Ever since women were permitted to join the U.S. diplomatic corps in 1922, they have slowly but surely made their way to the highest leadership positions in the State Department. In 1933, Ruth Bryan Owen was appointed as the first female chief of mission as head of the U.S. embassy for Denmark and Iceland. The first woman appointed chief of mission at the ambassador level, Helen Eugenie Moore Anderson, was named ambassador to Denmark in 1949.
In the first 42 years following Ruth Owen's appointment as chief of mission (1933-1976), the number of female appointments as chief of mission or assistant secretaries of State stayed well within the single digits. The Ford administration broke this barrier, appointing seven female chiefs of mission and three women to senior positions. With the Carter administration, rapid progress began: 18 women were made chiefs of mission and 10 were appointed to other senior positions. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush continued the trend, with 33 and 37 female appointments, respectively. The Clinton administration made a larger leap, appointing 116 women to the senior-most diplomatic posts. In his first term, President George W. Bush named 69 women to the highest diplomatic posts.
Since 2001, several women have been named ambassadors to Arab countries. Maureen Quinn was ambassador to Qatar from 2001 to 2004. During the same period, Marcelle Wahba was ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and was succeeded by Michelle Sison, who had been the deputy chief of mission in Pakistan from 2000 to 2002. In 2003, Margaret Scobey was appointed ambassador to Syria. The rapid gains of the past decade are the culmination of over 70 years of incremental advances for women in U.S. diplomacy, and position women for new breakthroughs in leadership in the months and years ahead.
* This article and the accompanying chart are excerpted from Ann Wright's article, "Breaking Through Diplomacy's Glass Ceiling," published in the October 2005 issue of Foreign Service Journal. The complete article can be found at the American Foreign Service Association's website at www.afsa.org. (back to text)