Representing America as a black woman

by Jewél Jackson

October 10, 2018

Retired U.S. Ambassador Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas speaks about her time as a female diplomat of color

Harriet Elam-Thomas

“I’m defying every stereotype you might have of women and of women of color,” says retired U.S. Ambassador Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas, who visited campus last month as a part of her conversation series “Civility Strategies: Healing Approaches That Unite People and Strengthen Democracy.” 

As a black woman starting her career with the American Foreign Services in 1962, Elam-Thomas felt the influence of the burgeoning civil rights and women’s movements not just personally, but professionally.

“The diplomatic services have been known to be a predominately male-dominated institution. Women were not given the opportunity for senior positions until we went through a class action suit,” she says, referring to the sex discrimination case brought against the American Foreign Services by Allison Palmer in 1971, which Palmer won.

During Elam-Thomas’ time as a diplomat, she witnessed women breaking through the glass ceiling in all parts of government, including the appointment of Madeleine Albright as secretary of state in 1997, a position that would be held by a woman for 12 of the next 16 years.

Despite the increasing presence of women in government positions, Elam-Thomas says some of her male peers opposed the progress.

“The Foreign Service Journal [published a letter] from a male colleague that said, ‘Well, it’s been some time [since we] had a white male secretary of state,’” she says. “For forty years, there was nothing but male secretaries of state.”

Elam-Thomas says she faced additional challenges as a black woman in government, and felt she had to work harder than her white counterparts to gain respect and recognition.

“It took a long time for me to accept that,” she says. “I had to go to more things, know more things than most others. I had to be more prepared.” The extra effort paid off, she says, not necessarily in the way she was viewed, but in how she viewed herself and others.

“I’m happy that I had to be more prepared than others because that meant no one could intimidate me,” she says. Being a black woman also turned out to be a benefit when working internationally.

“People in France would pose questions to me as a black woman and a diplomat that they wouldn’t pose to my white counterparts,” she says. “Very few people can come up to a white American woman and ask them what it’s truly like to be discriminated against, but they can do that with me.”

While working as a diplomat under different presidents with different ideologies also presented challenges, Elam-Thomas maintained a positive perspective, partially informed by her experiences working with countries that didn’t have the freedoms America has.

“Even though I may not [have been] proud of [U.S.] political leadership at one point or another, I knew I could write a paper or speak my mind and not be thrown in jail,” she says. “In many other cultures I know people were ostracized because they made comments against the government. I’m proud to be American and will tell people that.”

Jewél Jackson is sophomore communication and rhetorical studies major at the College of Visual and Performing Arts.