Meet Cathy Russell, Obama’s New Champion for Women

She’s been a behind-the-scenes force since the Clinton White House. Now the next ambassador for global women’s issues will have unprecedented access to Washington’s top policymakers.

03.21.13 11:07 PM ET

It’s refreshing to see someone who’s worked so hard behind the scenes get tapped for a more public role.

Cathy Russell hasn’t been in the limelight like her husband, but she has a strong professional record, and friends and colleagues call her an inspired choice for the position of ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues at the State Department. Russell has served for the last four years as chief of staff to Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, and she is married to Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national-security adviser—relationships that offer easy access to the White House to elevate her issues and help navigate bureaucratic barriers.

In filling this post, says James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of State, “you want two things: someone who’s very good at the job and has the ear of senior policymakers.” Melanne Verveer, who was Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff in the White House, was the first person appointed to the new post in 2009 by then–secretary of State Clinton, who created the Office of Global Women’s Issues. “Melanne had that with Hillary,” says Steinberg. “Cathy has it with Biden and Obama and [John] Kerry, too; she’s been in that world. She’s an inspired choice.”

Reached at Georgetown University, where she heads the newly launched Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security, Verveer echoes Steinberg’s comments about Russell’s assured entrée. “She will have that in spades at the White House. She has the natural intelligence and commitment and will also have the access.” Russell’s appointment is especially welcome, says Verveer, because there was no assurance the ambassadorial rank would survive after Clinton resigned. A presidential memorandum dated January 30 and signed by Obama made it a permanent position. “Promoting gender equality and advancing the status of all women and girls around the world remains one of the greatest unmet challenges of our time, and one that is vital to achieving our overall foreign policy objectives,” Obama wrote.

Russell will have to be confirmed by the Senate, but so far there’s not a peep of protest, in part because she’s one of theirs, a known quantity, a product of Capitol Hill. She was Senator Biden’s staff director on the Judiciary Committee in ’94, when he developed the Violence Against Women Act, and she was a senior adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she drafted the international version of the Violence Against Women Act in 2007. Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant and, with his wife, a close friend of Russell and Donilon’s, remembers watching on television the confirmation hearings of Judge Robert Bork in 1987 and getting all excited every time he saw Russell sitting behind Biden.

But that was about as public as she got until Obama announced her appointment at a Women’s History Month celebration in the East Room of the White House on Monday. “Cathy is a longtime advocate for women, for justice, for fairness,” Obama said. “We know that she’s going to be a powerful voice for women and girls around the world.”

Last year Russell oversaw a governmental interagency process to develop the first United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. A White House statement says she has served as a volunteer on the Communications Advisory Council of Women for Women International, an organization that helps female survivors of war move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. Obama pointed to her work these last four years with Jill Biden and first lady Michelle Obama on behalf of military families.

Like so many women, Russell has compiled a long record of public service and activism on a set of issues where she has mostly been in the background. Devine says, “Cathy is a person who can be a principal, not just a staffer. She can step on the stage herself and lead groups of people who are interested in a common cause.” A trained lawyer, Russell is described as a smart and analytical person with a great ability to work with a range of people. That’s what made her valuable as a staffer, says Steinberg, and it’s also why so many people are cheering her on as she enters a more public arena. “This is a great chance to step out of the supporting-someone-else role and shine on her own.”