In the gated Oman Embassy off Massachusetts Avenue, Washington’s first female ambassador from an Arab country, Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, sat at her desk looking over a speech aimed at erasing misconceptions about her Muslim nation.
A few blocks away inside a stately Dupont Circle mansion, India’s first female ambassador in more than 50 years, Meera Shankar, huddled with top aides after her prime minister’s state visit with President Barack Obama.
Nearby, in a century-old residence with its own ballroom, Latin America’s only female ambassador in Washington, Colombia’s Carolina Barco, dashed back from talking up free trade on Capitol Hill to showcase her country’s culture and food.
There are 25 female ambassadors posted in Washington — the highest number ever, according to the State Department. “This is breaking precedent,” said Selma “Lucky” Roosevelt, a former U.S. chief of protocol.
Women remain a distinct minority — there are 182 accredited ambassadors in Washington — but their rise from a cadre of five in the late 1990s to five times that is opening up what had been an elite’s men club for over a century.
A key reason is the increase in the number of top U.S. diplomats who are women, what some call the “Hillary effect.” “Hillary Clinton is so visible” as secretary of state, said Amelia Matos Sumbana, who just arrived as ambassador from Mozambique. “She makes it easier for presidents to pick a woman for Washington.”
Three of the last four secretaries of state — the office that receives foreign ambassadors — have been women. Madeleine Albright became the first female U.S. secretary of state in 1997.
Condoleezza Rice served from 2005 to 2009. Clinton, now in her second year, is especially well-known abroad because of her stint as first lady and her presidential run; she is seen by many as a globetrotting champion of women’s rights.
“The pictures of U.S. diplomacy have been strongly dominated by photos of women recently,” Shankar said. “That helps to broaden the acceptance of women in the field of diplomacy.”
Some American diplomats said the appointment of a woman can be a visible way for a country to signal that is modernising and in step with the United States.
Eleven of the 25 female envoys in Washington are from Africa. Four are from Caribbean nations. The others are from Bahrain, the Netherlands, Croatia, Kyrgyzstan, Singapore, Oman, Colombia, India, Liechtenstein and Nauru, an eight-square-mile Pacific island with only 14,000 people.
Many said they are still often bypassed in receiving lines and the male standing beside them is greeted as “Mr. Ambassador.”
“Even when I say I am ambassador, people assume I am the spouse,” said Shankar, who has represented India in Washington for nearly a year.
More than half of new recruits for the U.S. Foreign Service and 30 per cent of the chiefs of mission are now women, according to the State Department. That is a seismic shift from the days, as late as the 1970s, when women in the Foreign Service had to quit when they married, a rule that did not apply to men.
Shankar credited female leaders with turning the world's spotlight on the marginalisation of Afghan women, and several U.S. diplomats said that since women have run the State Department, U.S. embassies have emphasised collecting information on rights abuses against women.
While male ambassadors are usually accompanied by wives, female ambassadors are often here alone. Of eight interviewed, four are divorced and four said their husbands did not accompany them to Washington because of their own jobs.
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