Select Page
Defeminizing Diplomacy

Defeminizing Diplomacy

Rogério de Souza Farias I Associate Member at CLAS (*)

“Diplomacy is essentially a feminine art”, wrote Brazilian feminist Elizabeth Bastos in February 1935 (1). She was an active participant in the defense of divorce, of the right to abortion and of the professional freedom for women. Working as a typist in the conservative Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she waged a particular war to open the diplomatic career for women.

Diplomatic history is currently a minor field in the discipline of history. It is usually associated with antiquated methods and démodé historiographical approaches. In the last decades, however, the area is undergoing internal criticism and renewal. Particularly important is how a new generation of students are bringing fresh and imaginative theoretical frameworks, sources and questions to the forefront of a renewed and vibrant area (2).

I see my research as a small contribution in this larger historiographical trend. Since I arrived at the University of Chicago as an Associate Member to CLAS, I have been studying not the substance of diplomatic history itself, but diplomats as a social group. They have a privileged standing between the dynamics of transnational cultural forces, international society and national politics. My main focus has been on Brazilian diplomats.

One particular aspect of this research agenda is the rise of the Brazilian female diplomat. Until 1918 the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have a single female employee either at its headquarters in Rio de Janeiro or at any of its posts abroad; almost one hundred years later, they comprise less than 20% of the diplomatic career. Change in this field, therefore, occurred (and still happens) too late and too slow. Why?

We can answer this question by examining the origins of the diplomatic profession. Its tenets were shaped in Renaissance Italy, Louis XIV’s France and European 19th century courts. It was a male profession. But not for all. Only a privileged minority had any chance to be a part of it.

A diplomat was not just a representative of its home country abroad; he embodied the state itself. As a consequence, he behaved according to a set of ideas about what image should be portrayed to others. This was broadly defined by beliefs that placed a premium on manners, politeness, chivalry and protocol — all aspects influenced by European aristocratic values.

New Picture_1_0.png

Photo 1. A traditional diplomat, wearing fancy clothes in an ostentatious room, is told by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Nilo Peçanha) that he needs to relinquish his posh possessions and start working in a commercial desk. This transition reinforced gender discrimination. O Malho. 1918.

   This had, however, critical consequences in terms of gender relations, as they carried with them anxiety about effeminacy in a male-dominated world. It was this aspect that Elizabeth Bastos and other feminists tried to explore in their quest to open the career to Brazilian women. Tactically, they accepted the idea of differences based on gender to argue that the diplomatic profession was associated with female values. A proper representative of the Brazilian state in international politics, in this opinion, had to be elegant, polite, and discrete; and also have tact, manners, astuteness, a keen eye to detail and a refined taste in clothes (3).

New Picture (1)_0.png

Photo 2. Above (center): Maria José Mendes, the first women to sit for a Ministry of Foreign Affairs exam in 1918. She succeeded and was the only female among seventy-three employees. In the photo below the exam committee. Careta. 1918.

   What Bastos and other feminists failed to appreciate at that time was how the diplomatic profession was evolving away from those values. After the First World War, democracies around the world blamed traditional diplomacy for the crisis in international politics. Intellectuals started to use a new model of maleness. They portrayed the diplomat in a pattern of hegemonic masculinity to transcend the old diplomacy, now associated with female traits (4).

One writer, for example, criticized the “frivolity of a diplomatic life purely representational, ridden by vanities, capricious and affected attitudes” in order to defend a more business-oriented approach to foreign policy (5). Another lambasted a recruitment process privileging “elegance”, which resulted in hiring “brainless idiots with greasy hair and flashy gaiters” (6). Diplomats themselves worried about their images and strived to adopt a new model of manliness and refute the association with values considered feminines. Guerra Duval was one of them. He complained about diplomats being portrayed as “venerable old ladies with trousers” and also the compliments — like, “He is a perfect diplomat.  He is a gentlewoman!” (7)

New Picture (2)_0.png

Photo 3. The diplomat Barros Moreira wearing a traditional diplomatic uniform. He was described as displaying a noble presence, having gestures of restrained grace and muttering gallant and soft words. It was this kind of professional that proponents of diplomatic reform criticized. Careta. 1910

   The route for defeminizing diplomacy was particularly associated with trade promotion. The profile of a perfect diplomat, therefore, was the blunt, pragmatic and practical businessman who worked hard and did not embrace European aristocratic values (8). Lofty and refined manners now morphed into a work ethic suited to the Darwinian struggle in international markets. In this new rhetoric, a gendered division of labor in diplomacy was reinforced.

New Picture (3)_0.png

Photo 4. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Commercial Services in 1929. It was the model for a new diplomacy, which would replace the traditional “effeminate” traits of the profession. In the center, a female typist. Revista Fon Fon.

   We live in a world with unprecedented equality in gender relations. But as this case demonstrates, the social construction of sexual difference can adapt and change in order to sustain discrimination.Today, there are no restrictions on female engagement in diplomacy in Brazil; the phase of tearing down the legal framework which entrenched gender discrimination is over. There is, nonetheless, the battle to change a discriminatory culture.


1- Elisabeth Bastos. A mulher na diplomacia. Jornal do Brasil. 1º de fevereiro de 1935.

2-Karl W. Schweizer and Matt J. Schumann, ‘The revitalization of diplomatic history: renewed reflections’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, v. 19, nº 2 (2008), 149-186; Stephen E. Pelz, ‘A taxonomy for American diplomatic history’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, v. 19, nº 2 (1988), 259-276; Thomas W. Zeiler, ‘The diplomatic history bandwagon: a state of the field’, The Journal of American History, v. 95, nº 4 (2009), 1053-1073; Charles S. Maier, ‘Marking time: the historiography of international relations’ in: (ed), The Past before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (New York: Cornell University Press, 1980), 355-387.

3-About the values associated to Brazilian diplomats until the First World War see Maria Helena Castro Azevedo, Um senhor modernista: biografia de Graça Aranha. (Rio de Janeiro: Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2002), 42; Gilberto Freire, Ordem e progresso [6ª edição]. (São Paulo: Global Editora, 2004), 584-585; Afonso Arinos De Melo Franco, A alma do tempo. Memórias (formação e mocidade). (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1961), 91-92.

4- Tim Carrigan, et al., ‘Toward a new sociology of masculinity’, Theory and society, v. 14, nº 5 (1985), 551-604; Robert W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, ‘Hegemonic masculinity rethinking the concept’, Gender & society, v. 19, nº 6 (2005), 829-859,

5- A obra econômica do Itamaraty. Crítica. 26 de setembro de 1929.

6- Ricardo Pinto. Falta capacidade. Crítica. 27 de agosto de 1929.

7- Adalberto Guerra Duval, ‘A diplomacia no Estado Novo’, Revista do Serviço Público, v. III, nº 3 (1938), 10-11, 10

8- É necessário ver com olhos brasileiros os problemas nacionais. A Noite. 11 de março de 1929; Diplomacia prática. Gazeta de Notícias. 7 de fevereiro de 1930; A reforma do Itamaraty. Correio da Manhã. 22 de outubro de 1938; O Itamarati e o acordo com a Grã-Bretanha. Correio da Manhã. 22 de março de 1950.

(*) I would like to acknowledge the corrections kindly made by Dain Borges. All errors remain my own.

Please note:

The contents of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Latin American Studies or the University of Chicago.