It’s Time for Another Female Secretary of State—and Many More Women Diplomats

Just as I began to write about women in security and peace issues, I learned that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired. This is the first time in my 42-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service (Diplomatic Service) that I ever heard of the senior most cabinet official being relieved of their duties. With minimal notice, the department has a new leader, leaving the already devastated career diplomatic service spinning. 

Fortunately, I have lived long enough to witness three female Secretaries of State—one of whom, Secretary Madeline Albright, named me a U.S. ambassador. I was overjoyed to read a 2011 front-page article in the Washington Post about “The Hillary Effect,” an increase of female ambassadors from other countries assigned to Washington, D.C. during her tenure—but I think the term would have been more accurate if they had called it “The Madeline, Condoleezza and Hillary Effect.”

Women have been involved in diplomacy, peace and security issues all of their lives—first as they communicated with their parents and siblings, and later, as they managed complex households and remained caring partners. In today’s world, they also manage the ever-present life/work balance even as they are at the helm of major corporations, banks and media companies. They transport their children to school, extracurricular and medical appointments and playdates, family security foremost on their minds. They keep the peace within the household.

We should take advantage of these well-developed skills and apply them to the international scene with hires of female diplomats. And while Trump has nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to fill Tillerson’s post, and Deputy Secretary John Sullivan is taking up the role at least until April 1, the time seems ripe for another well-qualified woman Secretary of State—as the perspective of women is sorely needed today.

UN Women

Today, women remain at the forefront of diplomatic engagement, whether it be Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Darfur, The Democratic Republic of the Congo or a host of other regions in conflict. Studies have shown that peace talks have been more successful when women take part. Additional studies indicate that women’s involvement has resulted in the resumption of talks or even facilitated negotiations to help them arrive at mutually agreed upon solutions. Women know the economic and security weaknesses in the local environment. They understand the crises and conditions that provoke conflicts. Whether confined to the home caring for children and fetching water or running a business, they have their finger on the pulse of potential flash points in their areas. Women have proven throughout history that they play pivotal roles in conflict prevention as well as resolution.

However, there are significant overt and subtle challenges. For example, a few years ago, Uzbek women learned that militants were recruiting the community’s boys. Twelve women traveled to Kabul to inform the Afghan leadership. The minister actually laughed and the women returned to their community. Less than a month later, the militants attacked a bus in that area killing dozens.

During the summer of 2012, I spoke at my alma mater Simmons College in Boston to 20 female graduate students in law, political science and economics. They were from Central, East and West Africa and came to the U.S. for a State Department-sponsored program to empower girls and women. As they explained the daily frustrations they face, they painted a sobering picture of the male-dominated court systems, health care delivery systems and educational systems in their home countries.

If the decision-makers are always male, women do not get a fair hearing. These women are working diligently to change that for the next generations. However, we must remember that, despite widely publicized international commitments and statements, women are rarely at the table when important national and international political decisions are made.

In my recently published memoir, Diversifying Diplomacy: My Journey from Roxbury to Dakar, I highlight the stories of the first women in the U.S. Diplomatic Service and the importance, more broadly, of a diverse diplomatic corps. Women were creative in meeting the U.S. Government objectives in their overseas assignments despite not being accepted in the all-male clubs around the world and dodging the unwelcome advances of male colleagues or official delegations. Such instances inspired more than 200 of my female colleagues and myself to sign an open letter to the leadership of the diplomatic and defense institutions recently that stated that these diplomatic and security agencies were not immune from the #MeToo charges made about Hollywood moguls. It asked that the U.S. government implement changes in their organizations—agencies that previously took a blind eye when women were disrespected and deemed less competitive for senior diplomatic positions.

In early February, I introduced the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, to a standing-room-only audience at the University of Central Florida. Her life accomplishments would cause anyone privileged to be in her presence to look upon her in awe. Her reference to climate justice resonated with everyone in the room. As President Robinson noted, climate change has an inordinate effect on women around the world. Midway through recounting her accomplishments, I had to say, “leave it to a woman,” to audience applause.

I am convinced there are many other Mary Robinsons in today’s world. There are Ambassadors Ruth A. Davis, Susan Rice, Samantha Powers, Rosanne Ridgeway, Linda Thomas-Greenfield and many scores of others who will help us realize our laudable goals of peace and security. We would do well to listen to them and elevate their voices.


Harriet Lee Elam Thomas is a diplomat and professor who held numerous posts abroad over the course of her 42-year career, including positions in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, France, Belgium, Mali, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. She retired in 2005 from the U.S. State Department as a senior foreign service officer with the rank of career minister and currently directs the University of Central Florida Diplomacy Program.