Issues of Studying Nineteenth Century Women in Foreign Affairs

by Tiia Sahrakorpi

A under-researched field is women in diplomatic history. Furthering this field would enhance the study of diplomatic history itself as mostly men are in the forefront as leaders of diplomatic missions. This leads to questions such as, “how to treat gender as a concept in foreign affairs and how to write about women in foreign affairs”? There are problems concerning the sources on women’s involvment in diplomatic history, which makes it difficult for historians to find out exactly what was the extent of influence.

Diplomacy was an art and a performance in which each man and wife took part in order to establish the necessary alliances and relationships with other countries and courts in the nineteenth century. While it is understandable that both genders were involved in social events and influencing them, historians largely suffer from a lack of good primary sources on women and their roles in the playing out of diplomatic affairs.

Even though many letters and diaries written by women during this period still exist, there are not many case-studies on the writings of women and the few that there are reveal that some individuals, always wealthy and well connected, appear to have exerted a subtle influence on foreign affairs through exploiting personal connections.

Sometimes, letters and diaries have been purposefully destroyed, as in the case of Lady Mary Derby, wife of Edward Henry Stanley, who was the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1866 to 1868 and 1874 to 1878), many of her letters and her diaries were deliberately destroyed, mostly on the basis of self-censorship and those documents (mainly letters) that were kept had no “principles of selection.”iIn contrast, Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, only wrote her personal memoir of her time in Russia as a diplomat’s wife before her husband’s presidency near the end of her life, ironically entitled The Adventures of Nobody.ii Her writing was not considered as important as her husband’s diary by historians, but her journals “directly challenge present assumptions of public and private dichotomies, male and female spheres and the loci of work and politics.”iii

Pamela Churchill, daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill, did not keep anything in writing either, as she felt that writing was a “Goddam bore!”iv and it was better for her to be “dull than dangerous” in her personal correspondence.v These instances of personal censorship and insistence on not keeping any proof of their activities protected these women from backlash if their actions were ever discovered. The lack of sources and destruction of source material makes it difficult for the historian to comprehend fully the complete involvement and influence that a woman had in a particular diplomatic situation.

One of the best examples is of Countess Lieven, who had an impact on foreign affairs in the early nineteenth-century. A lot of her writing has survived and she made her political involvement known. During Countess Lieven’s stay in England as the Ambassador of Russia’s wife from 1812 to 1834, she became one of the most influential people at Court, which position she exploited to achieve to desired improvement in Anglo-Russian relations. Her importance in swaying foreign affairs can be seen by Tsar Alexander’s note to his foreign minster: “It is a pity that Countess Lieven wears skirts; she would have made an excellent diplomat.vii She used social skills and personal charisma to influence who should become the British ambassador to Russia by writing letters trying to persuade Palmerston from picking Stratford for the position.viii Her graceful looks and charm did not go unnoticed by influential men, such as Wellington, Grey,ix Canning and Metternich, who all had at least feelings of warm friendship towards her.x

The research on women’s influence and involvement in foreign affairs in Europe is not well-researched at all, which leaves an important gap for the historian to fill. There are many unanswerable questions because of the lack of source material on certain women, but with the amount that we do have, historians should be able to start further work on this field. All of these women lived lives of significance, and it’s important to look further into their lives and how they influenced diplomatic ties.


iJohn Charmley and Jennifer Davey, “The Invisible Politician: Mary Derby and the Eastern Crisis,” In On the Fringes of Diplomacy: Influences on British Foreign Policy, 1800-1945, ed. John Fisher and Anthony Best (Burlingont: Ashgate, 2011), 20.

iiCatherine Allgor, “’A Republican in a Monarchy’: Louisa Catherine Adams in Russia,” Diplomatic History 21 (1997): 16, accessed November 17, 2013, doi: 10.1111/1467-7709.00049 15-17.

iiiAllgor, “’A Republican in a Monarchy’,” 41.

ivSally Bedell Smith, Reflected Glory: The life of Pamela Churchill Harriman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 103.

vPamela Churchill to Kathleen Harrimann, June 11, 1944 (unprocessed), Pamela Churchill Harriman papers in “Pamela Churchill”, 760.

viNesselrode, Lettres et Papiers, vol. Xi, p. 149, October 25, 1825, Alexander I to Nesselrode in Judith Lissauer Cromwell,Dorothea Lieven: a Russian princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 (London: McFarland & Company, 2007), 98.

viiJudith Lissauer Cromwell,Dorothea Lieven: a Russian princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 (London: McFarland & Company, 2007), 155-156.

ix London: 17/29 March 1833, Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her Residence in London, 1812-1834, 336-337, CXXXIII.

xCromwell, Dorothea Lieven, 109-110.

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