Whilst we get on with our day, Mrs May is in the Trumped-up White House for her first meeting with the new US President. No doubt she is feeling ready having spent a goodly time prepping and practicising for this big event. But, whether she likes it or not, her gender has a big part to play. “Fat.” “Pig”. “Dog”. “Slob”. “Disgusting animal.” Really Trump’s views on women need to be read – frequently – to be believed. And in his week of many executive orders, one of the most controversial has been the reinstatement of the global gag rule, barring US foreign aid from going to any nongovernmental organization (NGO) that either provides abortion services, or even discusses abortion with its patients as an option for family planning. Trump’s Cabinet is more white and more male than any president’s first Cabinet since Reagan.
As she enters the men den then, Mrs May will need to be her most self-assured, calmest self. But it could just be that today, Theresa’s trump card, is her femininity.
Frauen Sind Doch Bessemer Diplomaten or Women are Better Diplomats, premiered on 1 October 1941. It was first the German feature film to be made in colour, and one of the most expensive films produced during the Third Reich.
A musical comedy set during the German revolutions of 1848–49, it’s the story of how a dancer, named Marie-Luise Pally (Marika Rökk), is sent on a diplomatic mission to the Frankfurt Parliament to stop her uncle’s casino in Homburg from being shut down.
Reportedly the Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, was not at all pleased with the film. Perhaps he didn’t enjoy the singing, or perhaps, the Master of Lies didn’t believe that a woman could negotiate, and exert influence, at such a high level.
“Diplomacy is essentially a feminine art”, wrote Brazilian feminist Elizabeth Bastos in February 1935. Perseverance is important. Patience is extremely important. So are social and communication skills, especially the ability to listen. To negotiate successfully, diplomats need to be good at getting something from those not wanting to give it to them and persuading others to form alliances. (Theresa will be fine then, what about Donald?)
Women though are still greatly outnumbered in global diplomatic positions (occupying 20% -30% of ambassador roles) and in The United Nations (out of 193 member countries, 15% currently represent their nations as permanent representatives, about 30 women) (and paid at least 11% less). But there has been a concerted effort, publicly anyway, to analyze the reasons for why – institutional sexism is possibly the most undersold one (women are still playing catch-up having been barred from Foreign Office posts until 1946). Though good on France for showing the way…
But women’s involvement in global politics is really nothing new. Elizabeth I’s ladies-in-waiting were adept in international intrigue; Mary Wortley Montagu wrote dispatches from Ottoman Constantinople; Nancy Astor, the American- born wife, and influencer of 1930s Anglo-US relations (also of the influential Clivedon set).
Probably the most famous women diplomat of the 20th century was Gertrude Bell.
As a writer, traveller, photographer, and archaeologist, she explored, mapped, and built up an extraordinary network of important contacts in the Middle East before World War 1. Bell had attended Oxford and earned First Class Honours in Modern History. She spoke Arabic, Persian, French and German.
Then she became a political officer, administrator, spy for the British government. She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”. (Fantastic archive to her work here).
Today there are some really good examples of female diplomats, who have worked well for their Country and played a winning game on the international stage.
(But this isn’t a polemic for women to rule the world. As Madeleine Albright (see below) once said; it’s wrong to think that if the whole world were run by women, it would be a better place. If you think it would, she said, “You’ve forgotten high school…”)
BBC R4 – Friends & Foes – A Narrative History of diplomacy http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08crt65
In a frank and funny Q&A, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks bluntly about politics and diplomacy in this TED talk.
Since leaving office as U.S. Secretary of State in 2001, Madeleine Albright has continued her distinguished career in foreign affairs as a businesswoman, political adviser and professor.
Great Lives, R4: Gertrude Bell
Women of the World by Helen McCarthy (2014)
McCarthy argues that “women were everywhere and nowhere in the world of old diplomacy”, but their unofficial status did not stop them from making their presence felt. In this examination of their female influence on global affairs, you will find Lady Ampthill (Berlin 1870s), Gertrude Bell (Iraq, 1920s), Freya Stark (who wore Dior in the wilder reaches of Asia and Arabia, 1930s) and Nancy Lambton (Iran and Persia 1939).
Clare Boothe Luce, the first woman appointed a major Ambassadorial post abroad, here in her own words – http://adst.org/oral-history/
Queen of the Desert (2015) – Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman and Damian Lewis (directed by Werner Herzog). The enthralling and triumphant true life story of Gertrude Bell (based on the book by Georgina Howell).
Ballet has long been considered integral to cultural diplomacy. National Troupes pirouetting through the political flashpoints of the 20th century brought joy and understanding to global audiences. Take the Cuban National Ballet. In 1975, during the rapprochement of the Carter administration, Alicia Alonso became the first major Cuban artist to visit the United States. Despite the goings-on of Cold War paranoia, the audience was given a vivid impression of Cuban artistry; a New York Times critic wrote that she “had never felt a dancer exert such compelling power over a viewer.”
The Russian Ballet of Siberia are currently touring the UK – you can book tickets here.
Featured image: Clare Bothe Luce and Winston Churchill. Photo courtesy of Sylvia Jukes Morris.