Mesdames Secretaries

As many of the world’s women foreign ministers gather in Montreal, OpenCanada’s Catherine Tsalikis examines the power of sisterhood, shared stories and small numbers to spur on change.

By: /
September 20, 2018
Illustration: Abhilasha Dewan

By the time she was appointed Canada’s foreign minister in 1991, Barbara McDougall had spent most of her professional life — which included positions as minister of state for finance, privatization, and employment and immigration, among others — being the only woman in the room.

The years she spent as Canada’s top diplomat — and as the second woman ever to hold the role — were no exception. Now, at 80, she finds most of her recollections about her time at External Affairs, as the department was then called, have little to do with gender, and more to do with overseeing Canada’s foreign policy as the Soviet Union collapsed, the negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa and the outbreak of war in the Balkans. 

All the same, there were “funny little things” that happened to women, but not men, she recalled one recent afternoon, in the living room of her home in Toronto.

She remembers attending her first NATO foreign ministers’ conference in Europe and being the only female representative. That particular morning’s meeting had ended, and ministers were walking “fairly casually” toward the spot for the traditional family photo. 

Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, so McDougall took the opportunity to duck into a nearby washroom, to comb her hair and put on some lipstick. When she re-emerged moments later, she was astounded. “By the time I came out, the photo was over,” she says, still incredulous to this day. “I mean, don’t these guys ever comb their hair?”

“By that stage of my life, I had the good sense to say, ‘Hey you guys, hello! We’re not finished yet.’” The photo was retaken.

Despite being the one minister in a skirt in a sea of suits at NATO conferences, McDougall says at the time it didn’t feel revolutionary to be a woman in the position of Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs, dodging bullets in Sarajevo and visiting Moscow every January as the Cold War melted away.

“I just got on with it,” she says, as she did while in other Cabinet positions — with a little help from her female colleagues.

When former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power in 1984, he appointed six women, including McDougall as finance minister, to his Cabinet — a record number at the time. Back then, McDougall was sharing a house with Patricia Carney, the minister of energy, mines and resources. They decided to invite the other women ministers over for dinner and drinks, expecting a rather informal evening of getting to know each other and “talking about, what do you do when you want to buy Kotex and everybody in your department sees you in the drug store? [Or] what’s your deputy minister like, because they were all men.”

Flora MacDonald — Canada’s first woman foreign minister and at the time the minister of employment and immigration — had other ideas. “Flora, bless her ever-loving heart…Flora arrived a little bit later than the rest of us, and she came in with an agenda,” McDougall says, laughing at the memory. “Here’s what we need to do about native women, we need to talk about child care…”

Madeleine Albright, who was appointed as the first female US secretary of state a few years after McDougall’s tenure and had previously been the US ambassador to the United Nations, also knows well the benefits of camaraderie and sisterhood while in office.

She likes to kid that when she arrived at the United Nations in 1993, it was one of the first times she didn’t have to cook for herself. So, she asked her assistant to invite her fellow female representatives to lunch. They showed up at her residence — all six of them.
 

The group, a tiny percentage of the UN’s 184 ambassadors, called themselves the “G7” — Girls 7 — and “decided we would always take each other’s phone calls and work together,” Albright recounted in a phone interview from Washington, DC. 

Later, when she became secretary of state in 1997, Albright decided to “get the women foreign ministers together — there were 14 of us, that was it.” The “Fearsome 14” met every year on the margins of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, swapping stories and sharing notes on their personal lives, but also discussing how to address pressing global challenges. 

“What happened was it became larger and larger in terms of the number,” Albright says. “It sounds kind of really antediluvian at this point that it ever was a question of whether women ministers should get together…I think it’s terrific. I do think it makes a difference.”

Strength in small numbers

On September 21–22 in Montreal, current women foreign ministers will have the opportunity to experience this for themselves. Canada and the European Union will co-host the first formal Women Foreign Ministers’ Meeting — an initiative driven by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini.

“Minister Freeland and High Representative Mogherini have a really good relationship,” an official familiar with the meeting told OpenCanada. “As they found each other in similar meetings and international venues throughout the year they noticed how many other, strong women foreign ministers they were interacting with, and they started discussing the idea.” 

The meeting was officially announced in April, during the Group of Seven foreign and security ministerial meeting in Toronto, where Freeland and Mogherini held a test run. Seven other women ministers, including Croatia’s Marija Pejčinović Burić, were present for an outreach session and an unscripted dinner. 

“Sharing our experiences, sharing our ideas, can greatly help to better shape our work…but also puts a light on what we could do for women’s empowerment.”

