Years of disrespect at the U.N. pass as women rise to power

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UNITED NATIONS -- Dame Margaret Anstee grew accustomed to accusations that she was a prostitute and to being mistaken for her male deputy's secretary. She doesn't hold it against anyone: There weren't many women diplomats at the United Nations when she started work there in 1952.

"Diplomacy was a bastion of male chauvinism -- it had never been done any other way when I started my career," said Ms. Anstee, now 88, in a phone interview. "Men were just getting accustomed to having us around as peers."

There's no longer any room for excuses about excluding women, said Ms. Anstee, one of Britain's first female diplomats, who led 11 U.N. operations around the world and in 1992 became the first woman to head a U.N. peacekeeping mission, in Angola.

While women diplomats are still far from a majority at the U.N., they have reached a critical mass. A record one-third of the members of the U.N. Security Council, the organization's most powerful body, are represented by women. Thirty of the U.N.'s 193 members have female ambassadors -- also the most since the international body was created in 1945.

In the preamble to its charter that year, the U.N. asserted its determination "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women." The world body has been slow to live up to that lofty mission, say some of the women diplomats who have served there. Instead, they say, they've been subject to the same slights and exclusions as their counterparts in other fields.

Still, reaching the "long overdue" milestone at the Security Council provides potential for further advancement of women's issues worldwide, particularly in the realm of national security, said Melanne Verveer, President Barack Obama's former ambassador for global women's issues.

"We have looked upon matters of security through a very masculine mindset" and the U.N. "is a place that has been dominated by men particularly, certainly in the powerful positions," said Ms. Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

More female diplomats at the negotiating table could introduce a perspective their male counterparts may not share, especially when "grappling with policies having to do with war and peace that affect women," she said. "Not to have that perspective and those experiences bearing on those policies is a great omission."

While the U.N. recently wrapped up a celebration of the 20th anniversary of a global policy document on gender equality, governments and the Security Council have been slow to lead by example. Not until 2000 did the council adopt a resolution recognizing the importance of women's participation in conflict resolution and political decision-making.

It has taken 13 years for the council to implement its own resolution and see women in a third of its 15 seats -- the critical mass of 30 percent that the U.N. has defined as the minimum for full inclusion and articulation of women's rights in public policy.

Nigeria's Joy Ogwu and Lithuania's Raimonda Murmokaite on Jan. 1 began their two-year terms on the Security Council, joining three other female ambassadors: Samantha Power of the United States, Maria Cristina Perceval of Argentina and Sylvie Lucas of Luxembourg.

The symbolic importance of this U.N. milestone is not lost on the Security Council's "W5," or "women five" as they're called by U.N. diplomats. Ms. Power of the U.S. called it both "a reflection of the professional glass ceilings women are breaking around the world" and a means to orient policies to better promote women's rights and participation.

Ms. Ogwu, who previously served as Nigeria's foreign minister, said that while the W5 recognize their presence, they have yet to "deliberately pull woman power" at the Security Council because of the "dizzying" pace of work on continued crises in Ukraine, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere.

The five have yet to meet together to discuss women's issues, she said.

Having a group of women peers was inconceivable to Ms. Anstee, who until the 1980s was always the lone woman in rooms of male diplomats, generals, dictators and U.N. secretaries-general.

An Angolan military leader accused her of going to New York City to get a secret abortion while moonlighting as a prostitute, when in fact she had gone to report to the Security Council on the U.N. peacekeeping mission she was heading, Ms. Anstee said. A Uruguayan official introduced her at a reception as the wife of U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, who had never married.

While men at the U.N. now refrain from such misogynistic approaches, there remains a subtle reserve toward women, according to female diplomats in New York.

"This business was dealt with by men," said Simona Miculescu, Romania's ambassador to the U.N. "No wonder you have terms like 'gentlemen's agreement.' Always, the serious business -- the state issues, everything -- was dealt with by men, so they are not yet used to treating us as equals."

All the women interviewed for this story said that balancing work and family lives is the biggest challenge young female diplomats face.

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