H-Diplo Review Essay 445- "Breaking Protocol"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 445
1 July 2022

Philip Nash.  Breaking Protocol:  America’s First Female Ambassadors, 1933–1964Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2020.  ISBN:  9780813178394 (hardcover, $45.00).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Frank Gerits | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Kaete O’Connell, Yale University

Who should represent the United States overseas?  This is the question posed in the prologue of Philip Nash’s new book, Breaking Protocol: America’s First Female Ambassadors, 1933–1964.  The obvious answer is that diplomats should reflect the nation they represent, and yet for decades, US embassies were staffed and led by elite, white men.  Breaking Protocol recovers the stories of the female trailblazers whose appointments as ambassadors helped modernize the diplomatic corps in the middle of the twentieth century.  Confronting sexism and misogyny both at home and abroad, these women increasingly relied on people’s diplomacy to maneuver around such obstacles and pursue policy objectives.  Blending diplomatic and women’s history, Nash’s book demonstrates how this reliance on people’s diplomacy not only strengthened relationships with host countries, but also worked to change attitudes within US diplomatic circles.

Breaking Protocol introduces readers to the “Big Six,” the country’s first female ambassadors: Ruth Bryan Owen (Denmark 1933–1936), Florence Jaffray Harriman (Norway 1937–1941), Perle S. Mesta (Luxembourg 1949–1953), Eugenie M. Anderson (Denmark 1949–1953 and Bulgaria 1962–1964), Clare Boothe Luce (Italy 1953–1956), and Frances E. Willis (Switzerland 1953–1957, Norway 1957–1961, and Ceylon 1961–1964). Largely absent from the existing historiography, Nash argues that these women’s unprecedented influence necessitates a close examination of their careers.[1] Each chapter profiles a different woman, providing a mini-biography of her professional career.  Arranged in chronological order, these chapters demonstrate the gradual, and often begrudging, acceptance of female ambassadors from the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy.  An epilogue carries the narrative to the present, making it clear that while strides toward greater female representation have occurred, gender parity remains elusive.

Rather than delve immediately into the stories of these women, Nash sets the stage with a glimpse into the diplomatic corps in the early twentieth century.  With few exceptions, this was a world dominated by men of elite backgrounds, “pale, male, and Yale” went the adage (8).  Not only was the Foreign Service an exclusive club, but the elitism it inculcated overshadowed relationships with host countries.  Diplomats rarely engaged with the citizens of the countries to which they were posted, choosing to associate primarily with members of the ruling class.  While the presence of diplomatic wives often “compensated for their husbands’ insularity,” it did little to curb public contempt for diplomats perceived as out-of-touch (13, 18).  This antipathy found expression in stereotypes of effeminacy that questioned diplomats’ strength, intellect, and sexuality.2 “Why welcome women,” Nash writes, “when one’s manliness was already under suspicion?” (22).  In an environment of heightened gender anxiety, justification for female exclusion was rooted in sexism that viewed women as lacking the instincts, skills, strength, emotional disconnect, and political savvy required of a shrewd diplomat.  Simply put, American women were deemed “too soft” for diplomatic service (26).  It was not until 1920, with passage of the 19th amendment, that women even became eligible to take the Foreign Service entrance examination, but their numbers remained small in the years prior to World War II.

The chapters that follow provide fascinating biographical sketches of the Big Six.  Nash marshals an impressive array of primary source material that allows for a more nuanced presentation of the careers and accomplishments of these women, as well as their personal lives.  Each chapter provides information on the ambassador’s background, the circumstances surrounding her appointment, media coverage, reception in the host nation, discussion of key moments as chief--including complications of diplomatic protocol--and details on her relationship with the State Department and members of the Foreign Service.  Unlike the men who came before them, the diversity among this group of women is remarkable.  They were born and raised in big cities and small towns.  Some attended finishing school, one held a Ph.D. in political science, and another studied at Juilliard.  They were suffragists, social reformers, concerned mothers, elected representatives, socialites, and one career diplomat.  Single, widowed, married, heiresses, and media moguls, their financial circumstances ran the gamut, shaping the way these women ran their embassies. Ruth Bryan Owen voiced concerns over exchange rates in Denmark, a country that was not on the gold standard, and used her personal connection with Roosevelt to advance her financial interests and those of her staff. Perle Mesta used her private fortune to entertain and throw parties for Luxembourgers and American GIs stationed in Europe.  Eugenie Anderson expressed guilt over the lavish lifestyle afforded by the Diplomatic Corps in contrast to the local population at her post in Bulgaria and felt “foolish” when she borrowed Owen’s opal tiara for a function at the Danish Royal Court (116).