“It was really great that I got this invitation from Chrystia,” Pejčinović Burić says. “I think to all of us that were there, it showed that sharing our experiences, sharing our ideas, can greatly help to better shape our work and to improve our understanding and how we are doing things. But also I think it puts a light on what we could do for women’s empowerment in general.”

“The reality is, when women foreign ministers come together, it’s so novel,” the official says. “We came out of that outreach dinner so hopeful and inspired…that really locked in the energy for the next meeting.” 

Every woman foreign minister in the world — there are almost 30 of them — was invited to the Montreal meeting (timed around the opening of the UNGA to make travel more efficient). According to Global Affairs Canada, 17, including Freeland and Mogherini, will be present.

The topics of discussion will include women’s empowerment, political participation and leadership, international security, reinforcing democracy and combatting sexual and gender-based violence, among others. Some external speakers from the civil society sphere — both men and women — were also invited. 

Pejčinović Burić emphasizes that it’s “very important to hear men talking about gender equality” and notes it was useful to have “colleagues from the G7 who were male, like [from] Italy, the UK and so on” attend the G7 meeting in April.

It has been 17 years since Albright left office, and while the number of women foreign ministers has doubled, it’s still only a small fraction of the foreign ministers representing the United Nations’ 193 member states in 2018.

A number of countries have had several women foreign ministers, but others have had none at all. Out of the current crop, many are their country’s first woman foreign minister.

Kamina Johnson-Smith, who has been Jamaica’s foreign minister since 2016, is one of them. “I am extremely proud of it — I am honoured to hold the role,” she tells OpenCanada. She says that despite sometimes being the only woman in the room, she has not experienced any “consistent discrimination” or felt “strongly disadvantaged” by the fact that she’s a woman.

“Every now and again you’re mistaken for a spouse, and you have to say, ‘I’m actually the minister,’” she laughs. “But thankfully that doesn’t happen so much.

“I do enjoy, thankfully, a great deal of support from women in this country, who always express positive encouragement and their pleasure in seeing a woman in this role.”

Johnson-Smith also appreciates the sense of solidarity that exists among women in her position. “What’s great is that there is good camaraderie and support among female foreign ministers, which is a positive thing,” she says.

For women foreign ministers — for whom little is certain except uncertainty around what any given day will bring — the kind of in-person connection with their counterparts offered by the Montreal meeting can be crucial, especially since other kinds of relationships inevitably suffer, on what several ministers have described as a lonely journey.

In her memoir, Madam Secretary, Albright writes that she found, to her distress, “that it was impossible to maintain many of the personal friendships I had forged in Washington during the previous two decades…I simply did not have time for private life.”

McDougall echoes the sentiment and thinks “shared stories” when ministers get together this week will be of real interest. She recalls one long-anticipated gathering of friends that she was hosting at home shortly after being appointed foreign minister. “Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in India, so I left in the middle of my own party to go to Delhi for the funeral.

“These things have an impact on family life,” she says. “They have an impact on friendship…I hardly ever saw my friends.”

Johnson-Smith says that while get-togethers on the margins of the UNGA allow ministers to share thoughts in an informal setting, “a formal meeting allows for a much more focused agenda and focused discussion of issues that affect us.”

She adds that getting together in a formal way “elevates the conversation — or rather, elevates it from a conversation.” And indeed, many are hoping that a meeting of this sort can not only provide personal support, but also spur on concrete policy change that would be beneficial to women and girls around the world. 

Championing real change

In her memoir, Albright writes that when her female counterparts came together as a group, “we found quickly that our joint projects had more impact and weight than initiatives we undertook separately.” 

The “G7” and “Fearsome 14” groups of UN ambassadors and foreign ministers were more than just an exercise in “friendship and funny stories,” Albright says. They lobbied to “try and get women judges on the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, since most of the crimes had been committed against women,” and succeeded in getting two female judges appointed.

“And later, we were able…to get some stuff done in terms of help on HIV and AIDS,” Albright adds. “We were able to have rape declared a weapon of war — I mean, there really have been some substantive aspects of this.”

Sté​fanie von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University, hopes the meeting in Montreal will lead to “new initiatives and tangible commitments to support gender equality goals, as leaders address varied challenges from peace and security to climate change. 

“About 17 foreign ministers working together can generate a lot of momentum,” Von Hlatky says. “It is a very public gesture which signals the importance of gender equality — the benefit is having a committed group of ministers come together, as opposed to Canada championing this issue on its own.” 

Johnson-Smith says that the feminist foreign policy espoused by Freeland and the Trudeau government as a whole has “raised to a greater visibility” Canada’s willingness to support and partner with countries on “matters which have a feminist value.” 

