The Ambassador’s wife

Emancipation, Gender, Women

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.

6 thoughts on “The Ambassador’s wife

  1. A long way indeed! But then again, we must consider that this role that this academic describes – way back in the 1960s – is one that so many African First Ladies fulfill… this role that is largely shaped by her husband of just looking like a pretty wallflower and visiting children’s homes and fancy countries…

    While you’ve looked at women who are now in power in their own right, it would be well to analyse whether there isn’t actually any truth to this professor’s words – at least in an African context. I am sure you would find that it rings true for a great many.

    1. I agree that it does, and what it actually does is package the whole idea of being an influential person’s wife as something that women should aspire to be. Should we not be encouraging the women to take up the presidency themselves than tell them how rosy life as a president’s wife can be. Making them dull Jacks- all play and no work is a clear reversal of the emancipation we should be fighting for and in some cases consolidating.

      1. True. My dissertation is looking at the formation of the women’s movement in post-colonial Zimbabwe and one of the big things that has hindered and continues to hinder women’s role in development is that even when they do ascend to positions of authority – as ministers etc – the constituencies they represent (eg. Ministry of Gender/ Ministry of Women’s Affairs) are still at the mercy of patriarchal elements who see gender as a woman’s thing. Or more worryingly, these departments are subsumed into the political machinery, eg. how in 1990, the Department of Women’s Affairs was moved to the Ministry of Political Affairs as though the women’s movement had to be politicised…. and indeed it has… it is after all those party regalia-brandishing rural women who vote blindly (often) for men to continue to oppress them!

        And then when you analyse the women who make it in politics… well, many of them tend to assume a masculine hardness to get by. In other words, they become mimic men… Angela Merkel stands out in my mind, or the husbandless childless Condoleeza … I think that’s more of a western trait to be like that but still it begs the question, what does it take to be a woman to survive in political spheres when those realms are still so heavily dominated by men?!

  2. You are so right. Even though the article tried to paint ambassadors’ wives as useful individuals who help their husbands to relay their messages in other means besides serious formal discussions, the underlying implication of ambassadors as males and wives as accompanying partners remains unacceptable. I know what you mean about military spouses, I have been following the series ‘Army Wives’ which should have been called army spouses and it paints the picture you just talked about. If you ever watch it you will see how Pamela had to leave her job as a cop to support Chase her husband’s dream or how Roland had to give up his career as a psychiatrist to support Joan his wife. The film clearly portrays that although the army ‘wives’ made the choice to support their husbands’ and wives’ careers and let go of theirs, they never really had a choice.

    1. I have never seen that show. I’m afraid it would just irritate me or made me sad. I am not complaining, because there are some nice things associated with being a military spouse–health care, steady income, opportunities to live abroad. However, the military will always come first–always. Personally, I do my best to work on my art career from wherever I end up in the world, but it can be very limiting.

  3. Well-said. I think it is fascinating that that article was originally written by an educated women. She must not have been self-aware enough to realize that her words were perpetuating this set gender role instead of challenging it–which would have been ideal.

    I am a military spouse (yep–spouse), and we still have that style of culture. Of course it isn’t to the extent of entertaining important politicians, etc. But there is definitely an implied and unspoken expectation that our role (especially as military wives) is to support the work of our husband’s. That includes taking part in groups, committees, networking, volunteer work etc. to get yourself in with spouses of more influential military members to help your husband’s career. (I am not against any of those things, they provide a support group for people in a similar situation–however, it should not have any baring on the career of my spouse.) It is sort of bizarre.

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