The 10 most influential female diplomats
The list below comprises the ten most influential female diplomats. These women held diplomatic positions during a time when diplomacy and politics were mainly seen as a domain for men. They accomplished achievements which influenced the lives of many individuals, the fate of countries, and eventually changed the history for women ambassadors. This list on the most reputable, prominent, and well-known female diplomats contains additional information on their nationality, background, career and greatest achievements.
When creating this list, we intended to display here these ten female diplomats whose actions and decisions had an impact on diplomacy, international relations as well as human rights. The list does not reflect any political opinion of the authors.
- Diana Abgar (1859-1937)
Diana Abgar was an Armenian writer and humanitarian. She is the first Armenian female ambassador and is also considered as being one of the first women to be appointed in a diplomatic position, in the twentieth century. She spoke many languages including Armenian, English, Hindi, Farsi, Japanese, and Chinese. In 1890, she married Mikayel Abgaryan, a merchant, and settled in Japan. Following her husband’s death in 1906, Abgar continued her husband’s business and managed both his wealth and trade deals through setting up business relations with people from the US, Europe, and China. The Armenian Massacres of 1894-96 and 1909 prompted Abgar to take a stand for her people. She began to appeal to peace societies and sent articles to major European and American newspapers, pleading her case for Armenians right for “security of life and property on the soil of their own country.” In 1915, the Armenian Genocide took place. Many Armenians were forced to flee and became refugees. With no home to come back to, these refugees travelled to America, via Japan. Due to Abgar’s pleas and guarantees to the Japanese officials, Armenian refugees were provided temporary asylum in Japan. She rented houses to shelter the refugees and would personally help with visas and documents. In 1920, she was appointed Honorary Consul to Japan. This status of an ambassador gave her an additional opportunity to speak on behalf of Armenian refugees.
- Rózsa Schwimmer (1877-1948)
Rózsa Schwimmer was a Hungarian feminist, pacifist and female suffragette. In 1904, she and Vilma Glücklich founded the Hungarian Feminist Association. The organization advocated for women’s equality in Hungary in all spheres of women’s life. Furthermore, she published numerous works, and became known throughout Europe as a highly effective lecturer on feminist topics. In 1913, she organized and was elected as corresponding secretary of the Seventh Congress of the International Women Suffrage Alliance in Budapest. The following year, Schwimmer moved to London to serve as press secretary for the Alliance. In 1914, after the outbreak of World War I, she travelled to the US, where she consulted with Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and President Woodrow Wilson, urging mediation of the war. She continued to campaign throughout 1916 and 1917 for peace and an end to the war. In 1915, Schwimmer co-founded the Women’s Peace Party. That same year, after attending the International Congress of Women at The Hague, she began to work with other feminists to persuade foreign ministers in Europe to support the creation of a body to peacefully mediate world affairs. In 1918, Schwimmer was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Switzerland by Prime Minister Mihály Károlyi. She was put forward by several nations for the 1948 Nobel Peace Prize, but she died before the winner was chosen.
- Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was political figure, a diplomat and the wife of US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the White House, she was one of the most active first ladies in history and worked for political, racial and social justice. She was an advocate for African Americans, American workers, the poor, young people and women during the Depression. She also supported government-funded programs for artists and writers. Roosevelt encouraged her husband to appoint more women to federal positions, and she held hundreds of press conferences for female reporters, during a time when women were typically barred from the White House press conferences. After the UN was founded at the end of World War II, President Harry Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt to be part of the first US delegation to the UN. She went on to chair the Human Rights Committee. In September 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt delivered her most famous speech, “The Struggle for Human Rights,” which urged UN members to vote to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From 1961, until her death, Roosevelt headed the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, at the request of President John Kennedy. She also served on the board of numerous organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Advisory Council for the Peace Corps.
- Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)
Gabriela Mistral, pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, was a Chilean poet, educator and a diplomat. She was the first Latin American woman to win the Noble Peace Prize for Literature. In 1918, Mistral was appointed director of a secondary school for girls in Punta Arenas. Her advancement in Chile’s national school system continued until she left for Mexico in 1922. In Mexico, she joined in the country’s plan to reform libraries and schools, and start a national education system. She introduced mobile libraries to rural areas to make literature more accessible to the poor. In 1923, Mistral was awarded the title of “Teacher of the Nation” by the Chilean government. In 1924, she began a new career as a diplomat for the Chilean government, and left for Europe in 1926 as an official emissary. In 1933, Mistral entered the Chilean Foreign Service, and became an ambassador for Latin American Culture. She represented Chile as honorary consul in Portugal, Brazil, Spain, Italy and the US. During the last years of her life, she made her home in New York and worked as the Chilean delegate to the UN. Not only was Mistral a great writer and diplomat, but she influenced the work of another young writer, Pablo Neurada, who would later go on to be a Nobel Prize winner like herself.
- Alva Myrdal (1902-1986)
Alva Reimer Myrdal was a Swedish sociologist, politician, diplomat and an advocate for nuclear disarmament. In 1924, she attended the University of Stockholm, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Scandinavian languages and literature. That same year, she married Karl Gunnar Myrdal, an economist. Both she and her husband advocated for social welfare reforms and together, they wrote a book entitled “The population problem in crisis.” She was also a long-time member of the Social Democrat Party in Sweden, and in 1943, was appointed to the party’s committee with the task of drafting a post-war program. After World War II, she became involved in international issues. During 1949 to 1950, she served as principal director of the United Nations Department of Social Welfare. From 1950 to 1955, she was chairman of UNESCO’s Social Science Department. In 1955, she became the first Swedish female diplomat and was appointed ambassador to India. She also had related duties in Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1961, Myrdal was named special disarmament adviser to the Swedish foreign minister. A year later, she was assigned as head of the Swedish delegation to the Geneva Disarmament Conference, where she worked actively to persuade the superpowers to disarm. She strongly believed that the nuclear race was a major concern, and thus fought for nuclear weapons-free zones in Europe. In 1982, both she and Mexican diplomat, Alfonso García Robles were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Suzanne Borel (1904-1995)
Marie Nancy Suzanne Borel was the first French women to become a diplomat. In 1927 she earned her degree in philosophy. She then went on to study Chinese at the School of Oriental Languages. It was during this time, in 1928, that her mother sent her a clipping from Le Temps newspaper, stating that a decree had been issued allowing women to sit for the recruitment exam (concours) for a diplomatic career. Although, she was unsuccessful in the 1929 Grand concours, she passed the exam the following year. Before beginning her work at the Foreign Ministry, Borel was informed that she could only work in certain departments, which included the press, the League of Nations and the Works Department which dealt with promoting the French language around the world. She was then asked to sign a pre-prepared letter acknowledging that the Ministry had the right to restrict her employment to those departments. Despite being France’s first female diplomat, in her autobiography, Par une porte entrebâillée (‘Through the half-open door’), Borel did not see herself as a feminist. Rather she described herself as: “Simply a woman with a taste for justice, who believes that women are more capable than conventional wisdom suggests, and that it is only fair to give them an opportunity.” She had been honored with various French orders of merit including, Légion d’honneur, Croix de guerre and the Medal of Freedom.
- Margaret Meagher (1911-1999)
Blanche Margaret Meagher was a Canadian teacher and a diplomat. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and her Master’s degree in French and German Literature. Up until World War II, Meagher had been working as a junior school teacher. However, an urgent need for staff meant that the Department of External Affairs opened its doors to women – who were needed to temporarily replace the officers who had left to fight in Europe. Meagher and twelve other women passed the foreign service entrance examination and became the first female diplomats to join the department. In 1944, she was temporarily posted to Washington DC. In 1947, she then transferred to Mexico. It was while serving there, that the Canadian government issued a policy, allowing women to compete for jobs and for promotions within the Department of External Affairs. Upon passing her exams, Meagher became a Second Secretary rank in the Canadian Foreign Service. In 1958, she was appointed Ambassador to Israel as the first Canadian woman to hold an ambassadorial position. She later served as Canada’s High Commissioner to Cyprus, Kenya and Uganda. As Canada’s Ambassador to Sweden from 1969 to 1973, Meagher helped to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. As a dedicated public servant, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1974.
- Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah (1915-2000)
Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah was a Pakistani-Bengali politician, an author and a diplomat. She was the first Muslim and Asian woman to receive her PhD from the University of London. Her doctorate thesis, “Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story”, was a critical analysis of Urdu literature. In 1933, she married Mohamed Ikramullah, a member of the Indian Civil Service. It was during her husband’s posting in Delhi, that she came in contact with Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan). She joined the All-India Muslim League and also set up the Muslim Women Student’s Federation. In 1947, after the partition of India, Ikramullah moved to Pakistan. She was one of two women to be elected to the Constituent Assembly and tasked with writing a constitution for the new nation. She also worked tirelessly to promote the rights of religious minorities and women. Ikramullah was appointed to Pakistan’s delegation to the UN in 1948, where she met Eleanor Roosevelt. She was also a member of the committee that was responsible for drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention Against Genocide. From 1964 to 1967, she was Pakistan’s ambassador to Morocco. She developed a growing interest in the Arab world and gradually withdrew from Pakistani politics. Her autobiography, From Purdah to Parliament, which was published in 1963, is one of her best-known works. In 2002, two years after her death, the government of Pakistan awarded Ikramullah the Nishan-i-Imtiaz award for outstanding contributions and service toward world recognition for the country.
- Sadako Ogata (1927-2019)
Sadako Ogata was a Japanese academic, diplomat and an author. Before joining the UN, she was an academic – serving as dean of the faculty of foreign studies at Sophia University in Tokyo in 1989, where she had been a professor since 1980. After becoming the first Japanese woman to represent her country at the United Nations, in 1976, Ogata served as the Japanese representative at the UN Commission on Human Rights from 1982 to 1985. In 1991, she became the first woman, the first Japanese person, and the first academic to be appointed as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). During her time as commissioner, she demonstrated her ability and leadership in carrying out humanitarian missions to save numerous refugees’ lives in Iraq, Turkey, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and many other countries. In her book “The Turbulent Decade – Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s”, she described her career at the UN as a period of constant humanitarian crises, in which “[The] UNHCR worked like fire brigades through all the continents of the world.” In 1995, she was awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, an annual award given by the National Constitution Centre of the US, which recognizes “leadership in the pursuit of freedom.” From 2003 to 2012, Ogata served as president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency. She also served as an adviser to the organizing committee of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
- Angela King (1938-2007)
Angela Evelyn Vernon King was a Jamaican diplomat, who advocated for the advancement of women’s rights. In 1966, she joined the UN Secretariat, where she worked on matters relating to human rights and social development. King had a long history of active work for the advancement of women in the UN Secretariat; she was a founding member of the ad hoc Group on Equal Rights for Women (GERWUN) and chaired the Secretariat’s High-level Steering Committee on Improving the Status of Women. She also chaired the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender and Equality (IANWGE) and supervised the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW). From 1992 to 1994, King was on assignment as chief of Mission of the UN Observer Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA), one of the first two women to head a UN mission on preventive diplomacy and peace-building. Her diplomacy and advocacy with the Security Council led to the adoption of the Council’s resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security – the Council’s first recognition of women’s essential role in peace-making, peacebuilding and peace negotiations. In 1997, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan appointed King as his Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women at the level of Assistant Secretary-General. Anan explained that her job was, more specifically, “the advancement of women worldwide.” Although she retired in 2004, she continued to attend and address UN meetings on women’s issues.