“A country like Jamaica that is actively seeking to promote the ending of violence against women and girls…there is a need for extra budgetary support for those matters. It is good to have a strong partner like Canada that values those issues as well, promoting and supporting them.”

Johnson-Smith isn’t certain if the meeting is intended to have a final communiqué or a joint declaration, but thinks “it would be good if [there] were to [be] a declaration that sort of shares a consensus view on these issues, with a clear gendered lens.” 

“While these types of events are great to raise awareness and encourage positive change for women around the world, how to get men leaders more deeply engaged remains a challenge,” von Hlatky adds. “There are 193 countries at the UN, and so 17 ministers is hardly a critical mass, despite the event’s high visibility. But if specific, well-funded initiatives are tabled, these can serve as important building blocks.”

Foreign affairs, fully optimized

As von Hlatky points out, formal and informal barriers to having more women as top diplomats continue to persist. Yldiz Pollack-Beighle, minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Suriname, shared her thoughts with OpenCanada via email.

“Women still face barriers, biases and challenges in being promoted to high-ranking positions,” she wrote. “The traditional opinion about women, the different style of leadership, insensible prejudice, gender stereotypes, and sometimes lack of self-confidence are…the most common hurdles that keep women from reaching the top.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that being a country’s top diplomat inescapably involves a demanding, gruelling travel schedule that changes on a dime. 

“The benefit is having a committed group of ministers come together, as opposed to Canada championing [these issues] on its own.”

Pejčinović Burić — speaking to OpenCanada shortly after landing in Brussels, where she will stay one night before flying home to Croatia, and then on to Canada for this week’s meeting — says that travel has always been a part of her professional life, even when her daughter, now grown, was younger. Her daughter is very proud of her, she says, but “it was not easy for her and neither for me. You make a compromise, I think, that men don’t do in the same way — I wouldn’t say they don’t do it at all, but not in the same way.” 

“I don’t have kids, and I was between marriages while I was there,” McDougall says, referring to her time as foreign minister. “If you’re running for office as a woman, there are different things to take into account…If you have to fly from Sudbury to Toronto every week to go to Queen’s Park, or you have to fly from Prince George to go to Ottawa, that makes a difference, if you’re married, and especially if you have children. 

“I think it’s harder for women to come to the decision to run — believe me, I’ve tried to talk women into running,” she says. “And women with families…I don’t know how Chrystia does it.”

Albright, too, expresses admiration for Canada’s foreign minister, who has three children at home in Toronto and whose travel itinerary is enough to make even the most frequent flyer’s head spin. “By the time I had the ‘big job’ my kids were grown up...she’s dealing with it in a way that I never had to.”

Albright emphasizes that she wouldn’t want to see the world completely run by women — anyone who does, she jokes, has forgotten what high school is like. 

“But I do think that attention to these issues [around] how people live their lives, and what they are able to do, and health, and some of the cultural issues, are more likely to be dealt with by women… And I do think that also — and these are generalizations — that women are more capable of seeing the other person’s point of view, more conciliatory.” 

Johnson-Smith agrees, saying that while some might challenge her view, she thinks “the natural attributes of women are more given to diplomacy…We do have good problem-solving skills and good negotiating skills, we do sometimes take different approaches to matters, and [this] should be more broadly spread in foreign affairs spaces across the globe.”

“Because of her nature a woman is more impact-driven, more collaborative,” Pollack-Beighle echoes in her email. “We are mentors, we have emotional strength (emotion is not weakness!!)…I believe in diversity in general, because it leads to higher performance. Gender diversity means a greater diversity of thought, which, in turn, leads to improved problem-solving and greater benefits and results.” 

It’s one of the arguments for gender equality itself: societies are more stable, and more prosperous, when women are politically and economically empowered.

“Countries really cannot continue to believe that their economies are fully optimized, or their societies are fully optimized, if half your population is marginalized, or is not allowed to self-actualize, or is not empowered or contributing to your growth,” Johnson-Smith says. “I believe that a feminist foreign policy helps to promote a broader view of why it’s important to empower women and girls. So I’m absolutely in support of it — I think it’s an excellent approach.”

McDougall, for her part, feels a bit differently, in that she doesn’t believe women necessarily make more effective diplomats. So what’s the argument for having more women at the table?

“Fairness,” she asserts, matter-of-factly. “Women are every bit as effective as men, whether they manage things differently or not. And therefore, they should be there, just in the same way as men should be. I don’t think it’s because they do things better, or differently. I think it’s that they have every right to make a contribution and to be effective, just as men do.”