Despite these differences, all six relied on people’s diplomacy to fulfill their duties and accomplish their diplomatic agenda.  Nash argues that these early female ambassadors “proved themselves far ahead of their time,” not for their political activism or feminism, but because of their embrace and successful implementation of people’s diplomacy (4).  Akin to public diplomacy, people’s diplomacy involved meeting with and engaging the citizenry of a host country rather than government elites.  Nash argues that rather than resorting to public diplomacy, which can sometimes appear manipulative or self-interested, the women in his study “were interested mainly in getting to know the entirety of their host countries and thereby strengthening bilateral ties at multiple levels” (43).3 For Owen, the nation’s first female ambassador, this meant learning Danish, traveling throughout Denmark and its possessions, and promoting the nation at speaking engagements when in the United States. Florence Jaffray Harriman followed suit in Norway where she was chided for “teacup diplomacy” when she organized a committee of American women to assist with Red Cross responsibilities following the outbreak of World War II (68).  The attention to detail in Mesta’s Luxembourg parties—serving regional dishes and playing local music—encouraged additional person-to-person contacts and built further support for US policies in the small nation. Nash credits Anderson with naming this practice people’s diplomacy.  She openly expressed a desire to cultivate human understanding and her actions endeared herself to the populations of first Denmark and then Bulgaria.  Eager to shape Cold War politics, Clare Boothe Luce knew that she had first to endear herself to Italians.  She responded quickly to natural disasters, traveled widely, and was always game for a photo op, even introducing baseball player Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees to citizens on the streets of Rome.  Frances E. Willis, the only career diplomat in the group, placed less of an emphasis on people’s diplomacy, but her professionalism meant that she still traveled widely and learned the language of host countries, including Sinhala.

Nash emphasizes the relationships the Big Six developed with the people of host countries, but I found the relationships they cultivated in the United States to be equally compelling.  Their appointments followed years of political action where they developed important connections that helped sustain their diplomatic careers.  These close relationships with the presidents who appointed them, first ladies, and political mentors all reflected strong interpersonal skills.  They knew how to read a room, but they also knew that their performance would be scrutinized and judged according to a different set of criteria. Nash’s analysis evokes Catherine Allgor’s work on women in Washington during the early republic, when the wives of major political players used new social spaces to redefine what it meant to for a woman to act politically.[2]

Nash makes clear to his readers that each of these women confronted sexism in her own way, but all of them also had complicated relationships with feminism.  The Big Six recognized their place in history, and most acknowledged the responsibility they felt to ensure diplomatic opportunities remained open to women in the future.  While all six exhibited a gender awareness, there was a hesitancy to embrace feminism outright.  The anecdotes from their tenures as mission chief are thought-provoking and amusing, but Nash’s discussion of their post-ambassadorial careers—particularly personal reflections on those careers—is profoundly revealing.

Breaking Protocol deepens historical understandings of women’s contributions in the realm of foreign relations while highlighting the pernicious sexism faced at home, abroad, and even within the confines of the embassy.  Engaging and accessible, this book will appeal to readers who are interested in the role of women in US foreign relations more broadly, but it will also be useful for scholars keen to know more about the history of the foreign service, the origins of public diplomacy, and the intersection of domestic politics and foreign affairs.  Nash evaluates these women’s performance based on their reception, and they were indeed popular.  The caveat is that a popular ambassador is not necessarily a good ambassador, “but a popular American ambassador can certainly enhance positive sentiment toward the United States” (190).  These women proved capable envoys not only in small, European countries deemed less vital to US interests, but also at posts behind the Iron Curtain and in South Asia.  Innovative, resilient, politically savvy, and incredibly self-aware, the Big Six demand attention and further historical interrogation.


Kaete O’Connell is a postdoc in International Security Studies at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Yale University.  She holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University and is currently writing a book on American food power in the early Cold War.


[1] In the three decades following publication of Joan Wallach Scott’s seminal essay, diplomatic historians have answered her call and pushed the field into exciting new directions, frequently incorporating nontraditional sources and interdisciplinary methodologies to better understand how gender shaped US foreign policy.  Yet aside from biographies, scholarship on women’s role in the Foreign Service remains scarce.  See Karin Aggestam and Ann E. Towns, eds, Gender Diplomacy and International Negotiations (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); Jennifer A. Cassidy, ed., Gender and Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2017); Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Beatrice L. McKenzie, “The Problem of Women in the Department: Sex and Gender Discrimination in the 1960s United States Foreign Diplomatic Service,” European Journal of American Studies 10, no. 1 (2015): https://ejas.revues.org/10589; Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1053–1075; Glenda Sluga and Carolyn James, eds., Women, Diplomacy, and International Politics since 1500 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016); Ann Towns and Brigitta Niklasson, “Gender, International Status, and Ambassador Appointments,” Foreign Policy Analysis 13 (July 2017): 521-540; Molly Wood, “‘Commanding Beauty’ and ‘Gentle Charm’: American Women and Gender in the Early Twentieth-Century Foreign Service,” Diplomatic History 31 (June 2007): 505-530; Molly Wood, “Diplomatic Wives: The Politics of Domesticity and the "Social Game" in the U.S. Foreign Service, 1905-1941,” Journal of Women’s History 17:2 (June 2005): 142-165; Molly Wood, “Wives, Clerks and ‘Lady Diplomats’: The Gendered Politics of Diplomacy and Representation in the U.S. Foreign Service, 1900 – 1940,” European Journal of American Studies 10 (March 2015): http://ejas.revues.org/10562.

2 Nash’s discussion of gender anxiety in the Diplomatic Corps complements existing scholarship including Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Robert Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001); and David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Prosecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

3 For a more in-depth discussion of public diplomacy during this time period, see Justin Hart, Empire of Ideas: The Origins of Public Diplomacy and the Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[2] Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000).