini Menon and Rama Mehta setting the stage for a succession of women entering the portals of the Ministry of External Affairs. They proved their worth as able officers and in no way were lesser mortals than their male colleagues, on serving the national cause with distinction.

In Britain, one reason advanced to establish that a career in embassies and consulates abroad was not fit for a woman was that they would be at an automatic disadvantage dealing with such categories as "drunken sailors". This is reminiscent of an argument often heard in similar contexts that women in embassies would be misfits since they "could not go to the airport" to receive dignitaries at night. A 1934 press report spoke of a main objections to women in the diplomatic service being that "a large proportion of the 400 odd posts are in unhealthy parts of the world". McCarthy's account speaks of the first women entrants to the British Foreign Service, post-World War II. (India seems to have led, rather than followed, in this regard since our first women diplomats entered the scene in 1948/49 whereas Mary Galbraith, the first woman foreign service appointee for Britain, began her Foreign Office career in October 1951. Our first career diplomat woman ambassador was C.B. Muthamma who became ambassador to Hungary in 1970. The first British woman career ambassador was Dame Anne Warburton who became ambassador to Denmark in 1976.) World War II had opened the space for women to prove their worth in many quasi-diplomatic areas of functioning, as also in intelligence work and communications. In the early 20th century, pioneers like explorer and archaeologist, Gertrude Bell, an Arabist, left a huge imprint with their stellar work in the Middle East, despite the fact that there were men like the British MP, Mark Sykes, who described her (Bell) as "a flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blathering ass". Such diatribes apart, Bell was widely regarded as a combination of 'masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit'. Stalin's Soviet Union had, during this period, led the way with the appointment of Alexandra Kollontai as Ambassador to Norway in1922. Kollantai's egalitarian instincts and sympathetic manner endeared her to many. She did not see any need to claim feminine precedence, or wield feminine charms as some of her Western colleagues were later wont to do, and was regarded as exceptional.

Outnumbered by their male colleagues, a tiny minority of four women also affixed their signatures to the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. No record of those times can also ignore the impact of Vijayalakshmi Pandit who, as president of the UN General Assembly and ambassador to the United States, and also to the Soviet Union, left a mark on the diplomatic history of our young republic in the fifties of the last century as also in the countries where she served, particularly in the US.

The "marriage bar" restricted the rise of women in the foreign services of countries like Britain and India for years. It bore the stain of sex discrimination. Our own diplomatic service lost many women stalwarts like Rama Mehta, Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea and Surjit Mansingh who quit their careers post marriage. It was only in the early seventies that this iniquitous requirement which prevented married women from applying for foreign service was dropped. In Britain, and in India.

The advance of women to posts of a sensitive nature and responsibility in diplomacy has been slow the world over. It is only in the last two decades that women secretaries of state in the US were seen. In India, we now have a woman external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, who is our leading diplomat today. It was only in 2001, 54 years after Independence that our first woman foreign secretary, Chokila Iyer, was appointed.

McCarthy observes that the presence of women at leadership level in global summits is limited and exceptional and there is a tendency to hold women to a higher standard. She notes, "Even in the 21 century, woman wielding serious power in the global political arena is an oddity, a phenomenon to be explained rather than taken for granted. Not only is her performance subject to closer scrutiny than her male peers, but it often comes to stand as a test of the ability of all women and to reflect, for good or ill, the wisdom of allowing a woman to do a 'man's job'." These are truths that must be acknowledged.

Women of the World is an easy and interesting read, charting thecourse of female advancement in a profession that has long been exclusively for men. The "old diplomacy" was very much a male club. The new diplomacy is more gender-friendly, though we are nowhere near concluding that the aspirations of women in the field have been met.

(Nirupama Rao is an Indian Foreign Services officer, who served as foreign secretary of India and ambassador to the United States)

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