Principal Actors in the Pursuit of Women’s Rights in US Foreign Policy, 1995-2015

July 25, 2016

Richard C. Eichenberg (Tufts University)

With the assistance of

Elizabeth Robinson, Tufts 2015

Lily Hartzell, Tufts 2018

Lara LoBrutto, Tufts 2017


Second in a series; the first post in the series is here



 In the first post in this series, I described a new dataset that measures the volume of policy activity announced by the Office of Global Women’s Issues in the US Department of State, the office that is a principal location for the formulation and implementation of US government actions in pursuit of global gender equality.

To review, my data on policy “actions” include: a government official speaking in public; all remarks, testimony, speeches, roundtable discussions, interviews, and public appearance; and all press releases, reports, fact sheets, newsletters, op-eds, legislation, and blog posts.

The first post in the series described the yearly evolution of the volume of policy activity.  In this post, I describe which policy actors are most often associated with these policy actions.


Review: The Evolution of Policy Activity across Presidential Terms

 The following graphic displays the total number of policy actions announced during each presidential term (or partial term).  With one exception, policy activity shows incremental growth since the establishment of the President’s Interagency Council on Women in 1995. The exception is the first term of President Obama from 2009 through 2012: the volume of policy activity was more than twice that during any other presidential term (note that activity in the second Obama term will increase when the data are updated through January 2017).

(click image to enlarge)



The “Wellesley Effect” : Principal Actors Associated with Policy Actions

 As I noted in my first post,  the most obvious hypothesis to explain the large increase in activity in the first Obama term is the personal engagement of his Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had also been the first honorary Chairwoman of the President’s Council on Women  and whose activism on issues of global women’s rights is longstanding.  Of course, variations in the engagement of Secretaries of State will also depend on other factors, especially the urgency of competing policy issues that compete for the Secretary’s attention.

My data collection allows me to measure the personal involvement of major political actors in the actions taken in pursuit of women’s rights.  Specifically, for each action that is tallied in the database, my research team also tallied each political actor who was associated with the action.  Thus, if Secretary of State Clinton or Secretary Colin Powell made a speech announcing a gender equality initiative, they are counted as being associated with that action (two or more actors may be associated with the same action, but the action itself is counted only once).  The research team tallied the involvement of the following actors: the President, First Lady, Secretary of State, and Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues (the title of the latter position varies over the years).

On average, 60 percent of actions are associated with at least one specific actor (others are simply announced as departmental or USGOV initiatives), but the percentage varies widely (the standard deviation since 1995 is 17 percentage points).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Presidents and First Ladies are associated with fewer actions (together about 15 percent), while the Secretary of State and Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues are each associated with 20 to 25 percent of actions.

The relative involvement of each Secretary of State and Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues reveals several interesting patterns (see graphic below).  First is a finding that I call the “Wellesley Effect”:  Secretaries Albright and Clinton were associated with the largest percentage of actions by far – almost twice the percentage of any other Secretary of State.  Second, the increasing importance of the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues is evident in the very high percentage of actions in which they were involved during both Obama terms under Secretaries Clinton and Kerry (Ambassador Melanne Verweer under Secretary Clinton and the first eight months under Secretary Kerry, and Ambassador Catherine Russell from August 2013). Third, the three Secretaries whose involvement exceeded that of their Ambassadors were women: Albright, Clinton, and Rice.  Finally, the data reveal the effect of competing priorities on the Secretary of State.  Secretaries Powell and Kerry, under whom the Ambassador is associated with a larger share of actions, were engaged in intense diplomatic activity on security issues: Powell on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Kerry in mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement, and multiple negotiations on the Syrian civil war and the war against ISIS.









One final way to characterize the involvement of the principal actors is to ask which actor was associated with the largest percentage of policy actions during each presidential term.  The table below provides this information.  Several things stand out. First, the most active actors are all women, which suggests that it does indeed make a difference to have women represented in the executive policy process.  Second, Hillary Clinton has twice been the most active actor in this policy field, as First Lady in 1995-1997 and again as Secretary of State in the first Obama term.

Presidential term               Most active (% of actions associated with actor)

Clinton  1995-1997    First Lady Clinton (31%)

Clinton  1997-2000    Secretary Albright (39%)

Bush 2001-2004      Senior coordinators Palmerlee and Ponticelli (28%)**

Bush 2005-2009         Secretary Rice (17%)

Obama 2009-12  Secretary Clinton/Ambassador Verweer (tie 37%/ 36%)

Obama 2013-2015     Ambassadors Verweer and Russell (38%)


** The Senior Coordinator for Global Women’s Issues was the predecessor office of the Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, which was established in 2009.


Technical note:

The Codebook for the data collection is now available.