As is my habit, I randomly stumbled upon an article entitled “The role of the Ambassador’s wife.” This article was actually published by the Journal of Marriage and Family (Volume. 31 No. 1) in February 1969 and written by a female professor with a Ph.D in Sociology, from the University of California, Berkeley. Seriously when I looked at this article my thought was ‘what in the heavens was she thinking when she wrote this? In her own words, her thesis sought to explore the role of the ambassador’s wife and in her introduction she stated;
“The role of the ambassador’s wife is largely shaped by her husband’s role and spokesman for the American government. This paper examines the way in which his job affects hers…” [the bold is mine]
Yes in 1969 as in many other political and decision-making positions, the position of the Ambassador was predominantly male territory. However I cannot understand how an American professor could publish an academic article of this nature at a time when female ambassadors were not such a strange phenomenon. There might not have been as many female ambassadors as there are now but in my view an article of this nature only served to perpetuate the gender stereotype and the belief that only men could be ambassadors and women the ambassador’s wives. One can not help but develop an image of the ambassador’s wife as the socialite, paying attention to the wining and dining of her husband’s guests while he talks politics.
The world’s first female ambassador, Hungarian feminist and activist Rosika Schwimmer, was appointed in 1918 to serve in Switzerland. Well done to Hungary for being a trendsetter in that regard.
By 1969, when the article was written many countries had appointed female ambassadors: Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burma, Colombia, Cuba, Finland, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iraq, Ireland, Lithuania, Paraguay Romania, South Korea, Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, Venezuela, and the former Yugoslavia had had at least one female ambassador. Austria, Costa Rica, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, New Zealand and Tanzania had appointed two; Mexico, Morocco and Pakistan three; Sweden four; Brazil, Chile, Denmark, India and the USA five and the highest number had come from Canada with six female ambassadors by 1969.
Surely coming from a country where the first female ambassador Frances Willis had been appointed in 1962 and the first African-American female ambassador, Patricia Harris, had also been appointed 3 years on the author should have realised the inappropriateness of her research topic at a time when women were fighting for political, economic and social equality of the sexes, what we have popularly come to know as the feminist struggle.
Fortunately for all of us, the world has come to recognise how certain labels can act destructively to perpetuate gender stereotypes. Hence a change in the name given to a group can stir transformation in mindsets and begin to unseat years of deep seated misguided notions about what women can do as compared to men. So from having a Diplomatic ‘wives’ Association we now have a Diplomatic ‘spouses’ Association. Yes, women too can be ambassadors and their partner would be regarded as a spouse not wife. With regard to countries that have legalised same sex marriages, the dynamics would be even more complicated where the ambassador is either male or female married to another male or female, respectively.
So I looked at this article and I appreciated how far we, as women, have come in asserting ourselves as equals, with equal capabilities to those of men. Previously male dominated fields including law, politics and diplomacy have been penetrated by women. I am proud of these achievements as I am one of those who have benefitted from the years of struggle.
Where previously the idea of a female president was scoffed upon today we have plenty of them. Current serving female presidents are Tarja Kaarina Halonen, Finland’s first woman president; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, current President of Liberia and the first African female President; Micheline Calmy-Rey President of Switzerland; Pratibha Patil President of India; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina; Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania; Laura Chinchilla Miranda of Costa Rica; Roza Otunbayeva Interim president of Kyrgyzstan; Dilma Rousseff President of Brazil; Maria Luisa Berti Co-Captain-regent (head of State and Government) of San Marino; Atifete Jahjaga President of Kosovo and Ireland’s President Mary McAleese.
We also have a number of female prime ministers: Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Iceland Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, Croatia Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard , Slovakia Prime Minister Iveta Radicová, Peru Prime Minister Rosario Fernández, Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé Prime minister of Mali.
Scores of influential women whose work has transformed our societies and proved that women are as capable as men, or even better live among us. Just to mention a few phenomenal women: Maya Angelou an inspirational writer and poet, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese political activist whose quiet strength in the struggle for democracy has inspired many, Hillary Clinton who serves as the US Secretary of State, Navenatham Pillay who is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Oprah Winfrey whose sheer determination to rise to the top and become a billionaire has motivated women particularly black women that they can make it too in a difficult world governed by unjustifiable stereotypes, Christiane Amanpour who has broken barriers in the field of journalism, and Michelle Bachelet who is the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).
These women have rejected, challenged and triumphed over cultural perceptions of women as incompetent beings. They have shown how women can assert their presence and their voices in the political, social, economic and cultural spheres. They have worked hard to define women as equal citizens with equal rights. They have displayed great strength and risen above oppression and subordination and for that I salute them. Indeed these and other women are living proof that women can do it too and the era of the ‘Ambassador’s wife’ is gone, never to come back again…or at least I hope.