While President Obama has taken a certain amount of flak for his new political appointments—which tend, so far, toward the old, the white, and the male—one post will surely introduce some much-needed diversity into his second-term cabinet: the role of ambassador at large for global women’s issues.
Created in 2009 by former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the office has been occupied for the past four years by Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s former chief of staff as first lady. In between political stints, the two co-founded the Vital Voices Global Partnership to support female leadership worldwide, and have been tireless advocates in support of women’s issues. (Verveer played a crucial role in orchestrating Clinton’s historic 1995 speech in Beijing, when the then-first lady famously declared that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”)
Under Clinton’s tenure at State, Verveer’s post became central to America’s foreign-policy mission and a critical point of contact on such hot-button issues as post–Arab Spring elections, Burma’s democratic transition, and anti-human trafficking efforts. During her time in office, the ambassador traveled to more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to press the idea that the advancement of women and girls is a key component of more stable and prosperous societies. Verveer also exerted significant influence in D.C.’s power scene—as one observer wrote, her “tiny office wielded an extraordinary amount of power throughout the U.S. government, and even within the business community … [where] corporations and foundations practically lined up to form public-private partnerships.”
Now, with Verveer decamping from Foggy Bottom (she’s off to head Georgetown University’s new Institute on Women, Peace and Security), speculation is rife on whom Obama might appoint as the next “World’s Ambassador to Women”—a position just made permanent by the White House. The role will require perseverance, enthusiasm, and a proven track record on promoting the rights of women and girls globally. Of course, whether the State Department will continue its intense focus on women’s issues under a new male secretary is an open question. (As Council on Foreign Relations head Richard Haass recently joked, at an event honoring Clinton, John Kerry “has some fairly large Manolo Blahniks to fill.”) But with Kerry promising to prioritize women’s rights abroad, the new ambassador at large will play a role in making sure the secretary sticks to his word. In the run-up to the appointment, The Daily Beast sifts through the potential nominees, all of whom have devoted their lives to being passionate advocates for women’s progress—an issue that, as Clinton stated on her last day in office, is “an economic issue and a security issue, and [is] the unfinished business of the 21st century.”